Government transparency: Using search data to connect with your audience

A couple of weeks ago at Transparency Camp, I gave a talk on using search data to help ensure that the information the organizations in attendance were opening up could be found by the right audiences. It’s awesome that organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, Open Congress, and Follow the Money are making details about government actions easily accessible by citizens. And the government itself has made great strides in opening up data with sites such as recovery.gov and data.gov.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010But the truth is that most people don’t keep a full list of web sites that provide this information handy. Or, actually they do. It’s called Google.

When Americans want to know about health care reform, they don’t go to opencongress.org and search for “H.R.3200″ or H.R.4872″. They go to Google and type in “health care reform”. One key to making sure that the information you are working so hard to surface makes its way to the citizens who are looking for it? Use free search data to find out the language people are using to refer to that information. At Transparency Camp, I demonstrated a number of these tools, which I’ll outline below.

Open Congress and Effective Use of Search Data
But first, does this method of understanding how your audience searches and ensuring your content is visible in search engines really make that much of a difference to the transparency in government and open data initiatives? Just ask OpenCongress.org. (Thanks to David Moore, of the Participatory Politics Foundation and Open Congress for taking the time to talk to me about how Open Congress uses search data to better connect with audiences.)

Open Congress is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that aggregates official government information with conversations about those issues. Their goal is to provide American citizens with visibility into what’s happening in Congress. And how to people find them? 70% of their traffic comes from search engines (and 75% of those visitors are from Google). Below is recent data from Google Analytics that shows the distribution of traffic sources over the course of a month.

Oc Trafficsources 4-9-10

Open Congress’s pages are visible to searchers because they pay attention to what people are searching for. They use free tools from Google, such as Webmaster Tools, Analytics, and Insights to learn about how people are searching and they craft their titles and headlines accordingly. When they had new information about H.R.3590, they checked Google Trends and found that “health care bill” was a trending topic. People were interested in the information they had, but would never find it if it were titled “H.R.3590″.

By paying attention to the language of their audience and caring about search visiblity, their overview pages for the three main health care bills have had 1,929,332 views and the pages with the text of those bills have had 1,128,570 views. (You can find more details about the visitor stats for their health care bill pages here.)

Let’s see this in action. The site ranks number one on Google for [health care bill text].

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Sure, the page title tag and heading have the bill number and official name, but they both start with how people are really referring to the topic: “health care bill”. And the page with the text doesn’t just copy what’s available on the Official Legislative site. It provides an overview and context as well.

Because they include the bill number along with the more commonly used names, they rank for those searches as well. (Americans are more likely to search for health care-related topics, but journalists, another key audience for the site, may search using bill numbers. So even though the search volume for those queries may be lower, they are still valuable to be visible for.)

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How can you use search data to ensure your content is reaching your audience? Here are a few tools to start with.

Google Trends
Google provides an hourly snapshot of the trending searches. You can subscribe to this list as an RSS feed and monitor when issues relevant to you are spiking. You may, for instance, want to write a blog post that answers questions searchers have. Or you can use this data as Open Congress does to ensure that how you referring to a topic on your page is how people are searching for it. Below you can see the trending searches for March 21st, the day the health care bill passed.

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TechPresident wrote about how just after the bill was signed, the number rising search on Google was [what’s in the health care bill]. Soon after, the White House blog posted an article titled, “What’s in the Health Care Bill?”. Using search data not only helped them be part of the conversation, as searchers otherwise only had the views of others, but it helped them answer the question their audience was asking most.

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This is a great improvement over the last time I wrote about them, when the blog page titles all simply were “blog”.

Google Insights for Search
This tool from Google provides amazing amounts of information. You can see trends of a particular search over time, filter the data by region and time frame, compare query volumes, and see related searches. Below is the comparison of [health care bill], [health care reform], and [hr 4872] for the last 30 days in the United States.

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Montana and South Dakota seems particularly interested in the debate, as do those in Oklahoma City and Lousville.

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What other ways are people searching for information? You can learn that as well.

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Google AdWords Keyword Tool
This tool from Google uses AdWords data, but that’s not a bad indicator for overall query volumes. And you don’t need an AdWords account to access the data. Let’s take a look at the National Wildlife Federation. While at Transparency Camp, I talked to them about their “Be out there” campaign. It’s all about helping kids discover the awesomeness of being outside. According to Google AdWords, here are some of the searches people are doing about that topic:

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This tool will often show you approximate monthly search volumes as well so you can prioritize based on what people are searching for the most.

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Wordtracker Questions Tool
This tool doesn’t come from Google searches specifically. Rather, Wordtracker gets the information from ISP data. From this tool, you can find out all of the questions that people are asking via search engines. You can type in any topic relevant to your organization to make sure that your web site answers those questions. The times asked column doesn’t represent the actual number of times the questions asked, but instead gives relative volume so you know how much more popular one question is over another.

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Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools
Google Analytics (or any other web analytics product you may use) can tell you what searches lead visitors to your site. This data is awesome for finding out if visitors are finding your content useful. If those searching for [what’s in the health care bill] engage with your site and those searching for [who voted for the health care bill] leave right away, you may not be answering the question of that second search.

However, you should always use analytics data in conjunction with other search data. If you use only analytics data, you may get a narrow view of your potential audience. You might think your audience doesn’t search for members of congress, so you don’t need to spend much time building that section of your site out. It may instead be that many in your potential audience are searching for members of congress but since you haven’t built that section out, your site doesn’t show up for those searchs.

Google Webmaster Tools provide all kinds of data about how Google crawls, indexes, and ranks your site, including the top queries that bring searchers to your site. As with analytics data, this information gives a somewhat skewed view as it only shows what you do rank you, not what you could rank for. A couple of ways this data is different than analytics data is that:

  • The queries are ranked in volume order, not in order of what sent you the most traffic. This means that a query with a lot of volume that you don’t rank well for may be higher in the list than a query will a small amount of volume that you do rank well for.
  • The impressions report shows you what your site ranked for that you may not be receiving any traffic from. It’s useful to check what your search results display looks like for these queries. For instance, if the result is missing a title and description, then searchers may skip over it, even if it ranks well.

Lots of other research tools exist to give you insight into your audience. But hopefully this post will get your started. If you’d like my document that outlines a few more of them, just let me know.

And if you want to know more about how to use that data effectively, check out this post I wrote on building searcher personas. Ultimately, the goal is to connect the right audience with the information you provide. Speaking the language of that audience and meeting their needs is the first step.

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