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In a surprising move, an MP revealed today that he doesn't understand the internet that well. 

According to the BBC: "Four government departments spent almost £6m ensuring their websites appeared on search engine results pages in the last two financial years, according to newly released figures."

So far, so meh. Organisations spend money on online marketing. Shock horror.

The BBC goes on to say:

Organisations can pay search engines to ensure their websites appear at the top of users' searches. They are often charged for each person who accesses their sites via the link.

Often charged? I must get myself some of that free internet advertising. And the advertising is often at the side of users' searches, but we'll let that one go. 

The story then quotes the MP, Damian Hinds, who "uncovered" these figures (by asking for them). Showing a masterful grasp of how search engines works, he says:

"In general I don't see why government departments should spend large sums improving their showing on search engines.

I would have thought the search engines themselves should ensure official information is easy to find."

Got that Google? Official information should be easy to find (presumably not include rubbish media scare stories) and should be ahead of other sites like newspapers' and the BBC's. Make it so.

* Waves airily in Google's direction *

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Published 30 July, 2010 by Malcolm Coles

Malcolm Coles is Director at Digital Sparkle and a contributor to Econsultancy. He also blogs at malcolmcoles.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter here.

16 more posts from this author

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Martin McNulty

Great post Malcolm - I agree that it’s pretty worrying that both the enlightened Beeb and the newly elected MP for East Hampshire and former pub Barron Damian Hinds, seem unable to grasp new media and specifically why the Government should invest in it. 

When the Government introduced its ‘Smoke Free’ campaign, spending millions on TV and billboard advertising to highlight the damages of smoking illustrated with horrific images of fat dripping from lit cigarettes, we heard nothing. Unlike billboards and TV where messages are simply broadcast, search taps into those users actively seeking help and information. Whilst we may all remember the TV and billboard ads, do we all smoke? I'd wager very few non-smokers spend time searching for ‘how to quit smoking’, and this is the key.

Paid search campaigns only result in costs when users engage. It isn't about showing the department name in search results, it is about driving clicks to websites. The web is now the primary medium of choice for those seeking information. Suggesting placing embargoes on this type of cost effective marketing is naive and goes against the way consumers seek information in our new web based world. 

Martin McNulty, General Manager, Forward3D

over 6 years ago

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Lucy Freeborn

Wow!  I don't know what's more shocking.  That the BBC has spent so much money ineffeciently (although why exactly I'm shocked at this, I'm not sure..!) or that their digital agencies weren't true consultants to this business and didn't attempt to educate as they profited.

over 6 years ago

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PhilS

Actually I don't think Hinds is that far off the mark. Google themselves say that they aim to provide high quality and high authority information in response to user searches - hence the constant tweaking of their spidering and ranking systems.

They could quite easily (and may well possibly already do so), add additional weight to .gov domains in their ranking algorithm.

As for the what you've quoted the bbc as saying, re-read it. It looks pretty accurate to me. Organisations can pay to get a sponsored link at the top of a SERP - true. They may also pay per click - true.

This is a non story.

over 6 years ago

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buyer beware

It is very complicated. The way I think of it is that SEOs like Mr Coles are to search engines what PRs are to newspapers and lobbyists are to government. What SEOs do is game Google as I understand it. Saying "Organisations can pay search engines to ensure their websites appear at the top of users' searches" is like saying organisations can pay PRs to have their companies written about in the newspapers or pay lobbyists to change legislation in their favour. The MP has perhaps not understood the fine distinction between paid links labelled as sponsored ads and unnatural natural search results paying SEOs to be there. I agree with the MP, Damian Hinds. He does not want Google to go the way of newspapers or parliament. What he is saying is when somebody is looking for information online on say child tax credits and types a search into Google, they expect results like a librarian would provide, not results gamed by SEOs.

over 6 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Buyer beware - thanks for the analogy.

To sum up, then. You think there is some objective criteria that determine what results a search engine should show for any given search term?

EG if someone searches for help with smoking or cutting CO2 emissions (what the original story said the government was spending money on) Google ought to know that, in these cases and all similar ones, the governments' websites should be first in its results?

Forget charities, news organisations, blogs, commercial companies, retailers, activist groups, political parties etc etc. Always put the government first.

Maybe you could provide the list of terms you think it's obvious that the government should be first for? 

over 6 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

PhilS - why would you want someone to add extra weights to .gov domains in your search results for a search on cutting smoking or C02 emissions? The government doesn't have some god given right to appear at the top of search results. Maybe we could do away with newspapers and the government could tell us what to think as well?

over 6 years ago

Henry Elliss

Henry Elliss, Digital Marketing Director at Tamar

If the Government want priority-listing in search engines, what happens when the next election comes along? Do the incumbent party get first dibs on the top results for searches like "Immigration" and "Job losses"? Of course they shouldn't - this is yet another sign that MPs are living in cloud cookoo land most of the time.  

over 6 years ago

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George - Planet Anarky

The only fault I can pick with this story is that you start it with "In a surprise move, an MP revealed today that he doesn't understand the internet that well." This is not a surprise at all. When the Digital Economy Bill was being rushed through parliament, I blogged about how Stephen Timms (the 'Digital Minister for Britain', apparently) thought IP address meant Intellectual Property address... http://www.planet-anarky.co.uk/index.php/2010/04/09/digital-economy-bill-complete-farce/ Unreal.

over 6 years ago

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PhilS

Malcolm, I take your point, but similarly why should ANY result be placed first in SERPS? A search engine has to take some criteria and try to determine the most relevant or authoritative results for a given search.

I do actually think that government resources are very relevant and certainly authoritative in regard to certain searches so it might be no bad thing to weight in favour of .gov

As for the specific examples of CO2 emissions and smoking - then I probably standby that. I imagine the government have many subsidised stop smoking schemes around the country. Similarly grants for home insulation to help cut CO2. I think those things are very relevant, I'd want to know about them.

I accept there is a question mark about where a line might be drawn, but in any event neither Hinds nor myself ever suggested that the government should have a god given right to first place on the results pages. Merely that search results should be as relevant and high quality as possible. If a search engine chose to consider some .gov content as high quality and relevant then it would be their prerogative, just as it would be if they decided to weight a domain that had been registered for a long period of time (vs a newly registered domain), or if they decided that lots of backlinks made some content more relevant.

Regarding your point about banning newspapers and the government telling us what to think - no one is forced to click any given link or indeed believe what they read at the end of it.

over 6 years ago

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buyer beware

What makes you think that newspapers write about what their readers are interested in? It seems that government energy policy, both this government and the last, chimes with what the public wants to know about energy consumption in the home. A lot of people in the UK search for information on cavity wall insulation, according to Google. Far more people search for cavity wall insulation than energy switch. http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=cavity%20wall%20insulation%2Cenergy%20switch&geo=GB&cmpt=q What do newspapers write about - cavity wall insulation or energy switch? Between 2000 - 2010 The Guardian wrote 21 articles mentioning cavity wall insulation and 408 articles about energy switch, according to Google News archive search. The Telegraph website wrote 94 articles mentioning cavity wall insulation and 728 on energy switch.

over 6 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

I have just read Martin's comments more fully. I think he sums up it up well. So ... what he said.

PhilS / Buyer beware - sorry for snarky replies earlier. Was having a bad day ;)

PhilS - I agree with your latest comment. Search engines are free to take whatever factor into account they like. Lots of times government sites will be top. But this is a long way from the MP's claim that in general the government shouldn't spend money on online promotion - because, he seems to think, search engines can magically divine intent and should put government stuff first. It's not clear to me that government info on stopping smoking should come ahead of Alan Carr or nicorette or whatever (and in fact, the NHS is top naturally for a search on giving up smoking, so I presume they were promoting some other campaign). 

Buyer beware - not sure I follow. I'm just saying that lots of people write about lots of things. Who is to decide that Google is wrong when sometimes government information isn't first? Apparently that MP.

That cervical cancer jab story I linked to at the and was an example of where (a) the government should be first (I think) but (b) at the time, no one wanted the official advice as they didn't trust it. It was a shame that the papers filled the vacuum with life-threatening scare stories. But it's a long way from that to arguing that the government ought to always be first for some set of search terms.

over 6 years ago

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Matthew Treagus, Managing Director at rtobjects

Consumers love Google because its relevant.

The best way to get near the top of Google is to be more interesting.

Unfortunately most Government communication is not very interesting.

(I appreciate there are a number of techniques for elevating less interesting content towards the top)

But part of the role of Government is to deal with all the less interesting stuff. All the really interesting stuff the private sector charges for or people take care of themselves.

So... how about we get Google and the other big digital media owners to offer the digital equivalent of the Public Information Film. All the rules around the usage / public interest are in place for that.

Quite whether AdWord copy such will have the same timeless quality as a small cartoon man nearly drowning in an attempt to raise awareness of how one can contact the Coastguard is another matter.

There could of course be some fun with the formats there.

In fact there is a whole range of CoI/Government could be doing to normalise message into the real world. Rather than running six sheet poster telling kids to stop taking drugs.

over 6 years ago

Geoff Andrews

Geoff Andrews, Lead Generation Manager at Kumon Educational UK

Trying to walk in the other man's shoes.

Government are instructed to put a freeze on spending. This guy is looking at his budget and from my understanding has decided to freeze his PPC budget because he has organic coverage.

His logic: why pay for what I already have coverage for. He doesn't get the mechanics of it but he does understand there are points in your lead generation where you have to step up your spend for a lead.

The first 100,000 cost x, the next 100,000 x+y, then x+y+z.

Have you noticed the social work campaign "be the difference" no longer has a  PPC aspect? That's a saving at very little lead reduction so at least that one is working to the country's advantage.

Curiously a lot of these campaigns are less competitive now... were affiliates inflating the market?

over 6 years ago

Michael Harris

Michael Harris, Freelance consultant at Private company

Um, I'd love to know the breakdown on how four public service agencies spent a combined total of 6 million GPB on paid search SEO - as that seems astronomical to me.

I work for/with a number of Public Service agencies here in my home state, and I can tell you that SEO expenses for the whole sector haven't even got close to 1 million AUD p.a.

And here's why we don't spend anywhere close to that amount: 50% because some agencies are clueless and haven't graspect value of SEO, and the other 50% is because a good number of the sites are properly done so there's no need to fork out coin on paid placement. This is because other more valuable and proactive white hat SEO techniques have been employed to ensure highest ranking possible without having to pay for placement.

Sounds to me like there's some agencies influenced more by high priced consultants who are interested in fethering their nest, rather than common sense approaches that achieve the same result for 1/4 or less of the price.

over 6 years ago

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Zoe Hendricks, Managing Director at Resource Digital

Since when has public sector and cutting edge marketing ever mixed well?

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

What a great debate Malcolm and a good post. 

Whilst the way the MP has chosen to articulate his argument perhaps highlights that he is not an SEO / PPC professional or digital marketeer for a living, I do think his underlying logic is actually quite sound. 

PhilS I think hits the nail on the head with his points relating to perceived content authority and the fact that .gov domain should be given additional search weight. I would whole heartily support his point of view. 

More importantly though, given the climate of public spending cuts that we find ourselves in, I am very happy to seem him cut Government spending on PPC. 

over 6 years ago

Corrie Davidson

Corrie Davidson, Social Media Manager at Sisarina, Inc

hah!

over 6 years ago

Yves Goulnik

Yves Goulnik, Digital strategy director at Strategik & Numerik | Indigenus

Not sure how much the UK govt controls the BBC, but such tweaking of search results would definitely have been a feature of the (defunct) Quaero project.

over 6 years ago

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JP

Just a quick note - As someone who actually did SEO work on sites for the UK government, I'd like to point out that I believe that there isn’t a chance in hell that 4 departments ran up billings of £6 million on SEO alone. . I obviously didn’t work on all departments but the average level of spend across a large number departments makes me fairly confident in this opinion. PPC however is a completely separate matter – billings there could possibly have been around that level.

over 6 years ago

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stuart haining

Given the vast amount of budget wasted by central and local governent in the UK on traditional advertising (I seem to recall that overall its the single largest spender!) we shouldnt be lambasting the departments that "wasted" £6m on Search marketing but APPLAUDING them!

Yes, we know its a lot of money and yes its a bit of a joke for those of us in the industry that know how to extract a ROI using a mix of SEO and PPC......but at least whoever spent such money online was doing something accountable and TRACKABLE......not many traditional marketers can say that.

So for a real crusade Damian should focus on spending more on SEO or PPC and LESS on traditional media with minimal accountability and tracking

PS....surely the BBC were just using careful wording......they're not exactly slouches online and know that PPC and SEO exist

over 6 years ago

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