Friday, September 14, 2012

Answering the top questions from government webmasters

Webmaster level: Beginner - Intermediate

Government sites, from city to state to federal agencies, are extremely important to Google Search. For one thing, governments have a lot of content — and government websites are often the canonical source of information that’s important to citizens. Around 20 percent of Google searches are for local information, and local governments are experts in their communities.

That’s why I’ve spoken at the National Association of Government Webmasters (NAGW) national conference for the past few years. It’s always interesting speaking to webmasters about search, but the people running government websites have particular concerns and questions. Since some questions come up frequently I thought I’d share this FAQ for government websites.

Question 1: How do I fix an incorrect phone number or address in search results or Google Maps?

Although managing their agency’s site is plenty of work, government webmasters are often called upon to fix problems found elsewhere on the web too. By far the most common question I’ve taken is about fixing addresses and phone numbers in search results. In this case, government site owners really can do it themselves, by claiming their Google+ Local listing. Incorrect or missing phone numbers, addresses, and other information can be fixed by claiming the listing.

Most locations in Google Maps have a Google+ Local listing — businesses, offices, parks, landmarks, etc. I like to use the San Francisco Main Library as an example: it has contact info, detailed information like the hours they’re open, user reviews and fun extras like photos. When we think users are searching for libraries in San Francisco, we may display a map and a listing so they can find the library as quickly as possible.

If you work for a government agency and want to claim a listing, we recommend using a shared Google Account with an email address at your .gov domain if possible. Usually, ownership of the page is confirmed via a phone call or post card.

Question 2: I’ve claimed the listing for our office, but I have 43 different city parks to claim in Google Maps, and none of them have phones or mailboxes. How do I claim them?

Use the bulk uploader! If you have 10 or more listings / addresses to claim at the same time, you can upload a specially-formatted spreadsheet. Go to www.google.com/places/, click the "Get started now" button, and then look for the "bulk upload" link.

If you run into any issues, use the Verification Troubleshooter.

Question 3: We're moving from a .gov domain to a new .com domain. How should we move the site?

We have a Help Center article with more details, but the basic process involves the following steps:
  • Make sure you have both the old and new domain verified in the same Webmaster Tools account.
  • Use a 301 redirect on all pages to tell search engines your site has moved permanently.
    • Don't do a single redirect from all pages to your new home page — this gives a bad user experience.
    • If there's no 1:1 match between pages on your old site and your new site (recommended), try to redirect to a new page with similar content.
    • If you can't do redirects, consider cross-domain canonical links.
  • Make sure to check if the new location is crawlable by Googlebot using the Fetch as Google feature in Webmaster Tools.
  • Use the Change of Address tool in Webmaster Tools to notify Google of your site's move.
  • Have a look at the Links to Your Site in Webmaster Tools and inform the important sites that link to your content about your new location.
  • We recommend not implementing other major changes at the same time, like large-scale content, URL structure, or navigational updates.
  • To help Google pick up new URLs faster, use the Fetch as Google tool to ask Google to crawl your new site, and submit a Sitemap listing the URLs on your new site.
  • To prevent confusion, it's best to retain control of your old site’s domain and keep redirects in place for as long as possible — at least 180 days.
What if you’re moving just part of the site? This question came up too — for example, a city might move its "Tourism and Visitor Info" section to its own domain.

In that case, many of the same steps apply: verify both sites in Webmaster Tools, use 301 redirects, clean up old links, etc. In this case you don't need to use the Change of Address form in Webmaster Tools since only part of your site is moving. If for some reason you’ll have some of the same content on both sites, you may want to include a cross-domain canonical link pointing to the preferred domain.

Question 4: We've done a ton of work to create unique titles and descriptions for pages. How do we get Google to pick them up?

First off, that's great! Better titles and descriptions help users decide to click through to get the information they need on your page. The government webmasters I’ve spoken with care a lot about the content and organization of their sites, and work hard to provide informative text for users.

Google's generation of page titles and descriptions (or "snippets") is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web. Changes are picked up as we recrawl your site. But you can do two things to let us know about URLs that have changed:
  • Submit an updated XML Sitemap so we know about all of the pages on your site.
  • In Webmaster Tools, use the Fetch as Google feature on a URL you’ve updated. Then you can choose to submit it to the index.
    • You can choose to submit all of the linked pages as well — if you’ve updated an entire section of your site, you might want to submit the main page or an index page for that section to let us know about a broad collection of URLs.

Question 5: How do I get into the YouTube government partner program?

For this question, I have bad news, good news, and then even better news. On the one hand, the government partner program has been discontinued. But don’t worry, because most of the features of the program are now available to your regular YouTube account. For example, you can now upload videos longer than 10 minutes.

Did I say I had even better news? YouTube has added a lot of functionality useful for governments in the past year:
I hope this FAQ has been helpful, but I’m sure I haven’t covered everything government webmasters want to know. I highly recommend our Webmaster Academy, where you can learn all about making your site search-engine friendly. If you have a specific question, please feel free to add a question in the comments or visit our really helpful Webmaster Central Forum.