Yesterday I attended an event for LocalGov people at Google’s very plush offices in London. The day was put together by the Google LocalGov team and Dave Briggs helped coordinate arrangements and publicity. The event covered a broad range of Google’s products, some of the new innovations at Google and offered a wealth of advice and insight. I can’t cover all the topics in this post in depth, so I’ll focus on a few that interested me personally.
Understand, optimise and measure
In my organisation we make use of Google Analytics ™ and have a Google Mini ™ for intranet and internet search. We’ve recently started to use our analytics in more depth, looking at what keywords are driving customers to our landing pages, how customers behave on the site, what searches they do and whether they are finding relevant information or completing transactions (conversions). Paul Canning contributed a useful piece on getting started with Google Analytics ™.
I agreed with both the presenters that there is certainly a balance to be struck between studying analytics and usability testing. As a first step to understanding our customer behaviour, we are finding it useful to look at patterns of behaviour in our analytics, refer to comments in our web survey and cross-reference back with the analytics. We are about to start planning usability testing based on our findings.
There were some useful tips on optimising your site, especially the home page and landing pages. But I’m conscious that it can be tricky for operational web teams to have sufficient control over the layout and content of home and landing pages, depending on how your CMS has been developed and the availability of resources/skills to make changes. The Google Website Optimiser tool looks really useful and I plan to explore it further, but we also need to make sure our CMS enables us to make the most of these kind of tools.
Ads or no ads?
A contentious issue facing all local authorities is whether it is appropriate for a website that provides public services and information to carry advertising. However in a time when public service budgets are being cut and the dependency on the delivery of web-based services and information is increasing, it seems that all authorities do need to consider ways of using the web to generate revenue and (partially) fund itself. On the face of it Google AdSense ™ does seem to be an excellent revenue generation tool for web managers, as demonstrated by Nottingham City Council.
HCI research has shown that website users tend to ignore graphical or animated adverts and not click on them (aka banner blindness) although adverts do distract users from reading content and carrying out tasks on your website. Jakob Neilsen provided a good summary of academic research into this behavioural phenomena . Whilst contextual adverts that look similar to website content are more likely to be clicked on by users, there are some privacy and trust issues for web managers to consider, which was something touched on in the presentation. For those who are concerned about user privacy, I found a comprehensive chapter written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee about issues related to carrying embedded content, which is available in the book “Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You“.
Head in the clouds
A part of the day which I found really interesting was the excellent demo of Google Apps which showed how easy collaboration can be when you have all the tools at your fingertips to do real-time document editing and communication via the web. Cloud computing is a hot topic right now and Google certainly have a compelling offering. The Digital Britain report which was released in June 2009 outlined the UK government’s committment to cloud computing and intention to procure a “G-cloud”. The US government has also taken steps towards implementing a government “cloud”. Cloud computing could offer significant benefits to local government, reducing IT costs and transforming working methods to be more collaborative and efficient, which is particularly pertinent as we are increasingly required to work in partnership and remotely.
But I still have big doubts as to how quickly things are going to progress for local government. There are significant issues to resolve around security and impact in relation to the current Government Connect initiative. Not to mention the cost and resource required to switchover to cloud computing, e.g. migrating applications and data, un-tangling authentication and integration work, re-training and educating staff (Helpdesk staff who provide first line support and end users), re-writing policies and terminating or re-negotiating major IT contracts. But I have no doubt that the migration to the cloud won’t be driven so much by business strategy so much as by social needs and expectations. As time goes by our experiences of computing in our personal lives will be drastically mis-matched with our computing experiences at work.
Making the most of your YouTube channel
Quite a few local authorities do have YouTube channels but the key message from the presentation was that many of us are probably under utilising the opportunities to provide useful and practical content, engage customers and point them to relevant services on our websites. There were some great tips, such as:
However local authorities may struggle to ensure content in a more interactive YouTube channel is also provided accessibly, but tools such as Easy YouTube are well worth investigating.
Social tools and engagement
A very interesting part of the day’s packed agenda was the talk on Google Open Social ™ and Google Friend Connect ™ . Where I work we have developed a community focused website which allows content contributors to create accounts and add details about community groups, events, activities and courses. Although we are very keen on adding some interactive, social networking features to the site we are still working through all the potential implications, from a legal and resource perspective. So far the site has a ratings widget which is powered by JS-kit’s ratings service. But there is great potential for adding features that enable users to connect, especially around shared interests and groups.
The demo of gadgets was really interesting, but sadly I am lacking in inspiration at the moment as to how we can effectively use them on our corporate website. But having the awareness of what tools are out there means that when an opportunity arises, hopefully you can jump on it and start generating some great ideas. Local authorities could definitely increase citizen engagement on certain issues by adding social networking features to their websites. However we need to be conscious of the fact that citizens will quickly be turned off if they think their interactions and views have no real influence on service delivery or policy.
All in all the day was very thought provoking and Google were great hosts.
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