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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

4 ways to deliver better citizen search experience

When it comes to optimizing the citizen experience, state and local governments are looking to public-facing apps, mobile-friendly websites and enhanced multichannel engagement. While each of these components can help drive better digital services for citizens, there’s a foundational piece that’s even more critical: search.

Whether it’s updating a driver’s license, paying taxes or identifying state parks to explore, many citizen interactions start on state and local government websites. As part of those journeys, it’s especially important that citizens can quickly and effectively access the exact information they need. Powerful and accurate search features are critical to that journey. When implemented correctly, a great website search engine provides the fastest way for users to access the information they want. Website search engines can also reveal valuable insights into user behavior and help site administrators create better experiences over time.

As state and local governments upgrade their digital properties, it’s important they keep search functionality in mind. Simply redesigning a website or installing a new CMS is equivalent to a fresh coat of paint -- especially because those changes don’t provide the sophisticated search functionality or quality of experience users have come to expect from other modern search engines. Instead, state and local governments can apply these four steps to deliver a better search experience for citizens.

1. Modernize search capabilities. Citizens expect seamless digital experiences that mimic how they search for videos on YouTube or browse for products on their favorite retail site. Delivering a comparable experience requires an advanced search engine that has the intelligence to tolerate typos or misspellings and leverage type-ahead, via autocomplete, to help citizens relay their inquiries faster.

In the few seconds citizens spend on a website, they should be able to find the exact service they’re seeking, without having to scan numerous pages. It’s also important that the website’s search engine delivers highly relevant search results, so the first result of a query is the exact answer they’re looking for.

2. Keep content fresh. Nothing ruins a user experience faster than websites with outdated content. To a citizen, it can give the impression that an agency doesn’t care about users and can’t be bothered to perform basic upkeep.

Agencies should keep content fresh by updating websites frequently based on the aggregate statistics from citizen search queries. Having the right analytics can help with identifying important inquiries and keeping track of the community’s top concerns. For example, a state call center can use search analytics to learn what citizens are asking about most frequently. With relevance tuning, modern web search engines can be even more agile and push the most relevant content to the top of a website’s knowledge base.

3. Empower employees with in-depth analytics. A modern search experience doesn’t just mean giving citizens faster access to the information or documents they need; it also means enabling customer-facing staff with near real-time insights into those needs, so they can create more intuitive user experiences.

The right analytics can help agencies learn which search queries are working for users and which are not. Combined with a powerful management dashboard, administrators can take action based on these analytics -- either by customizing the results for an individual search query or by modifying the fundamental relevance algorithm that determines search result order. Being able to make these changes without engineering support saves significant time and money. What’s more, a good search experience means fewer inbound calls from frustrated citizens who can’t find what they need on the website.

4. Learn from search successes. The city of Wilson, N.C., recently updated its websites, creating a more modern search experience and improving how it serves its 50,000 citizens. By prioritizing real-time indexing and search analytics, the city was able to innovate and iterate quickly to offer faster services for citizens and employees. In short, site managers learned from analytics what was working well and implemented the right changes to keep building on those successes.

For example, when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, the city saw many more searches for roadway hazards, flood prevention materials and other city services. The IT operations team was then able to quickly build an app to show which streets were flooded and refresh the content on the website with information about street closures. As a result, city officials were able to use what they learned from these search successes to build even better experiences for citizens.

Ultimately, when it comes to building a better citizen experience on government websites, it all starts with a search. By prioritizing this critical factor, state and local governments can organize content quickly to deliver better services and help citizens get to the information they need at the exact moment they need it.

About the Author

Matt Riley is product lead at Elastic.

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