Towards a ‘Findable’ Government

During a recent presentation at the New America Foundation, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said “The vast majority of information is still not searchable or findable either because it’s not published or it’s on Web sites which the government has put up which no one can index.”  He was referring to the U.S. government, one of the world’s largest depositories of data, which has been unwilling or unable to make millions of its Web pages accessible to search engines.

According to the Washington Post, “a wide array of public information remains largely invisible to the search engines, and therefore to the general public, because it is held in such a way that the Web search engines of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft can’t find it and index it.”  They added, “The National Archives expects that its entire database containing descriptions of its holdings will be available to Google by January…the EPA has made some sites accessible… and the Smithsonian has sent Google the links for 78,000 pages.”

We are barely scratching the surface.

The idea of searchable government information is appealing, but incomplete.  Beyond just being able to locate this information, aligning what users want when searching for government agencies or regulations (and such) is the key to success.  Accessibility is not enough.  What we need is to make this information “findable.”  I wrote a section in my book, Media Rules!, about findability and how organizations must do to meet user expectations in the connected age.  An excerpt is here:

Your ability to be located and to become rooted in the consciousness of your target audience is perhaps the greatest challenge you will face as an organization. Call it your  ?ndability factor .

Findability is not only about being found on the Internet, having your name and address in the Yellow Pages, or placing a billboard where all can see. Findability is the likelihood that someone encountering your organization can get the relevant, timely, and compelling information they expect throughout their interaction with you. If they do, they are far more likely to remember you and return again. If they don’t, that person from your audience will make a judgment about you that puts you at the bottom of their priority list. And when they go out looking for someone to sell them something or to answer their question in the future, they will have plenty of other, better choices to look to for help.

Organizations that support their audience in ? nding the information they want and need have a lot to gain. Organizations that don’t, or can’t do that, invite increased competition. Most organizations fail miserably when it comes to ?ndability, because they don’t consider the interests of their audience over their own interests. The good news is that it is not that dif? cult to make yourself more ?ndable.

Buy the book and keep reading, the next section talks about how to achieve findability.

Anyway, the challenge of making government information more findable will require cooperation between the government and search engine operators, and shifts in behavior and perspective from both.  At present, the government produces information it believes serves its audience (most of it does not) and search engines are trying to make that information available.  Findability is about making that information relevant, on top of everything else, and currently neither the government nor Google seem all that interested in meeting that standard.

Much of what is produced and made available by government offices and agencies is of little or no interest to the broad audience of constituents it is designed to serve.  It is written in a format, or with a tone, that appeals only to a narrow band of experts.  And it is distributed at a time and place when few citizens are paying attention.  The search engines meanwhile, aggregate the information effectively but the multitude of choices quickly becomes unreasonable for the audience to wade through.  Its wonderful to know that thousands of pages of results have been returned on your query, but in practicality it doesn’t help you find what you need in most cases.

The search engines deserve to be commended for their commitment to making government information accessible (though the cynical part of me thinks they are just interested in the increased revenue that comes from search ads aligned with queries).  And the government’s interest in opening its doors more to the public is commendable.  However, if they don’t commit to creating a more findable government, and begin to move with that goal in mind, the likely impact of having government websites and documents newly available across the web will have only limited value.

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