When governments began launching their own websites in the '90s, the results left much to be desired, to say the least. The portals were painfully difficult to navigate and had multiple tabs that were too busy -- seemingly created with government users in mind rather than the general public. To everyday citizens, these websites paled in comparison to the private sector's efforts, which were constantly evolving to better suit their needs.

Some argue that's still the case and will forever be, despite vast improvements over the years. Naysayers aside, a recent survey points out online features -- searching and social media -- are now top public priorities when it comes to navigating a government's Web page. And with every redesign, there is an opportunity to better meet those needs and engage the public.

Increasingly that means organizing a website so it's searchable. The days when it was good enough to organize a website's content in hard-to-browse categories are gone.

"Search right now is the major way of finding information," said Tom Viall, manager of Rhode Island's website for e-government provider NICUSA. Equally important is sharing government information on sites people flock to, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Viall said, instead of forcing them to visit the state site.

"You've got to, as a state government, be where the people are, and the people are on those social networking sites," he said. "Get people to the information they're looking for as quickly as possible."

Citizens Want More Engagement

Demand for search functionality and a social media presence are highlighted in the 2010 Open Government Research Report, which states that nearly all citizens who responded to the survey (96 percent) think the government could improve citizen engagement via online services. Recommended steps to accomplish this notion, however, vary:

Constituents suggested agencies could be more engaging by:

  • 71 percent said improving search functionality on agencies' websites;
  • 52 percent said creating an agency-branded forum or online community;
  • 34 percent said increasing the presence on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter; and
  • 32 percent said delivering tailored information via mobile devices.

Government agencies are hearing similar requests from their constituents and investing in such changes. According to NIC Spokesman Chris Neff, improving search functionality remains a top priority and ongoing challenge for agencies.

"Recognizing the importance of search is more than half the battle," Neff said. "Nearly 90 percent of all Internet sessions begin with a search, which means governments need to make their information easy for these engines to find."

Search engine optimization is another key area where governments should invest their time, Neff said, which can be done by tagging images, forms and other government content so that it isn't in government jargon. "Search engine optimization is important and we constantly encourage our state and local governments to use keywords that citizens are likely to use rather than government-speak," Neff said.

Texas -- which partnered with NICUSA for its Web portal -- has taken this demand very seriously. The site's search feature is most prominent on the main page and uses an autofill function to better serve users, Texas Department of Information Resources Spokesman Marcus Cooper said.

"We redesigned and revamped the state Web portal and introduced it in June," Cooper said. "And I think it speaks directly to the survey and what our citizens wanted in a revised website."

Search and Then What?

According to the survey, citizens are more comfortable online and engaging in social networks than ever before, the report claims.

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer