You can’t miss the search field on the newly redesigned Utah.gov. After all, the bar dominates most of the homepage, superimposed on a high-res panoramic photograph of a desert landscape.

Why? The answer is rooted in four years’ worth of online analytics, which told state technology officials and Utah’s vendor partner that search was by far the most utilized feature by website visitors, used more than two times as often as anything else.

“We wanted to see if we could break the mold and change things up,” said Rich Olsen, general manager of Utah Interactive, the NIC USA subsidiary that manages Utah.gov for the state. The hope is that the visually striking layout will motivate visitors to explore the site more than they have in the past, he said.

Web designers have been predicting that search would come to dominate the next generation of websites. Now government portals seem to be finally catching on. Texas led the movement last year when it chose an uncluttered homepage with a prominent search bar.

Utah knew that in order to pull off its search-focused design, the search returns delivered by the website would have to be great, Olsen said. The search is powered by Google, and integrates many custom databases and application programming interfaces developed by the individual state agencies. In addition, Utah Interactive has made more use of geotagged data that has the state been collecting from agencies, cities and counties. Geotagging allows the website to deliver search results tailored to the user’s location. In Salt Lake City alone, there are 10 ZIP codes, and the website can return results that are specific to each of them, Olsen said.

The result is a search that returns an amalgam of URLs, maps, statistics, social media and custom links.

For example, when the search term “jobs” is inputted, a visitor will get the typical list of relevant Google links — with some noticeable add-ons. The right-hand column includes a dedicated link to state jobs, features a Google map to the headquarters of the Utah Department of Human Resource Management in Salt Lake City, and also includes a prominently bolded statistic announcing there are 12,900 jobs posted today in Utah — with a link where users can submit applications.

The level of detail was spurred by the fact that search queries for “jobs” on Utah.gov have increased 96 percent during the economic downturn, Olsen said. Utah.gov’s role in economic development was a theme of Gov. Gary Hebert’s press conference announcing the portal redesign on Thursday, June 2. The portal facilitates 25 million transactions each year.

Utah.gov averages more than 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to the governor’s office, the highest per capita visitation rate of any government website in the U.S., including WhiteHouse.gov. Utah won first place among state portals in the 2009 Best of the Web competition sponsored by the Center for Digital Government.

Officials hope the website’s new features developed during the latest two-year development cycle will bring another win. The homepage now features trending topics, aggregated social media feeds, infographics that visualize data on the main dropdown menus, YouTube and Flickr integration and mobile apps.

And it’s likely that users will access those features through search.

Matt Williams Matt Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.