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Making your company more web-friendly

The processes through which many knowledge-distribution organizations develop their knowledge assets and products (e.g. reports, research, data, etc.) are largely analog in format: they follow internal corporate structures that were created decades ago.

They are therefore producing information that is not designed a priori for the most important medium through which it will be distributed and consumed: the web. This disconnect between how these knowledge-distribution organizations conceptualize, create and manage their content—and how stakeholders will find, read and engage with it—is growing larger as the number of digital channels (e.g. the web, mobile, email, social media, etc.) through which visitors can access this information proliferate.

This issue is most acute in the area of search: an organization cannot demonstrate the value of its thought leadership, research excellence and program innovation to new and wider audiences if it does not carefully and proactively manage its most critical digital asset: its search profile.

Given the complexity and evolving nature of digital channels, the cost and effort required to bridge the gap between analog and digital will continue to increase over time. It is therefore recommended that the all organizations consider change to the ways information products are developed and released to ensure that they leverage the digital channels through which they will be distributed.

Google is your home page

We live in the Age of Search. For the first time in human history, virtually any question can now be answered through a few simple keystrokes entered into a search engine. In just over a decade, search has become central and commonplace activity in our personal and professional lives. Access to search is now a functional requirement to effectively execute our day-to-day tasks, and rare is the day that we do not do multiple searches for any number of reasons.

Search can also be viewed from the perspective of supply and demand. People seek answers to questions (the demand) and search engines find information and resources that align to our interests (the supply). Search engines are simply massive, large-scale information mediators: they collect demand from any location and link it to supply of information that can come from anywhere. As a result, search engines have become the gateway to information retrieval and the point of departure in our quest for information.

This is fundamental: if most of us begin our quest for information with a search engine, then search engines are, for all intents and purposes, our homepages. Given that Google is the dominant search engine in the world today (it has over 66% market share according to Comscore), then Google is the world’s de-facto home page.

Why issues matter more than brand

Most ‘analog’ organizations are deeply focused on their homepage. Managers, subject matter experts and executives consider it very important to get their content on the home page. However, web analytics data conclusively demonstrates in nearly every instance that the home page is not the first page for the vast majority of website visitors.

This is because the number-one driver of traffic to websites is search engines, specifically Google. However, Google has not sent them to the home page, but to the page with content that is relevant to their search. Google links the demand (your search term) to the most relevant content.

Online search can be roughly divided into two types: brand and subject. Brand-based searches are all the searches on the name or brand of an organization. Subject-based searches are all those searches that are related to an issue or subject matter.

An analysis of search terms conducted by PublicInsite for public sector organizations revealed that an average of 21% of all searches that brought a visitor to a web site were brand-based. Therefore, the most important source of traffic to a knowledge-distribution organization should be from visitors seeking information about initiatives, programs, products and services.

For some organizations, however, the opposite is true; branded terms are responsible for the majority of traffic. As a result, valuable information products are not being found in search and the volume of traffic is lower than it should be for an organization with extensive and thorough knowledge assets.

Knowledge that spreads, wins

In a world where information and knowledge are currency, knowledge that spreads, wins. Beyond any doubt, Google is the most important disseminator of information in the world today. This is why leading organizations actively manage their search profile: they are critically concerned with ensuring that they feature prominently for any search related to their product, service, location or issue.

A case study that illustrates how ‘knowledge that spreads, wins’ is the supposed link between vaccines and autism. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that no such link exists, the spread of ‘evidence’ to the contrary and rampant disinformation is far more prevalent on the web and social media. As a result, vaccination rates have plunged over the past decade. Anti-vaccine groups are winning because their ‘knowledge’ (anecdotal and non-scientific as it is) is spreading.

The three key reasons why information promoted by the anti-vaccine groups is winning are:

  1. Their content ranks highly on search engines: Type in autism or vaccinations and you will find many, many pages list links to organizations that purport to prove the link between the two. Anti-vaccine messages dominate search results; their message is more findable.
  2. They use the ‘language of demand’: Researchers and health professionals write in a language that is scientific, exact and alien to the average reader. The anti-vaccine groups feel no such compulsion and the lexicon they use in their content is aligned to the language of the public. Therefore, when the public searches for information about vaccines and autism, the anti-vaccine message is more findable and prominent.
  3. The network effect: The content on one anti-vaccine site will invariably reference, host or link to content from another anti-vaccine site. The depth, scope and nature of the links and content-sharing between these sites create a virtuous circle that lifts all of their collective rankings in search result pages. Result: their message is more easily visible.

Despite spending millions of dollars on public awareness campaigns, public health organizations are losing this battle because their knowledge isn’t spreading. The reason their knowledge isn’t spreading is that they are not focusing on the digital dimension, which is how their knowledge is distributed and made available to the public. Instead, they are producing an analog document, typically a brochure, report or paper. The end product of the process is simply turning it into a PDF document for posting on the web.

This is the analog approach to a world that has gone digital, and it is radically and dangerously unproductive. Such an approach virtually guarantees that the content will not be findable or visible in search results. It is effectively invisible to the very people who need it most. Their knowledge doesn’t spread, and if it doesn’t spread, it won’t win.

This can be a problem for many leading research organizations. Despite having world-class researchers, cutting-edge knowledge and innovative development programs, all of the information follows vetting and approval processes that are focused on an analog outcome. Rarely is the digital requirement front-and-center during the document development process.

Questions that should be asked during development include (but are not limited to):

  • What documents can we link to?
  • What data can we pull from others?
  • How we can we optimize for search?
  • What figures can we make available in high-resolution format?
  • How can we modify language to align it with that of the non-expert consumer?

Simply posting a document to a website does not guarantee it will be read. And expecting the web-coordinating team to take on this task is akin to asking a translator to provide policy level input into the topic he or she is translating.

Why you must manage your search profile

The centrality of search to the online experience is one of the reasons why many organizations are extremely concerned about their position on search engine results page (SERPs). Information such as: where your site appears, how often it appears, and what text appears on the SERP, is collectively known as the ‘search profile’.

Leading organizations recognize the value of this search profile and consider it to be a strategic corporate asset. Like all other assets, a search profile must be actively and carefully managed in order to preserve and maximize its value to the organization. Failure to recognize its value and manage the profile can result in very poor rankings on SERPs, which inevitably results in a long-term dip in traffic.

Managing the organization’s search profile requires an enterprise-level, cross-division approach that is typically the responsibility of a senior manager. Delegating this responsibility to a webmaster all but ensures a poorly coordinated, weakly executed and haphazard implementation.

What got us here, won’t get us there: moving from an analog to a digital organization

The first step in the transition towards a digital organization is a realization of why it matters. Most managers in public sector organizations view the digital channels (web, social media, mobile, email, etc.) as important, but actually pay it very little attention. They are locked in a structure that rewards a focus on the traditional outputs (a report, a presentation or speaking opportunity at a conference, a paper published in a journal, a mention in a newspaper, etc.). While important, these outputs represent just a tiny fraction of the potential exposure available from digital channels.

The challenge is how to get an organization that has been a successful thought-leader to recognize the need to move from analog to a digital. This is not an easy task. It requires senior-level leadership, a re-engineering of the information development and production process, and a commitment from managers and subject-matter experts to embrace the new methodologies and requirements.

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