Will the Government Link to Your Pages?

A question from a recent visitor asked about how to get a government web site to link to their site. It was a good question, and I sent a response with a couple of ideas, and a postscript noting that it was such a good question that I was considering writing a blog post on the topic.

First, I want to mention that their question really had nothing to do with the idea that a link from a government site would somehow increase their rankings in the search engines more than links from other pages. But, let me address that aspect of links from government sites briefly.

Is a link from a .gov or a .edu worth more than a link from another set of pages? The truth is that we don’t really know.

There are a handful of references in patent applications and whitepapers that say positive things about government web sites. For instance, the Google patent application Information retrieval based on historical data says this about links from government sites:

Links may be weighted in other ways. For example, links may be weighted based on how much the documents containing the links are trusted (e.g., government documents can be given high trust).

The Yahoo paper on Trustrank (pdf) also looks at government sites in a positive manner, pointing out that they have a “clearly identifiable authority” which controls the content of the sites:

Out of the remaining 7,900 sites, we manually evaluated the top 1,250 (seed set S) and selected 178 sites to be used as good seeds. This procedure corresponded to step (3) in Figure 5. The relatively small size of the good seed set S+ is due to the extremely rigorous selection criteria that we adopted: not only did we make sure that the sites were not spam, but we also applied a second filter—we only selected sites with a clearly identifiable authority (such as a governmental or educational institution or company) that controlled the contents of the site. The extra filter was added to guarantee the longevity of the good seed set, since the presence of physical authorities decreases the chance that the sites would degrade in the short run.

But if you dig through the guidelines for webmasters at Google, or the Yahoo! or MSN search help, you won’t see any statements that say you get special bonus points in your search rankings for links from the FCC, or Stanford University, or the City of Newark, or the State of Idaho Division of Agriculture. I don’t believe that the collected pronouncements of Googleguy, or of Matt Cutts cover this area either.

Why would a government site link to yours?

Here are three reasons:

1. Your site is a related government site.
2. Your site is a service provider related to the government site in some manner.
3. Your site provides quality information which fills an informational gap that the government site doesn’t.

Service providers

The person who asked about a government link to his site was a service provider, certified by the State he was from to provide a service mandated by the State.

Government agencies are often hesitant to provide references to service providers, especially when there is more than one that may offer a service. There are exceptions, but those really need to be explored with the agencies themselves.

This is true even when the service is one that is required and certified by their office, and their agency. I worked for the Delaware Court system for a number of years, and there were a few different types of services handled by nongovernment agencies that I recall: bailbondsmen, title searchers (for when someone wanted to post property bail – they needed a title search done before they could), and drug treatment providers.

Of those three groups, the only ones that the State government would link to were the drug treatment provider sites. They did accede at some point to include a long list of bailbondsmen and title searchers in paper to people interested in posting bail – but the main concern about that was that they didn’t want to appear that they were favoring one private agency over another.

I’ve also worked with a company that provides registered agent services in Delaware, and the Delaware Division of Corporations has a page where they link to all of the registered agents that are acting as agents for a certain amount of companies. If you meet that baseline, you can be listed and linked to from their pages.

As a service provider, one thing I would look for would be if there is an existing page that might be a good one to list a link to your site upon. I would also look to see if they have a written policy online regarding linking to their web sites to nongovernment offices. Looking at some examples of those types of policies might be informative.

For example, the US Government does sometimes allow links to private agencies on their pages, and they usually explain their linking policy in detail. Here’s an example from the US Department of Agriculture, Risk Management Agency (RMA) site regarding their linking policy.

Criteria
The RMA web team evaluates all outside links using the following criteria:

  • Is the Web site an official government-owned or supported Web site?
  • Does the Web site provide official government information or services?
  • Does the Web site complement existing information or services on the RMA Web site?
  • Is the Web site accessible and applicable to a wide audience of producers, crop and livestock insurance users, or risk management specialists?
  • Is the Web site’s content relevant, useful, and authoritative for RMA customers?
  • Does the Web site’s information appear accurate and current?
  • Does the Web site’s approach to the privacy of personal information appear consistent with the government’s privacy and security policies?
  • Is the Web site “user-friendly?”

That last question is a good one. One of my favorite government resources, Usability.gov is managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and was created to help nongovernmental medical treatment providers improve the usability of their sites.

A good match

I looked around to see if I could find a page that was a good match for the service provider who contacted me. A little surprised, I found a page that was completely on point, including the names of the organizations that provided the services in question. The site had their addresses and phone numbers, and included a statement at the top of the page telling visitors to the page that they should contact the providers in advance to “verify their current operating hours, fees, etc.” I recommended to the person who contacted me that they ask to see if they could get a link pointed at their web site to “make it much easier for applicants to find out information about current operating hours, fees, etc.”

Chances are that a short, positive, compelling, and friendly presentation of why it might be a good idea to provide a link there could get the agency in question to link to them from that page.

When there isn’t a pre-existing relationship

The service provider I mention above was certified by the State to perform the service they provide, and the State even included their address on the site. The chances of a link are decent, and a request asking for a link is pretty reasonable.

When there isn’t a pre-existing relationship between a site and a government site, and a site owner would like to get a link from a government site, often the way to best go about doing that is to create a page or pages that are filled with useful and helpful information that meets an informational need on the government site. Something that is remarkable, helpful, and useful. The RMA Criteria listed above aren’t a bad set of guidelines to go by (as long as the site is relevant to what the agency does), but it makes sense to see if the agency that you might want to link to yours has a linking policy listed on their site with similar criteria.

Want a link from a government site?

What can you provide to them that they don’t have themselves? What information needs might they have that aren’t being met? Is your site usable? Does the information upon it look current? Is your privacy and security policies at least as good as theirs?

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11 thoughts on “Will the Government Link to Your Pages?”

  1. I know what you are talking about, John. I worked for the Delaware courts for a number of years.

    I sat in a lot of those committee meetings, too. For the last six months of my time there, maybe 5 hours a day, four days a week.

    Great insight, though. It isn’t always easy, but it is possible.

  2. Not easy, Bill. In my experience .gov personnel are among the most skittish when it comes to making decisions, and they usually only act when they have some committee concensus behind the decision (spread accountability). So generally they consider it better to not link than link. And when it does appear to be a useful link, someone will question the intent, and that just scares off the rest of the commitee.

    I know.. I worked with .gov for 7 years.

    The best way to get backlinks from a .gov is to read the federal register and learn what the goals are of the various groups that publish web sites on the .gov domains. Find a group that needs your link to show activity towards their goals, and you will get a backlink.

    If a group is charged with increasing awareness on an issue, tell them how YOU are inreasing awareness on the issue with your page. Very often you will get linked, at least for a while.

  3. I think a lot of personal sites belonging to university employees are posible to get into as well. If you have relevant content on your website that is…

    Besides in Denmark (where I’m from) universities tend to host webpages for student organisations… guess who got a PR5 that way!? (PR5 in Denmark is a lot…)

  4. Very informative and researched post.

    It doesn’t look easy, but with the guidleines and details you’ve provided it des appear possible.

    John, seems like your idea could work as well, if only for a while.

    Thanks for providing this information. It’s a tough topic to cover.

  5. Regindk,

    A good example. Sometimes educational sites don’t always have the “control” over what gets posted upon them that the Trustrank paper alludes to. But regardless, many of the employees of those institutions will still be very careful about to whom they link.

    Thanks, Kristen.

    John’s approach is a nice one because it provides a way of identifying topics that may be relevant to what an agency is thinking about.

    I will say that it might be easier to have a state government site link to you than a federal one though. For example, the Delaware (where I’m located) state government pages have some links to some excellent nongovernment sites on a wide variety of topics.

  6. “Is a link from a .gov or a .edu worth more than a link from another set of pages? The truth is that we don’t really know.”

    While we don’t know if the search engines value these type of links more, we do know that (in general) .gov and .edu have tons of backlinks and are co-cited by tons of quality and relevant sites. I think that is why they “seem” to be valued more than general link from a different .tld.

  7. Hi Kid Disco,

    Good to see you here.

    It’s a legitimate perception, too. I will usually link freely to a government site with the perception that it is less likely to change locations or provide information that wasn’t carefully thought out first.

    And though many government sites will note that they have no control over possible changes to the content that they link to, you do get the sense that they wouldn’t link to an outside source if it didn’t contain something of value.

    I recall Matt Cutts remarking some disatisfaction over some links he saw to sites from the Stanford Student Newsletter a while back. I guess not all links from .edu sites may be as trustworthy as the perception may indicate. But generally, I think that you are right, and that perception is out there.

  8. I agree with Kid Disco. I think the main reason people think .gov etc links are better is mainly down to the fact they usually have high PR them selves due to the number of backlinks they have.

    Another way of getting .gov, .edu etc links is to find bloggs or article sites you can post comments on provided of course it matches the subjust of your site.

  9. Hi Chris,

    As I mentioned in my post, we just really have no way of knowing whether or not links from government sites are any different from links from any other sites.

    It’s possible that visitors might think more highly of a page that they visit that is linked to by a government page, which isn’t a bad thing.

    There’s some value in getting links from comments, but I think the real value of a comment is that if people find value in your comment that it increases the likelihood that they will visit your pages.

  10. Hi All,

    Word of warning when looking for .gov links. I recently came across a site offering links on a pr8 .gov page. It turned out the links were being hidden and being sold by a dodgy programer. I reported it to the site owners and the hidden links were removed. I was also told that this is quite common so beware.

  11. Hi Chris,

    It does pay to be careful about offers for “buying” links from sites since the search engines have come out strongly about being opposed to buying links solely for the purpose of increasing PageRank. It’s an activity that can put your rankings in the search engines at risk. There are often many other ways to gain links to a site that aren’t frowned on by search engines, and I’d recommend exploring those instead.

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