DirectGov has been in the eGov eye in the past week as an internal blog of theirs is picked up from website logs (including mine, hello there DirectGov, pay attention now, you can always hit 'anonymous' in comments ... ).
But I've also noticed them increasingly using Search Marketing, alongside some other big government agencies, especially the NHS as well as some rather odd government advertisers.
I'll just look at one term, but you could extrapolate to the general approach.
And here's what is it: happening, welcome, but not very efficient and either ill-advised or ill-directed.
I did some searches around 'pregnancy' when I blogged about Davina McCall's show on the issue of SexEd for Channel Four, two months back.
I went back and did the searches again and the results are almost the same.
Caveats: I don't do Search Marketing full-time for a living, which also means I don't have the full toolkit. Also, when your search budget runs out the ads disappear - they could have advertised against all sorts of terms and it's not showing just right now.
Following comments and from private email about the technicalities, I'd add that budgets, commercial competition and matching issues are all relevant of course - a comment about the importance of content in the search context is particularly relevant to eGov.
I've added more at the end.
Click on the screengrabs for the larger version.
Here's organic results for 'pregnancy'. At that point (end of March) the Child Trust Fund was advertising against that keyword. DirectGov appeared when you selected 'uk only' or if you came in via google.co.uk. They're not right now and all the top results today are commercial.
On 'Teenage pregnancy', DirectGov show up (they still do, but only if you start at google.co.uk). But this is a category title of theirs, I don't think it's much of an organic search term.
Would you search on 'teenage pregnancy' if you were a teenager? Obviously it's searched on, just probably not by the key market. I suspect this is in the list simply because it's government's metadata.
Also, the first result is for the Cabinet Office Unit (useless for a pregnant teenager), but the lack of commercial interest in this term just underlines the likelihood that users don't actually use it.
After that point though the marketing stops.
People don't just search on 'pregnancy', they search on a whole bunch of related terms, the total of which would be significantly more than 'pregnancy' and some of which are particularly relevant.
You can see this simply by seeing what gets advertised against.
A holistic, efficient campaign covers the typos too.
Terms like 'pregnancy yoga', 'pregnancy calendar', 'pregnancy symptom', 'sign of pregnancy', 'pregnancy nutrition' — even 'pregnancy test'.
But if you try 'ectopic pregnancy' (then, not now), government ads (NHS) appeared again.
This strongly suggests to me an internal hand guiding what they'd advertise against rather than taking advice (though I never discount the 'it was just a f*** up' explanation and I fail to understand how a big agency could put their name to it) because those are the sorts of internal list terms which drive eGov — not user-defined terms.
Google is not the only SE. Particular SEs have particular audiences.
The NHS, I notice, was extending to Yahoo on 'pregnancy'. MSN/LiveSearch has a skew towards a female audience.
The reason why all this is of any importance is simply because this is how people find government services. The vast, vast majority online and a rapidly growing majority for Google.
Search is the gatekeeper to Government services online, but in failing to take up Search Marketing with any seriousness government is abandoning citizens to the market for their advice at crucial moments.
This is even more important when — as a result of a wider failure around linking — government advice does not show up automatically or with any consistency at the top of organic results.
Readers with children potentially searching for pregnancy or STDs or sexuality information discreetly online might be interested to see who is actually advising them.
It's not the government.
Addendum: I don't think that the budget considerations or the technical issues involved with budget choices undermine the basic point: this is how people are finding information and where is the government?
With budgets, they need to change. As is rapidly happening with marketing in general, more needs to be spent on search marketing and less on newspaper ads.
The comments about all the issues involved are all right but that doesn't stop others from testing different approaches. You can't do that unless a good SEM can just get on with doing their job without being second-guessed.
The big issues I think are the commercial competition and how to wade in. Thinking about that makes my head spin because it's not just commercial considerations, it's moral and political and lots more.
I don't pretend there's much thought elsewhere going on about this but, at base, how long is the market going to define the terms (literally, if you think of long tail keyphrases!) by which YOUR child finds information? That's what's actually happening.
And it's good that DirectGov + NHS have dabbled. It's a start but it's too slow. Government has to either regulate (Bill Thompson's idea) or engage (or go 'lalala. can't hear you .. ' or shoot-the-messenger).
With the stuff I found, I think it's telling me that someone who thinks they're important needs to stop pretending they understand Search Marketing and hand the deciding on things like the actual spend, the terms, to someone like the commentator on this post who obviously does do it for a living (and/or fire the agency who don't).
Give the qualified SEM a realistic trial budget and let them PROVE their worth. Then share the findings.
All new content on my restarted blog is here