It may be possible that governmental web sites are at least as important, and in some cases more important that most of the other web sites online. They can provide information on when and where to vote, when and where laws are being made, when and where you can access elected and appointed officials, and information about possibly a large number of services that goverment may provide, from trash pickup and some utility services to police and fire and rescue information.
Sometimes you just really need to know how to get to City Hall, or to the Courthouse steps.
In many instances, a local government web site can provide a doorway into the history of a community, access to building codes and zoning laws, address and contact data for City Hall and other agencies, and other information that governs our lives. Being able to find that information can be very important.
On a personal note, I really enjoy exploring local history, and learning about local towns on the Web before visiting them in person. My interest has led to a project where I’m trying to find the web sites for different cities, counties, towns, and other area web sites in Virginia.
Ironically, as I started this project, I experienced a problem with my own Town’s website that has inspired me to catalog some of the bad practices that local government sites have followed, to help them fix some of the mistakes that they are making that make them less effective than they could be. I’m also looking forward to identifying some of the best practices that I see on local goverment web sites, and pointing them out so that other sites might learn from them.
Choose a Domain, and Stick to It
My town is a historical crossroads in the North-Western part of Virginia, close enough to Washington DC that some residents commute to the Nation’s Capital, and far enough away so that it still retains a fairly agricultural nature, with horse pastures, wineries, and farmland surrounding small suburban areas. It is located in a piedmont region, that is a set of foothills that separate the lower tidewater lands closer to the Atlantic Ocean from more mountainous terrain.
George Washington was a property owner in the area, and in his teens an early surveyor of property lines in the county. John Marshall grew up nearby, and became possibly the most important Supreme Court Justice of the United States, championing a “separate but equal” role of the Courts in US government. During the Civil War, the Town changed hands between the North and South a total of 67 times, and was described by the nickname “The Debatable Land.”
The town took its current name, Warrenton, exactly 200 years ago this year when it was incorporated, and is the County Seat of Fauquier County, home to court houses, and city and county government offices. It’s a small town that takes pride in its agricultural surroundings and the lack of industrial and developmental growth seen in areas to the northeast. But, it’s not foreign to the online world, and local government is increasingly using the Web to communicate with citizens of the region.
I recently tried to pay my water bill online through my Town’s web pages. The utility bill didn’t list the URL for my Town, so I searched at Google, found it, and clicked on a link to the site. Once there I saw an image with the text “MyTown click to login.” I had already registered with the site previously – it wasn’t the first time that I had paid my bill online.
I tried to login, believing that I had remembered my username and password correctly, and was given a screen that looked like I had successfully logged in. I clicked upon a link that would let me pay my bill, and was redirected back to a login screen. I tried logging in again, and received the same result. Undeterred, I tried again – and received the same result.
Uncertain about why I couldn’t get to the payment page, I clicked on a link to reset my password. I waited for an email, and in a short period of time received one that allowed me to change that password. I tried again, and still couldn’t pay my bill. I found a phone number on the site, and called. And got a message that the person I wanted to talk to was away from her desk. I left a message, and my call was returned within half an hour.
I was told that the problem I was experiencing was because I was trying to use the “.com” version of the Town’s web site, and that I needed to login from the “.gov” version of the site. I was tempted to ask at that point why there were two versions of the web site, but realized that the person I was talking to probably didn’t know.
I did ask if there was someone I could talk to about the problem I experienced, and was told that my best bet was to talk to the City Manager. I decided that I would write this blog post before I took that step, and then send a link to my City Manager, along with some information on how to use a redirect to point any other domains to just one working version of the site.
Why is there more than one version of the Town’s web site? The .com version of the site was ranking well in Google, and the .gov site wasn’t showing at all – likely filtered out of Google’s search results since it contained the same information as the other domain.
When I talked to the person who helped me, the problem was identified as me mistakenly using the wrong website. The problem was actually that there were at least two websites, and one didn’t work correctly. It’s a problem that shouldn’t have existed. The Town should have chosen one web address for the site that works, and redirected any other URLs for the site to that version. The URL for the site should have also been listed on the Town’s bill.
Because there were at least two sites, and because the correct one wasn’t listed on the bill, I ended up spending almost an hour paying a $14 bill, and wasted the time of someone at the Town who had to call me back to help me pay my bill.
I suspect that I’m not the only person who has experienced this problem.
Seriously, Pick a Domain and Stick to It
In collecting links to local government web sites, I searched for “virginia city web sites” on Google. The search results started off with a number of links to individual cities, some directory type sites that listed links to city sites, and an official page from the Commonwealth of Virginia listing Virginia Counties, Cities, and Towns.
The Commonwealth list made me wonder if there was really a need for me to collect addresses for local web sites. At least I wondered that until I started visiting some of the City sites and noticed that a number of the links brought me to old versions of City sites, or 404 “not found” pages.
How did I know that they were older versions?
They said so at the tops of their pages, and included a link to the “new” versions of their sites. Rather than using a permanent redirect to point to the new versions of their sites, they told me instead that their sites had “moved,” and I should update my bookmarks.
When they decided to change the web addresses for their sites, I guess the easiest way for them to let people know was to include some text at the tops of their pages that they had moved. Or to just remove the old site completely. Redirecting traffic to the new versions of the site would lead people directly to their new pages, but it was a step that many didn’t take.
A good practice when you change the address of your pages is to identify links to the old versions and change the links that you have control over to the new address. If there are some important links to your site, from sources such as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s web site, it doesn’t hurt to contact them and let them know about the new address as well. It’s a little like contacting the Post Office when you move to a new home.
Searching at the major search engines for new addresses for some of the missing towns hasn’t been very effective in leading me to the new addresses for their sites. Fortunately, some of the commercial directories that list towns and cities in Virginia do have some updated addresses, though they also list some old addresses for some local government sites as well.
Is this Really the Official Site?
When I visited some town sites, I wondered whether those pages were actually from the governments of the towns listed. Some towns used .com or .us top level domains instead of .gov. Some looked more like commercial sites linking to businesses in their communities rather than sites from the governments of those communities. Perhaps there should be some official registry of local government web sites, and some kind of “trust” seal that they could display identifying them as being official government sites.
On the Virginia Commonwealth page I linked to above is the following message:
Any community which does not currently have information included in this area easily can participate; simply send an e-mail request to [email protected] and include the URL of any or all relevant sites with community information.
I think it’s great that the Commonwealth site allows local governments to “participate,” and list their sites. I’m wondering if it would be a better approach to require those local goverments to register an official URL when they put their sites online, and to provide an update when they change their address.
I’m also wondering why I don’t see town web sites listed in Google Maps when I search for towns in there. Perhaps Google is running into some of the same problems I am in associating town web sites with those towns. I may have to make a Google My maps map in the future listing the local government web sites that I find on a map of Virginia.
At this point, my research is still in the stage where I’m trying to find every local Virginia goverment web site that I can.
That research has been hindered by the fact that some of the sites have more than one domain name, others have new domains that are hard to find, some are just hard to find possibly because of a lack of links to them from anywhere else on the Web, and some are difficult to identify as official local government web sites once I do find them.
I’ve been reading a number of papers and pages and sites that provide best practices for government sites, as well as a number of others that identify some of the best of the government sites. I’ll likely be sharing many of those in future posts. I’ve created an SEO for Government category on this site to make it easier to find past and future posts involving government web sites. Some of those approaches could benefit sites of all kinds, and not just government pages.
One of the practices that appears in many recommendations is for a site to provide an easy way to contact the people who run it, so that they can make suggestions for improvements and changes, a way to share those suggestions with other visitors, and a place for feedback on the changes to be published. It would be nice to see more local government sites providing such opportunities.
I’m also interested in hearing from others about their local government web sites – the things they do right as well as the things that they do wrong. Please let me know in the comments below, or use my contact form. Thanks.