Friday, April 18
Following my quite stroppy contact with the British Medical Journal (BMJ)'s Editor, my response has finally been published with one element removed because "it is damning the research in an unverifiable way".
It is notable that in a comment on my blog (paulcanning.me.uk) Graham Jones who runs the Internet Psychology web site said that he'd met some people who were connected to the research and "they were suitably embarrassed in private when I pointed out the simple flaws in the research".I'm told that it took so long because they needed to check every single line "as we are liable for anything posted on our website". That paragraph is certainly unverifiable by them, unless they contact Graham, but it's also the sort of thing which might well upset the privately embarrassed.
Because I could only give them text without links, this means that the Letters Editor must have either had to go back and figure everything out from scratch or - more likely - get something of an education in this area from following the links on my blog.
All in all, quite satisfying.
Now let's see what, if anything, the BBC says from my complaint and the lead researcher from my letter ... I've had no response from my help offer to the charity Sane ...
Postscript: More responses are now appearing in the BMJ. I particularly like this one from a student at Otago Uni in New Zealand:
The selection of terms in this study did not include 'prevention', 'help', 'assistance', 'counselling' and were designed to return the sites they retrieved. Search engines ("web dragons") need skillful handling.I wasn't at all sure what he meant but Web Dragons comes from a book of the same name, by Ian Witten, who's a New Zealand professor.
More seriously, a researcher from The University of Hong Kong reports his suspicions that users search for particular methods:
For instance, carbon monoxide poisoning by burning charcoal has been portrayed by the mass media in Hong Kong as an easy, painless and effective means of ending one's life since 1998.Methods are described in the local media - something the UK media is not supposed to do - then people search for them. He concludes:
In view of the global nature of Internet, it seems logical that a global effort is needed to contain the negative effect of Internet on suicides.
My work on critiquing the British Medical Journal (BMJ)'s research article last week on search and suicide has now been published on PublicRadar, in an article form.
I'm republishing it below as it's more digestible than the original post.
Been much boosted by positive responses from several psychologists who use the web, SEO and SEM full-timers and others who know this stuff far better than me.
As well, I was blanked for a week by the BMJ but am now waiting for either a response as to why they won't publish my criticism or if they actually will.
Unfortunately the BMJ PR went around the world and was published in a lot of media. They really need to unpublish the research article and issue PR explaining why but as one psychologist correspondent told me, "the BMJ is in a very conservative world where they still think that hiding or ignoring negative comment works".
How this serves medical practitioners, let alone the suicidal, completely eludes me.
April 17th, 2008 PublicRadar
Last week the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published research headlined ‘Suicide and the internet‘.
Recent reports of suicide by young people have highlighted the possible influence of internet sites. Lucy Biddle and colleagues investigate what a web search is likely to find.
Those recent reports are of the Bridgend, Wales suicide cluster. Shock horror newspaper headlines often pointed at the web as a reason why a bunch of young people might have killed themselves or at least encouraged them. Of course, virtually none of the media reports looked at the research which has repeatedly shown that the media itself, particularly when it describes methods, has been demonstrated to encourage so-called ‘copycat’ suicide, but that’s for another day.
What Biddle and colleagues from Bristol, Oxford and Manchester universities claimed to find, and what the BBC and media around the world subsequently and dutifully reported, was that it’s search engines that encourage suicide. Methods are “easy to find” - and they’d proved it.
“The three most frequently occurring sites were all pro-suicide, prompting researchers to call for anti-suicide web pages to be prioritised.”
The trouble was the research was flawed in its methodology and Biddle et al aren’t experts in how search actually works. Worse, ways in which pro-suicide websites can be countered online are relatively easy and the methods used well established - so how this ‘prioritisation’ might happen wasn’t explained.
Starting with their idea of “most frequently occurring sites”, this is nonsense as the vast, vast majority of searchers don’t get past the first ten results and most of those don’t get past the top three.
So to rank, as they did, the ‘top ten’ searches as having equal value is false. This alone discounts their findings.
They also counted from searches on four search engines. Yet fully 86% of UK searches are via Google - they’d again counted each search on each search engine as having equal value.
As well, they gave each of ten search terms equal value when those terms have vastly different uses. Using a keyword suggestion tool, you can see that ‘Suicide’ has a daily UK search number of 7788 whereas one they picked, ‘Most effective methods for committing suicide’, has 0. This tool also throws up terms they didn’t use, such as ’suicide poetry’.
You can actually see this vast different in usage recognised by commercial sites as well as church and other small charity bodies who pay for advertising next to search results (’Cremated ashes made into glass: “Keep the memory”‘). They will naturally only pick the terms of most value.
Most tellingly they failed to understand that two terms they used ‘Methods of suicide’ and ‘Suicide methods’ are exactly the same term because ‘of’ is discounted.
In their paper they state that their ‘Search strategy’ was:
“To replicate the results of a typical search that might be undertaken by a person seeking information about methods of suicide. We conducted searches using the four most popular UK search engines and 12 broad search terms—a total of 48 searches. The terms entered were those likely to be used by distressed individuals, determined partly from interview data collected in an ongoing qualitative study of near-fatal suicide attempts and by using search suggestions provided by the engines upon entering terms such as ’suicide.’”
There isn’t any further detail on just how they could know what search terms were actually entered ‘by distressed individuals’ as opposed to ones without distress or how relevant ‘interview data’ would be in working that out.
If they had even bothered to ask some of the search marketing/search optimisation specialists probably around the corner from them, or possibly even within the same universities, they would have realised that their methodology doesn’t show anything. But as a result of this article being in the hallowed BMJ we now have web-bashing headlines around the world.
I would suggest that this article devalues the BMJ itself as a source of scientific information unless it is withdrawn. There was nothing scientific about this study.
It is notable that in a comment on my blog Graham Jones who runs the Internet Psychology web site said that he’d met some people who were connected to the research and “they were suitably embarrassed in private when I pointed out the simple flaws in the research”.
Biddle told the BBC that:
“This research shows it is very easy to obtain detailed technical information about methods of suicide.”
Her research did not demonstrate that finding pro-suicide websites is “very easy”. But, yes, if you are determined to find it you will find it. Just like the determined can find bomb making recipes and the Chinese in China can find rants against the Chinese government.
But this is not how most people operate, which you can see from what gets typed in most frequently.
Contrary to assumptions, I haven’t seen any evidence that shows that kids and teens are that much better, if at all, at finding things online using search engines than anyone else.
What I can say is that, using Google Trends, which covers searches going back four years, for general searches for ’suicide’ (tweaked to exclude unrelated Iraq/Afghanistan ’suicide bombers’ searches), the trend is clearly down. There’s some good news you won’t read in reporting.
Apart from no numbers on what the actual usage is of ‘pro-suicide’ sites, another point is whether the websites which charities and government create are actually helping kids and teens. I don’t know but I’d like to - there’s nothing about that in this research, why some kids and teens might be turning to these pro-suicide websites instead of ‘official’ ones.
The BBC quoted Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, saying the proverbial ’something should be done’. There’s actually a lot which could be done. For example:
1. How about running text ads next to more search terms than just ’suicide’.
2. Or employing some Search Engine Optimisation specialists to make sure that your pages come up first. They might even do it for nothing or just the publicity.
3. Or working with other charities to make sure you cover every possible term and intervene via content and ads on other sites or through social networks (simply creating a page on Mind’s website, already high-up results, which is titled ‘How to commit suicide’ would immediately help).
4. Or fixing your own websites, not only to make them more appealing to your target audience but also to fix errors such as the first result on a search for ’suicide’ on Sane’s website being ‘The National Suicide Prevention Strategy report’.
On one term you can see how smaller, more agile bodies aren’t moaning but are learning how to use the web to their own ends. ‘How to commit suicide‘ includes a top result which redirects people to an anti-suicide web page.
My issue with the research and its reaction is that the complainants are making no effort to ensure that their pages turn up tops on such search terms as ‘How to commit suicide’ . There are no excuses for this and to behave as if this is someone else’s responsibility - let alone ISPs - is childish and pathetic
Simply put, it is not ISPs but health practitioners, charities and government who are not doing their job properly online. They are failing the very kids and teens they claim to be helping and looking for someone else to blame - there’s an abdication of responsibility.
This is exactly what happens when you set up online walled gardens and fail to relate to the wider web - I am not seeing the NHS or government portal directgov anywhere in these results - and that ‘can’t be bothered’ ‘it’s all too complicated’ mentality apparently dominates the charity sector as well.
Here’s what could be done:
1. Talk to the search engines, they are very interested in getting results right and can and do ‘tweak’ them. They won’t ‘censor’ sites or stop indexing the whole web but they will help and advise on improving positioning.
2. Don’t talk to the ISPs! Talk to the search engine experts such as the Search Marketing Association.
3. Talk to social networks about teaming up with them and others to create widgets and other tools so kids and teens can help others.
As well, these people would potentially do it for free or cheaply or for publicity. It would be very straightforward to out-manoeuvre the pro-suicide websites - what resources do they have vs. what resources do you have?
Research on how search may contribute to actual suicide may well be valuable, but it needs to be done by specialists who can use the tools established by the industry to track and analyse which sites are the most dangerous and where the traffic to them is coming from - it may well not be primarily search. That could be done. But the best course is a concerted effort by charities and government to direct ‘distressed individuals’ to websites which can really help them.
I am afraid that none of these people are listening though. What they are instead developing is an righteous effort, like has happened in Australia, which will end up in a censored Internet for all of us - and no real help for those they claim to be helping.~~~~~
Postscript: Published in BMJ with one edit.
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Thursday, April 17
Yes indeedey. That was quickly achieved. Get registering.
Just one issue (you expect that, right?) why allow short grabs for Readers? Something to do with this?
And I'm liking the rules, No homophobia? Civil society.
Please post this if you can to help it go viral.
Wednesday, April 16
Here's the latest video from Ken Livingstone's campaign
Er, where are the gays? Nowhere. I sat through all the vids on the YouTube channel. Absent. And this isn't a minor point - gays are a really big part of the London electorate, maybe a million Londoners, and a lot of them are not voting for Ken and practically all of them use the Interweb. AKA - in this tight election, there's your winning margin.
A gay targeted vid would 100% definitely go viral, but the whole vid campaign is just .... I'm holding my head in my hands. This is just one example. Views for these vids are in the hundreds, which is pathetic and just not worth bothering with unless you're going to at least attempt to make them go viral.
They're actually running Google ads (which they need to, he isn't top search hit on his own name, though it has improved), but the link sends you to a 'Be Involved page' - not what it's advertising. Basic, basic 'I could scream' f*** up. YouTube isn't plugged on the main landing page. The website is text, text, stale, stale.
Are they (I doubt it) and if not, why not, involving tekkie supporters in this campaign? There's a lot of donkey work which can be 'devolved'. Or are they just whingeing on about 'not enough time' or money? Is it just 'top down' like Hillary's campaign?
Not that Boris is doing that much better. Try a YouTube search for 'Boris Johnson' and his channel is nowhere. And the viral vids on Boris (thousands of views) aren't complimentary. On BackBoris, YouTube is pretty much invisible.They should thank god for Iain Dale and the other Tory bloggers who actually have a significant web presence. On the plus side, they're running no Google text ads (they don't need to, he's #1 for his name) and Boris is dominating searches:
Paddick, now that he has some real expertise on board, has a in-yer-face great site. This is how to do it and I am hugely impressed. It's pretty much a carbon copy of US and Australian tried'n'tested methods (because they work). With some amateurish LibDem stuff embarrassingly tacked on at the bottom.
Here's his (snaps fingers) wor-king, wor-king, wor-king lead video:
Though it's sitting on a LibDem channel not a Brian Paddick channel, which is a mistake. This branding I can imagine someone who knows what they're doing yelling about - and losing. Actually, it smacks of 'we're going to lose but please vote for some Libdems ... ' And is Brian saying brianpaddick.com, brianpaddick.com, every chance he gets. Can't because for some bizarre reason he doesn't own it. It's brianpaddick.org - and is that being plugged at every single opportunity? Er, I doubt it. Why bother? He's wooden on TV.
Come on Ken's campaign! I have emailed suggestions but they're ignored. I have the button but they don't list me, just the in-crowd. Do we have to beg or are you plain deaf? It's both tiresome and a losing strategy.
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Tuesday, April 15
'Protection' not available to you. Or I. When is Britain going to wake up and ditch this nonsense?
n.b. Blogger is hosted somewhere on the US East Coast.
Sokwanele's Zimbabwe Flickr photostream, Mugabe's reprisal attacks under the codename Operation Mavhoterapapi (Where you put your 'X').
The MDC Secretary for Ward 1 Zimuto Masvinga, who is 36 years old, was attacked on Tuesday in Baradzi Village, Masvingo. ZPF youth broke his door down and dragged him outside insisting that he take them to all the other MDC members houses.
He refused so was beaten with iron bars and logs of wood. He slept the night in the bush and then found his way to medical facility.
The thugs referred to their actions as Operation Mavhoterapapi - “where you put your X”.
More Zapiro cartoons
Is journalism a smart career path in 2008?Short answer from her is yes, but not how you'd think.
Betting that you’ll spend your career working for mainstream news orgs is a losing proposition in most cases.Given this reality, it "bugs" her that most journalism schools aren't preparing their students for the future of journalism.
Schools are not teaching the sorts of skills which they'll need to compete. These include
- content management systems (including blogging tools)
- mobile tools and mobile media strategies
- social media
- business skills
- management skills
- economics and business models
- community management,
Students think that:
Their career path will lead them to writing big investigative or literary features for major magazines or newspapers.She finds that most don't have a clue - unlike many of their non-aspiring journo peers - about how to establish their personal brand or how to create opportunities outside of mainstream news organisations.
This is the sort of thing the Andrew Keen's and other King Canute's don't talk about (doesn't pay I'd guess) but the New York Times highlights one 'investigative journalism' - Keen thinks this sort of journalism is doomed - website which is booming, The Smoking Gun.
Says NYT reporter David Carr :
Much has been said, here and elsewhere, about how the emerging digital economy has decimated the business model of journalism. But the same digital technology has made each remaining journalist several times more powerful.
As working reporters, we are able to get information — through the public and government Web databases and proprietary digital sources — that our ancestors in the business would not have dared dream of. I know because I’m one of the ancestors.
The Smoking Gun has demonstrated that if you obey the metabolism of the Web, not the journalist, you can land with significant impact in a hurry.This impact is happening in the US Presidential elections, where some newspapers (Mainstream Media - MSM) have adapted and are in the conversation, online.
Arianna Huffington, part-owner of Huffpost, which just cruised past Drudge as the top news site, and has both broken news and run 'investigative journalism' said in an interesting roundtable (The New Media Moguls Talk Politics) at NYU this week:
What is happening online is actually reducing the power of the mainstream media to set the narrative. The New York Times and the Washington Post are doing great things, but they are doing them online.Talking about the MSM's supposed objectivity and why online news users are flocking to sites like HuffPost (and Drudge), as well as a slew of blogs (fully half of all Americans now read some sort of blog), she said:
People are now beginning to accept, increasingly, that not everything is a mixed bag. Part of it has been the coverage of the war in Iraq, with all the [MSM] people following the John McCains, like John King on CNN talking about soccer games, and good things going on.Just who is ignoring that 'web metabolism' remains a lot of MSM, particularly late coming newspapers like The Mirror and Daily Express.
How can you call this a mixed bag? It's like going to the doctor and the doctor says: "It's a little of a mixed bag, on one hand your acne has improved, but on the other hand you have a brain tumor." That's not a mixed bag.
There is a soccer game going on, while the whole world is falling apart and 4 million Iraqis have left the country, and there is less electricity than during Saddam. Where is the mixed bag?
That is changing, different blogs have different passions, our passion is Iraq so we choose every day to put on our top page what we believe is the truth about Iraq.
And just how badly they're all doing running their web presence was shown in a piece on journalism.co.uk. Research by Ernst & Young said bluntly to newspapers change your ad model and be more like Google (or die).
Their report looked at the potential wealth that could be created by newspapers online and concluded the CPM (cost per thousand impressions) ad model they commonly used wasn't generating 'the necessary growth'.
The report suggested that if top newspaper websites generated the same revenue per UK unique user in 2007 as Google, which uses a Cost per Click (CPC) ad model, they could have expected ad revenues of between £120 million and £250 million each from their domestic traffic.
Instead the report suggested that many nationals total online revenues barely reaching 'one fifth of this amount'.
They calculated that the top newspaper websites generated £15m to £20m in ad revenue in 2007, compared to Google's UK ad revenue of £1.26bn for the same year.
The report went on to criticise CD and other give-aways as having "only a short-term effect" and suggested that despite spending time and money upgrading the look and feel of newspapers, publishers were still struggling to attract young readers to their paid-for titles.
Given how much ad revenue they've already lost from print, particularly classifieds, and especially given print's declining political influence, the major loss making slow movers are just going to become too much of a burden for their influence-seeking owners. I reckon The Express will be the first to go.
Postscript: James Ball writes on his blog about 'what should journalism students learn?' in the UK. Quotes Bill Thompson.
Apologies to anyone if you've been asked to 'log in to Feedburner' today or yesterday. My posts weren't being updated on Technorati (which spins out into other problems) and I tried various routes to fix that including changing the Blogger (aka Blogspot) RSS feed to go via Feedburner - hence a log in to them appearing (though not initially for me) because some code magically appeared in the template.
All fixed now, and it was a Blogger issue, which I discovered on the numerous Blogger help sites (not Blogger's) and which means I now have to go back and rebuild various elements, although it's currently not letting me do some ...
Sigh. Pains of using a free service ...
Monday, April 14
- Virgin Begins Assault on Net Neutrality : Ten Percent
'Bollocks', apparently. iPlayer has set off one heck of a storm.
- Stop the Generation Gaffe and Evolve Already
According to .gov watch, there's systematic discrimination against the under 30s in US eGov,
- Daily Digest: Grassroots Fundraising vs. Public Financing
More on how Obama's funding is redefining US political campaigning.
- Aussie Internet usage overtakes TV viewing for the first time
- Opt-in / Opt-out upsell practices: the fine line between salesmanship and sneakiness
Easyjet and RyanAir being sneaky bastards? Who'd have thought.
- Sex Survey: Gayers in the Westminster Village : Iain Dale's Diary
- Should Fractured Feed Reader Comments Raise Blog Owners' Ire?
Why shifting blog users to Readers might be a/ happening and b/ not good.
- The Independent gains online market share in the UK
The Mirror and Express are doomed I tell ye, doomed!
- Resist redesign
More wisdom from Gerry McGovern.
- Journalism remains a smart career, despite shrinking newsrooms
I should blog this. Amy Gahan on what's not happening is Journalism training in US universities.
- Microsoft's dumb switch to Multimap
- Gay Eurovision fans threatened by Serb thugs
- Robert Baer: The Saudis do not give up their secrets, Mr Blair
- Empowerment packs from the gov’t
Dave Briggs is 'glass half full', me less so.
- Newspaper "Site Search Smackdown": Round 5 - The Newspapers vs Google
Martin Belam dissects just how bad UK newspaper internal search is.
- Oliver Stone's Bush Flick: Fade in on Turdblossom, Frat Hazing
It's a movie. Before November. Not looking forward to it ...
- How to reach Joe Sixpack on climate issues
Your BEER will become more expensive.
- A More Helpful Help Site
The BBC, excellent on the waffly PR. Now if they only fixed the search ....
Not on Reader:
- The New Media Moguls Talk Politics: With Jeff Jarvis moderating, Arianna Huffington, Jay Rosen, Micah Sifry and Lisa Tozzi talked about how the 2008 presidential elections have evolved, and what will come next.
"If it were not for the internet, I think it would clearly be the case that Hillary would be the presumptive nominee today. It has made a huge difference for Obama’s viability."
- IBM: Planning a Semantic Web site. This article discusses what you need to know to make your Web site part of the Semantic Web. It starts with a discussion of the problems the Semantic Web tries to solve and then moves to the technologies involved.
- dot.com decade. Excellent, More4 News's series by Ben Cohen. Featuring Chris Bryant MP on Gaydar and a warning from Sir Tim and others.
Hat tip to Simon Dickson for what can only be his work/influence in making the PMs current US visit a bleeding edge tech/web event.
Checking out the #10 website and page created for the visit, it's just about the most bleeding edge web coverage by a Great Leader out there in - oh - the world?
It simply uses Flickr, Twitter, RSS and Google Maps. No outsourcing or farming out to IBM or MS or god knows who. It's 'bleeding edge'. And actually simple.
As for the content and the politics ... another story. But the tech. two thumbs up. No wonder the US website following their campaign, TechPresident, keeps raving about this.
Sunday, April 13
There's an interesting story on Global Voices about how Tendai Biti, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) , told journalists in Harare that an Israeli company, Cogniview was offering technical support to the Zimbabwean dictatorship and that:
“Mugabe and his cronies intend to steal this election through the use of sophisticated software provided by the Israeli company with Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) connections.”Cogniview make an Open Source PDF converter and 'somehow' this was linked to Zimbabwe's elections.
Yoav Ezer, from Cogniview explains that:
The voter-roles that were provided to the MDC by Zimbabwean officials were in PDF format and had a link to Cogniview’s website.
My guess is that the people at the MDC wanted to get the voter data in a format they could easily handle (like Excel) and instead got it in a PDF file (that was produced by our converter). They got (justifiably) angry and concocted a story about the Israeli Mossad and my company (this part isn’t justifiable).Tekkie to tekkie, this all makes sense. What amazed me was how they couldn't understand why the MDC might suspect something was up. Are they not aware of history, which is of Israeli support for South Africa under apartheid and of selling riot control vehicles to Mugabe?
Following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela said, "Almost every country in the world -- except Israel" had invited him to visit.No wonder that a - yes - paranoid, but hardly unsurprisingly so given how Mugabe operates, MDC official might suspect support for Mugabe by Israelis (even given Mugabe's comparison of himself with Hitler).
Israel's invitation came only in 1994, but then the peace process did not make a visit politic. However, he now decided to show a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
"To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I've made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities."
As I have often noted, tech companies aren't brilliant at PR.
From the blogosphere (best source for real news, although the BBC is doing well - except for who it's linking to) one amusing story from Zim:
One other development during the past two weeks has been the ludicrous sight of defeated Zanu-PF candidates trying to recover the bribes and inducements they distributed to voters before the election in an attempt to buy support.Blogs:
One such is Elias Musakwa, the Zanu-PF losing candidate for Bikita West constituency, who is believed to have been successful in recovering some computers he gave to schools and training centres. But in the villages he met problems.
One villager, Cleopas Moyo, told me: "During the campaign he gave us ploughs, harrows, cultivators, computers, maize-meal, furniture, sewing machines, money, cooking oil, clothes and other things. We ate all the food, and some of the equipment we sold. But now he wants everything back."
Asked for a comment, Musakwa came up with a unique excuse: "I made it clear that when I gave them the goods it was for them to use for a specific time. I never intended to give them permanently."
- This is Zimbabwe
- Zimbabwe Independent
- Zimbabwe Today
- Bearded Man
- Global Voices
- Comrade Fatso
- FCO: Zimbabwe Embassy
More great Zapiro cartoons
I wrote a response to egov Minister Tom Watson's latest speech, dissecting the interim report into The Power of Information report by Tom Steinberg and friends: Leadership in egov: what's missing? And Tom challenged me to, well, put up!
What should we be doing that we're not?I usually imagine these challenges coming from between gritted teeth and with arms crossed (I am picturing actually seeing this from others), but Tom has already shown himself actually dialoguing with stirrers like moi so here goes.
The timing is neat and slightly spooky - it's one year since I started this blog, something I should have done much earlier. And so I have one year's worth of egov posts to scour for the missing ideas which Tom wants to hear but actually it just pops out because, as my egov friends know, I am the proverbial 'stuck record' on this stuff. This also may explain my occasionally ragged and cynical tone. Please forgive me.
Here's a top ten but #1 just leaps out from my latest post on online suicide prevention.
Ten things not happening in eGov
Search is the prime route to content and is followed by links from other websites. How government addresses this is through newspaper ads - see DirectGov - or, slowly, very limited textads and rare banner ads. I'm not aware of any strategy which looks at how people find services or information in the real world online. Most pages are not optimised for search, most top results are by fluke rather than design and most links by legacy. All of that is and will continue to end - there is competition online. If they can't find you, what's the point?
2. Disengagement from the wider web and those damned walled gardens
This is part and parcel of the reasons why findability is so bad for services and information - like suicide prevention. Links into government sites aren't there due to any effort, they're there because of luck - we're government so people sometimes refer to us. But as you can see with the growth of health websites, this isn't a given. We tend to still live in the world of 'build it and they will come' or 'look at our sexy website'. Not good enough any more. There seems to be no understanding of how to drive traffic, let alone how to target the audience online. It's offline strategy pasted onto online, largely. This all comes from a disengagement, possibly a mistrust, of the wider web. And it's about way more than just sexy social networks and 'engagement' with them.
3. Engaging the industry
How many government seminars and conferences include people from the wider web industry? If the people aren't there and if webbies in government have no power (Jeremy Gould has a recent rant about this) and if web development in government isn't by webbies and if a self-reinforcing circle exists whereby public servants just talk to public servants, how will #2 ever evolve? In Australia, very early on, they brought the guru of usability, Jacob Nielsen, in to give a speech at the big annual shindig. That one speech reached the key people (Al Gore's strategy on climate change) and set the trend and embedded usability thinking in Aussie egov people. Outside engagement just isn't happening and it should. It's vital.
Online marketing is increasingly sophisticated but it's also very basic. Asking for links, giving people content - anyone can do this, small websites do it all the time and it gets them traffic which has a reinforcing effect. Banner ads are the norm on the rare occasions when government does it (some rare, clunky, textads), but I would say this is the pick simply because it's comprehensible to Communications. Wider industry has been there and done that and is changing its attitude. Unfortunately, banner ads aren't anywhere near as efficient as other methods, such as search marketing. The failure around marketing is no more clearly shown than in the complete waste of millions than is e-citizen. Again, if they can't find you, what's the point?
5. Widgetising services
This is my particular bugbear because, to me, it's all about going to where people are online rather than forcing them through hoops to you and hence losing them on the way. That's the reason that widgets are all over the web nowadays - they work. The classic idea (well, mine) is to offer a widget which tells you when the bins are emptied - and slips in messages you want, such as recycling tips - to the local newspaper. Or the local social group. Or the specialist website. Or whoever the heck wants it. This still takes people back to you but it's a win-win. Any Google Maps work can be shared as well. Free content for them, traffic for you. Transport Direct already do one (though it's not promoted) but otherwise they're no-existent - we're still stuck in old methods.
6. Engaging the local
The general trend will be for local websites, including hyper-local and localised versions of services like Google Maps, and we already have targeted websites - the proverbial NetMums - but also ones most disabled people would pass through. What engaging means is things like offering free content such as guides - you have links for 'more details' at the end back to your pages, rather than ageneral link so they end up lost in your site. And widgets. You can even offer politician's best wishes to satisfy the enablers. This is another win-win because they'd all like the engagement, you help their users find your stuff, including services, and you both look good and get more traffic.
7. Cheaper usability methods
Usability is still thought of as tied into hiring professionals and mastering very complex ideas - that's rubbish. Cheap methods work in straightforward ways and this has been proved. Yes, professionals are needed and they are worth their weight, but most government websites cannot afford them or can't keep using them. Simple methods should be proselytized through government - like they are through the wider web - but they're not, it's still seen as a 'black art'. And do I have to explain why ensuring usability is absolutely essential?
This relates back to other issues which we do do well. I'm particularly thinking of accessibility, which egov is very good at beating itself up about. Yes, there are some issues with disabled people being able to use our sites (though that's as nothing compared to the disaster that is commercial website accessibility) but what's the point of being able to more easily click through to content when that content makes no sense. Much content, both Whitehall and local government remains all about Ministers, Councillors, programs, what we're doing - It doesn't answer the question, the task which the user is there for. Website content isn't 'user-focussed'. It's usually 'rah rah, look at how brilliant we are and, oh, here's some complex routes to some content you might actually want'.
9. Fixations on 'engagement'
This particular 'bleeding edge' is all very well but it has lead to a severe imbalance in both resources and interest. I am actually quite fed up with being seemingly the only government webbie who has a basic grasp of stuff which webbies in the wider world take for granted like search engine optimisation or online marketing or usability methods - or any of the other issues above. Simply put, politicians love this but what good is it for users compared to the preceeding issues? From the outside looking in, do you really think edemocracy or finding out every last detail of the council's budget or whether we're adding comments to social networks is the #1 priority for citizens? This isn't to say it's not important or interesting or shouldn't happen, it's just way, way over prioritised.
10. Utilising reputation
With all of the above the difference with us is - we are government. We are generally trying to help people (no, really) and in many areas - like, for example, suicide prevention - services are pretty much politically neutral. This means we can ask for and get help, very often for free, from a wide range of the rest of the web. We also come with a built in online reputation simply because of who we are which, most clearly in search, is a solid foundation on which to build.
There could be more but ten is enough. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think The Power of Information covered any of these points, although implementing it would help with some.
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