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Why government and SEO don’t mix

Photo credit: Dan the Man

You can practically hear the moral outrage screaming between the lines:

“Four government departments spent almost £6m ensuring their websites appeared on search engine results pages in the last two financial years, according to newly released figures.” (BBC)

Apparently DEFRA, the Department of Health, and others, have been resorting to paid search and running up large bills. So far, so what? “Government department squanders cash on pointless marketing” is hardly news. They’ve been doing it for years. Every time someone fancies some new departmental pencils they embark on a rebranding exercise. It’s practically law.

The BBC helpfully tries to explain what paid search is, and gets it wrong: “Organisations can pay search engines to ensure their websites appear at the top of users’ searches. They are often charged for each person who accesses their sites via the link.”

Often? How about “always”? I don’t know a single search engine that doesn’t charge by the click. They certainly don’t do it for free.

But aside from the BBC’s poor research skills, the real scandal here is that government departments are using PPC advertising at all. They don’t need to. All they need is to do some serious SEO work and optimize the bejesus out of their web pages. Then they’ll get to the top of Google without having to resort to expensive PPC. As it is, this is the internet equivalent of dad dancing: the government trying to get down wit’ der kidz by using SEO techniques and getting it wrong.

But what really got my goat, tied it up and did unspeakable things to it was Tory MP Damian Hinds’ reaction to these figures:

“Of course there are times and subjects when getting the information out there is an absolute imperative.

“But in general I don’t see why government departments should spend large sums improving their showing on search engines.

“I would have thought the search engines themselves should ensure official information is easy to find.”

Pardon? “Search engines themselves should ensure official information is easy to find”? You might have thought that search engines should act as a government mouthpiece Damian, but you would have been wrong.

A search engine is not a library catalogue. They’re a commercial concern, and for all that Google massages its own ego by propounding its fatuous motto “Don’t be evil”, it’s ruled by naked commercialism. Public service doesn’t come into it. If I ring up NHS Direct, I expect to be given impartial advice because it’s a public body. If I ring up GlaxoSmithKline and recount my symptoms to them, I expect to be sold something (or to be hung up on).

Search engines don’t do anything out of the goodness of their hearts, because they don’t have one (something a politician should relate to). They’re refreshingly amoral: anyone can buy their services, and that applies equally to governments, arms dealers, purveyors of hardcore pornography, and charities. But the operative word in that sentence is “buy”.

Whining that official information should get special treatment goes against the free market nature of the web, and besides, it’s a specious (and slightly alarming) argument. Government propaganda should come first? Henry Elliss made an excellent point about this on Econsultancy’s blog:

If the Government want priority-listing in search engines, what happens when the next election comes along? Do the incumbent party get first dibs on the top results for searches like “Immigration” and “Job losses”?

It’s a short step from automatic priority listing for government information to censorship. Of course, some would argue that it’s for our own good, but personally as a fairly autonomous adult, I’d like to be able to make my own mind up. And it’s my considered opinion that Damian Hinds is a halfwit.

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