How agencies can boost their search results

How agencies can boost their search results

When Google made mobile-friendliness a greater factor in its search engine rankings, agencies ramped up their mobile optimization efforts.  Now the search giant has announced another adjustment to its ranking algorithm to improve the mobile user’s browsing experience.

After Nov. 1, mobile web pages that interrupt the transition from Google search results to the destination site with an application-install interstitial that hides a large portion of the web page will not qualify as mobile-friendly.  

Ultimately, Google found that content-blocking interstitials encouraging uses to download an app negatively affects a user's search experience, and sites that will continue to use this method will fail Google’s mobile-friendly test and suffer lower search rankings. Instead, Google suggests using browser-based banners for promoting applications that do not block page content. This new policy does not affect other types of interstitials.

Some examples of government mobile sites that use interstitials include state agencies that have partnered with ParksbyNature, a developer of mobile websites and applications.

Searching Google for “New Jersey State Parks,” for example, returns state.nj.us as one of the first results. When a user taps on the link, however, an interstitial covers the site’s content with a call to “Download Our Free Official New Jersey State Parks App.” The user has options to get the app, go to the mobile site, or dismiss the Pocket Ranger interstitial. The company does offer the more mobile-friendly browser based banners.

Similar interstitials appear when searching for other partnered states, like “Massachusetts State Parks” via Mass.gov, “Connecticut State Parks” via CT.gov or “Rhode Island State Parks.” ParksbyNature lists more than 30 state agency partners on its website, ranging from state parks to departments of natural resources and fish and wildlife agencies.

As this recent change illustrates, agencies must monitor search ranking policies.  As a recent study by a , Moz, an SEO consulting company, found, simply having a .gov domain does not automatically put federal, state and local government and agency websites on top of result lists.

Google’s Matt Cutts, a software engineer, addressed this misconception in a blog post. “Google has a lot of experience in returning relevant web pages, regardless of the top-level domain,” he wrote. “I don't expect a new TLD to get any kind of initial preference over .com.”

Dawn Pointer McCleskey, a search analyst with DigitalGov, agreed that the overall quality of content is key when it comes to SEO influences. “Providing quality services and information to the public is the central goal of all government websites, and raising the bar on both the substance and the communication style can only be a benefit,” she said in a blog post.  Content managers should also focus on inbound links, using HTML heading and title tags and meta descriptions, she advised.  

According to McCleskey, link building can give agency websites a boost in traffic and that extra push needed to rank a tad higher on search engines. Government sites already have a relatively stronger page rank because they contain authoritative, quality content that users are looking for and a good number of inbound links.

HTML heading tags, like <h1> and <h2>, are easily detectable by search engine spiders and help users to navigate a page and find what they’re looking for, an important factor for government service sites.

McCleskey’s post covered title tags too, as search engines will use these tags for the title displayed in results. If agencies fill the title tag with the agency name, division or site section – making all the title tags the same –the site may be undetectable or unusable by a search engine. According to the post, the title tag should match the <h1> tag, be 55 characters or less, unique to each page and use relevant keywords.

Meta descriptions located in the <head> are the first thing search engines look for when indexing, so if a government site does not have a proper meta description, it risks being overlooked. Using an active voice, keywords and a call-to-action are also encouraged.

It is also important to consider images and artwork on a web page. According to another post on Moz, adding descriptive alt text, or the text provided for an image in case the photo does not display, lets search engines know what the image represents for indexing purposes.

The same applies to the image’s file name, which should briefly describe the photo. Quality captions and content surrounding the image are also factored into image SEO, as are inbound links to the page that has the image embedded on it and the use of human categorization (additional words associated with the photo).

Making government sites easily discoverable by search engines ultimately helps citizens, allowing them to find and use the services and information that agencies make available.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a Reporter/Producer for GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media, Ziadeh was a contributing journalist for USA Today Travel's Experience Food and Wine site. She's also held a communications assistant position with the University of Maryland Office of the Comptroller, and has reported for the American Journalism Review, Capitol File Magazine and DC Magazine.

Ziadeh is a graduate of the University of Maryland where her emphasis was multimedia journalism and French studies.

Click here for previous articles by Ms. Ziadeh or connect with her on Twitter: @aziadeh610.


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