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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - The importance of Eccles cakes to channel shift, or the value of less important content for search visibility

simon gray 2013-07-31, 14:20:12
Read this article aloud — 2069 words

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In thinking about the future shapes of our council websites, we all of course understand the need to perform brutally honest ROTE analyses of every single page on our sites, and likewise we’re all geared up for restructuring our websites and the content in them according to properly thought through content strategies.

So we know we need to get rid of those pointless pages about stuff the council has nothing to do with such as the history of Birmingham’s canals, or the history and recipe behind Eccles cakes, right?

Not so fast!

Both of those pages – canals on our own website, and Eccles cakes on the website for Salford City Council, are both in the local history sections of the website, and whilst some people might suggest the responsibility of councils for the curation and dissemination of local history might be tenuous in the modern era, it still does remain a function of many council library services. So you might believe – as actually I did until relatively recently – that whilst this content belongs on the web somewhere such as Wikipedia and could indeed still be maintained by an appropriate member of council staff in council time, since this kind of thing doesn’t represent a part of the core council services we need to promote to the public it doesn’t belong on the main council website.

Not so fast!

In the last three months, our canals landing page has received 1,528 pageviews out of the total of 9,602,547, or 0.02% of the total. Not massive overall, by any means, but over a period of three months, 500 pageviews a month is still a reasonably sized number, especially when you realise that’s 17 pageviews a day.

So why are the pages important? After all, who goes to the council website looking for information about canals and Eccles cakes?

If you type ‘Canals in Birmingham‘ into Google you’ll see why instantly – at the time of writing, our canals landing page is the number one result. Similarly, a Google search for ‘Eccles cakes‘ has the Salford page in the still reasonably respectable position of number seven on the results page.

In a nutshell, these pages provide our sites as a whole with valuable Google-juice – they’re important items of content relevant to our cities, which a search for information about those subjects leads people to our sites; people who might not otherwise have visited our sites, and people who once they are here, a well-constructed, well-laid-out site with good cross-sell links can remind them that as well as finding a recipe for their favourite morning snack, they can also sort out their council tax, report a pothole, and book a bulky waste collection, and all the other core services we are trying to channel shift them from the telephone to the website to carry out. Not necessarily now whilst they’re still thinking about breakfast, but in the future when they need it.

The Presidents of Google-juice are Woodlands Junior School in Kent – they’ve got a separate learning resources site  packed with so much information a surprising number of Google searches brings up their site in the top ten, even on content that has no relation to their function as a school – they positively own the front page on a search for ‘British life and culture‘, with the top seven results all pointing to their sites!

So returning to the Trivial content in our ROTE analysis, whilst we still need to be vicious in declaring truly trivial content as ready for deletion, before spiking anything out of hand, stop and think – ‘could this content be drawing people to the site through search queries? Could it be improved in any way to better bring people in?’ A page which contains nothing more than a graphic of a poster for a campaign will probably indeed be categorised as trivial to be deleted, as might a page containing no more than a handful of vague facts about the campaign’s topic which have themselves been sourced from a Google search on the grounds of being unlikely to generate inbound traffic from searches – but if the page has something important, relevant, authoritative, and most importantly unique to say on the topic, then the chances are it will still have some value – so long as it requires little by way of ongoing maintenance, and its existence isn’t likely to get in the way of visitors accessing the more important content we know we need to prioritise.

Comments on the original article

  1. eamon murphy says:

    August 30, 2013 at 11:27 am

    An interesting piece which makes for quite a compelling argument.

    But not so fast!

    The bit about the Presidents of Google-juice ie. Woodlands Junior School in Kent is more than a little disturbing for what I hope are obvious reasons i.e. if we are all to aim to become “Presidents of Google-juice” what a horrendous picture that could present for the future use of the internet?

    Nothing wrong with Eccles cakes or Birmingham Canals and I know society generally has and is moving to a ‘one shop for everything’ mentality [which has of course seen so many of our small and medium sized specialist traders go out of business and undermined real competition – another gripe of mine] but everything in it’s rightful place is what I say.

    So to cut to the chase I think you’ve got it wrong – even though I like eccles cakes myself I couldn’t eat a thousand…………sometimes less really is more!

    • Simon Gray says:

      August 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      “The bit about the Presidents of Google-juice ie. Woodlands Junior School in Kent is more than a little disturbing for what I hope are obvious reasons i.e. if we are all to aim to become “Presidents of Google-juice” what a horrendous picture that could present for the future use of the internet?”

      Indeed – and in fact Google themselves are wise to techniques Search Engine Optimisation consultants use to artificially massage content to the top of the list, and regularly change their algorithms as they spot what artificial techniques are in vogue at the time; the key to good SEO remains writing good copy, with the key information packed into the lede paragraph, and proper HTML coding.

      The difference between the Birmingham and Salford cases and the Woodlands case, though, is the niche content we are using and Salford are using is actually relevant – Eccles cakes are relevant to Salford and canals are relevant to Birmingham – so it’s not random content in order to scattergun appearance in unrelated searches, but rather, further enriching the search pool with relevant content.

  2. eamon murphy says:

    August 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Hm – I think the word “relevant” is critical here, it clearly means one thing to you and another to me?
    Would you class Aston Villa and Birmingham City Football clubs as relevant to a Birmingham City Council website? and are they more or less relevant than the canals of our great city?
    It’s all quite subjective really and with the seriously diminishing resources available to ‘the public sector’ my feeling is that lines have to be drawn in the sand. Let’s not forget that creating content is not the end [or even the beginning of the end] but everything has to be reviewed, checked etc. on an ongoing basis…..and with depleted resources hmmm ???
    I stand by my eccles cake comment – less is sometimes more.

    • Simon Gray says:

      August 30, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      Well, in the context of a section about sport or leisure in Birmingham, if the relevant web editor together with their management structure thought that it would be a good addition to the portfolio of pages about Birmingham’s sport and leisure offering to include information about significant sports teams in the city, then I wouldn’t challenge them – after all, how many people come to the city every weekend to attend their games? Similarly, those football teams, and Warwickshire County Cricket Club, are important aspects of the city’s history, so again I don’t see why historical information about them shouldn’t appear in the local history section of the site if the web editor concerned thought so.

      I think we do need to be careful about not being parochial in what information we cover – after all, our purpose is to provide information and service to citizens, so if we out of principle restrict our information only to the services we provide ourselves, then we do a disservice to the people relying on us – as an alternative example, if our information about parking in Birmingham is restricted to only council parking spaces, then we might get slightly more revenue from people who consequently don’t go to a NCP car park, but by doing so we’re serving ourselves, not serving our residents and visitors.

      In some of the other articles about design, one thrust of the comments made has been that a council website shouldn’t just restrict itself to being a portal for people to pay their council tax, report potholes, and complain about their bins not being collected – the council website should also be a showcase for the city itself, reflecting something of what it’s like to (and I loathe this phraseology myself) live, work, and play in the city. Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, recently said ‘In five to ten years time, we won’t have council websites – the website will be the council’; and as more services become contracted out or commissioned, surely it would be silly of us to piece by piece remove the information about them from the website?

      I think another misconception is also being raised – that the more content the site has, the more expensive it is to maintain. Yes indeed, the planning, licensing applications, and planned streetworks weekly lists work out particularly resource-intensive to create, review, and maintain, but the histories of the canals and of Eccles cakes are broadly fixed; no new canals are likely to be built in the next ten years, and no new developments in baking technology are likely to affect the recipe for Eccles cakes – so the pages, once created, need little ongoing maintenance. Similarly a page about the city’s famous sports teams would probably only need updating on the comparatively rare occasions they won a glittering prize!

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