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Government Web Sites Failing to Attract Visitors?

The combined total of all federal, state, and local sites in the U.S. attracted 1.24 percent of Internet traffic.

On December 8, 2005, this appeared in the Guardian:

"Many government websites are failing to attract readers despite extensive spending, new figures have revealed. Information published today by Technology Guardian shows that many of the government's Internet operations are underperforming, despite vast funding and investment. One website, UK World Heritage Sites (www.ukworldheritage.org.uk) managed only 77 visitors last year." [My italics]

This may sound like an unlikely horror story for our shores, until you take a closer look at some statistics.

United States Governmental Traffic
According to Hitswise, the federal, state, and local governmental share of Internet visits for the month of July 2005 was alarmingly small at a combined total of a whopping 1.17%, distributed as follows:
        Date        Federal         State         City, County
        July 2005      0.59%         0.51%          0.07%


While this may be a far cry from 77 visits in a year to any one particular site, this clearly shows that the average U.S. Internet visitor -- say 98.83% of them -- is going elsewhere.

July 2007
While the overall traffic to our sites may well have increased by July 2007, our share of this traffic actually decreased to a rather dismal combined total of 1.00%, as follows:
    Date            Federal         State       City, County
    July 2007          0.43%         0.50%       0.07%


Elsewhere, indeed.

July 2008
Fast-forward another 12 months: For July 2008, we finally see an improvement in our share of visitors, which rose 24% for a combined total of 1.24%:

    Date         Federal        State       City, County
    July 2008       0.52%         0.65%         0.07%


Nevertheless, at these levels -- where barely one visit in a hundred is headed for any of literally thousands of federal, state, and local government sites -- the question does go begging: Where do Internet visitors actually go?

Tracking Usage
Prior to June of 2000, no one was exactly sure, for it was only around this time that we began to see our first comprehensive Internet usage analyses. This, for one, was the year when Nielsen Media Research launched Nielsen//Netratings, and in its August 1 press release included a snapshot of where visitors were heading on the now much talked about World Wide Web during the month of June, 2000.

Category                                      Visits                 Percentage
Search Engines/Portals       102,201,480             14.48%
E-mail                                           74,311,191             10.53%
Entertainment                          59,839,149              8.48%
Personal/Business S/W        53,893,623              7.64%
News & Information               52,968,762              7.51%
Shopping                                    48,838,764               6.92%
Online Communities                48,740,761                6.91%
Directories/Classifieds          36,310,645                5.15%
Finance/Insurance/Invest. 30,469,864                4.32%
Family & Lifestyles                 28,872,064                4.09%
Corporate Information          26,767,290                3.79%
Adult                                           25,086,742                3.55%
Travel                                         24,396,077                3.46%
Sweepstakes/Coupons         24,282,687                3.44%
Education                                  22,038,889                3.12%
Government/Non-Profit      20,268,333                2.87%
Sports                                       14,895,254                2.11%
Automotive                             11,319,074                1.60%
Health & Fitness                          211,092                 0.03%

Clearly, search engines and portals like Yahoo!, AOL and Lycos, ruled the roost, with e-mail application a distant second.

The same press release also reported on the sites visited for the month of June 2000:

Rank  Property               Visits         Percentage
1      Yahoo!                    62,772,590      15.89%
2      AOL Websites      57,243,240      14.49%
3      MSN                        47,790,317       12.10%
4      Microsoft               39,668,640       10.04%
5      Lycos                      31,161,092        7.89%
6      Excite@Home       27,502,376        6.96%
7      GO Network           22,916,897        5.80%
8      AltaVista               16,246,444        4.11%
9      NBC Internet        15,007,333        3.80%
10     About.com          14,690,343        3.72%
11    Time Warner        14,312,818        3.62%
12    Amazon                13,527,874        3.43%
13    eUniverse Network11,010,023    2.79%
14    Real Networks      10,663,603      2.70%
15    eBay                      10,460,407        2.65%

           
Yahoo was dominant, Alta Vista -- remember Alta Vista, the best search engine since sliced bread in its prime -- was still in the running, and eBay had begun its ascent up the visits charts.

In an ideal world, where the digital divide is fully bridged, and where well-designed and well-promoted governmental sites are used by aware and responsible citizens, perhaps there would be representation in a list such as this.

Eight Years Later
What has happened in the last eight years?
We know that bandwidth usage has ten-folded during this period, and we know that the Internet population has exploded, but with all this Interbahn available, where are we going?
This snapshot, taken

by Hitswise for the week of July 14 through July 20, 2008 shows an interesting reversal:

Category                                     Visits                    Percentage
E-mail                                       16,331,232,000         38.07%
Portals & Search Engines     5,721,255,000          13.34%
General Community               5,529,572,000         12.89%
General/National News         3,229,990,000          7.53%
Entertainment                         1,990,289,000          4.64%
Finance                                      1,900,352,000          4.43%
Shopping & Auction                   991,922,000           2.31%
Local/Regional                           957,136,000           2.23%
Sports & Recreation                  950,730,000           2.22%
Games                                           785,287,000           1.83%
Other                                         4,512,083,000          10.52%

       
E-mail -- largely thanks to mammoth free e-mail providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google -- now outranks search engines and portals by a factor of three. Community applications, such as MySpace and FaceBook have grown into prominence, while streaming entertainment, such as Netflix instant movies, and the main television networks archived programming, is also growing in popularity; but keep in mind that one streaming movie visit to Netflix can devour 1.2 Gigabytes of bandwidth, while 100 visits to Google may use as little as 2 Megabytes all told; bandwidth usage and number of visits do not necessarily correlate.

As for the site rankings for June 2008, also courtesy of Hitswise:
Rank     Website     Market Share
1.     www.google.com        5.92%
2.     www.myspace.com    5.05%
3.     mail.yahoo.com        5.00%
4.     www.yahoo.com        4.09%
5.     mail.live.com        2.44%
6.     www.ebay.com        1.73%
7.     search.yahoo.com   1.62%
8.     www.msn.com        1.24%
9.     www.facebook.com   1.19%
10. www.youtube.com    0.89%
11. www.gmail.com        0.69%
12. images.google.com     0.55%
13. www.wikipedia.org     0.47%
14. mail.aol.com         0.42%
15. search.msn.com         0.42%
16. address.yahoo.com     0.38%
17. www.pogo.com         0.37%
18. www.craigslist.org     0.36%
19. my.yahoo.com         0.35%
20. www.aol.com         0.34%


Free e-mail providers like mail.yahoo.com, www.gmail.com, as well as mail.aol.com, all have prominent positions. MySpace and FaceBook have become a way of life for millions now, while YouTube continues to gain in popularity. eBay is here to stay and places like Wikipedia and craigslist also show they have taken up permanent residence on our destination charts.

The Government Site
Granted, the average citizen will not have cause to visit a governmental site every single day, or several times a day (as would be the case with e-mail and search engines destinations); but the alarming point that the combined total of all federal, state, and local sites in our country only attracted 1.24% of July's visitors spell one plain truth: No matter how well designed, and how functional these sites are, they are not promoted well enough for people to actually find them and use them as a matter of course. That is as area that must not be overlooked in our effort to digitally engage our citizens.

Bandwidth
As mentioned above, the number of visits and bandwidth consumption do not necessarily correlate. Part II of this survey will examine which destinations and applications consume our bandwidth, and what the future of bandwidth usage might look like.

Stay tuned.

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho-based Ulf Wolf writes for the IT industry as Words & Images (www.words-images.com)

Photo by Hobvias Sudoneighm. Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic

Ulf Wolf is a Swedish-born, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho based writer and photographer with 20 years of Telecom, CRM, and IT experience, much of which as a very hands-on call-center systems engineer for AT&T/Lucent/Avaya.
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