Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

A while ago, in a conversation with the web manager of a major UK charity providing information and advice, I asked where their web presence would stand if they had to make harsh cuts (as was being speculated upon at the time). He replied that they saw the website as the ‘beating heart’ of the organisation – and that even if everything else was cut, there would always be a website and someone at the end of a phone.

I was reminded of this sentiment again recently at a web accessibility talk. Someone made the point that one of the reasons why web accessibility has become so vital is that it is fast becoming the main or only way of transacting with some organisations. Gone are the days when websites were a gimmick, a luxury, an add-on. They now act as the beating heart of many large organisations.

But a few recent conversations have had me worried about where local government websites might be heading, in the light of increasing budget pressures, and one project in particular has brought this to a head.

Cutting back

One UK local authority have taken some drastic steps recently in pruning their web presence, dumping hundreds of pages and documents, and concentrating almost exclusively on the ‘top tasks’ of their citizens.

There are some interesting stats behind this move. Apparently, 85% of their traffic came to just 200 pages of the 4000 previously on their site. Of the 4,500 documents on the site, none of them related to their top 20 tasks.

The solution (it would seem) was to bin the bulk of these pages and documents – happier customers, and a huge saving in everyone’s time and effort.

And what’s more, SOCITM (who produce the highly influential Better Connected annual survey of local authority websites) have suggested that they support this approach – less is more and top tasks are key.

The design of the website should be focused on top tasks. No longer should organisations aim for the most comprehensive website possible. Less is better!


Now, I’m certainly an advocate of keeping things simple. I am continually negotiating with colleagues to trim their pages, get rid of complex or meaningless jargon and, ultimately, get to the point. This is a vital element of offering useful online content.

But getting rid of swathes of pages and documents completely, just because they’re not seen as ‘top tasks’?

Trimming the long tail

What about the minority groups with niche interests or needs? What about that parent who wants to see the policy behind a decision that impacts on their child? Or the partner organisation looking for materials to support their work? Or the disabled person needing to find out about a service?

I’m not being overly dramatic with that last one. I did a search of the site in question. Just two results for “blind” – on Blue Badge permits and voting. When I searched for “deaf”, it returned nothing. Clearly, services for these groups are not deemed to be top tasks.

And many other authorities appear to be buying into this idea. On the online Communities of Practice a lengthy debate is still raging (log-in required) about SOCITM’s new emphasis on top tasks. One contributor, supporting the idea of stripping things back, said:

…if only 0.03% of our customers are interested, what’s the point?

Well, if those 0.03% were looking for information on reporting a concern about a child’s welfare (thankfully not a top task), I think I can see the point.

One-stop shops

Although I cringe at the term, I think it is appropriate for local government websites to aspire to be “one-stop shops”. The information need not even be on the site itself – linking out to related sites and content is fine.

Fair enough, let’s not deceive ourselves – people don’t come to local government sites to browse around and see what we have to offer. They go to the search engine of their choice and find it that way. Indeed, that was an argument the local authority in question used themselves, to argue against A-Zs. But if you’ve stripped back your content so much that the word “deaf” doesn’t even appear once on your site, I would argue that you can expect to start slipping down the SERPs pretty quickly.

Cold hard cash

And finally, worryingly, the goal of saving money was cited as another key driver for making this particular site so streamlined, as well as for all but scrapping their model of devolved web publishing and bringing it mostly to a central point of control.

Now is not the time to be cutting back our websites – quite the opposite. We’re seeing huge cuts in print and comms budgets meaning less posters, leaflets, adverts and other means of getting information to people. We’re seeing a huge rise in the request for information, informally or through time-consuming FOI requests. We’re seeing the public increasingly demand corporate accountability and openness. We’re seeing web or mobile web access hitting unprecedented new heights, empowering more and more citizens to reach out and grab the information that they need, when they need it.

By all means do customer research, find out what your users want the most and make it easier for them to find it. Use analytics to get the balance right. Test, test and test again to get closer to perfection. But don’t assume that less is always more. For that small minority who needed that rarely visited page, which stats suggest is all but useless, less could mean an awful lot less.


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13 Responses to Trimming the long tail – the danger of stripping back our websites

  1. Sarah Bourne says:

    Excellent rant. I have to wonder at their stats because we haven’t seen such clear numbers for Top Tasks at Our search stats alone show that even the most common words/phrases, even when bundled with similar ones, are less than 1% of total searches. It’s all long tail with numbers like that.

    By all means use Top Tasks for designing your information architecture and navigational elements, but it’s a terrible metric to use for content strategy for sites that are both broad and deep in topics, and with audiences with great diversity.

  2. Roger White says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. Two additional points occur to me.

    1. Have councils going down this route (or indeed SOCITM) calculated the savings from this approach? I wonder if they’ll be that great?

    2. They need to be careful of the law of unintended consequences. As we know web-based transactions are much cheaper than phone-based transactions, which are much cheaper than face-to-face transactions. Your example of the parent trying to find a policy is interesting. If it’s not on the web site then they’ll presumably phone the contact centre (if the council has one) who’ll have to track it down and e-mail or post it out. There would be a similar similar sequence of events if parent turns up at a public office with the same request. And if neither of these approaches produces a copy they’ll resort to an FOI request with all the disruption, cost and bureaucracy of that.

  3. Gary Miller says:

    The term ‘budget cuts’ is being used more and more to justify reductions in just about every field. Withdrawing a web page just because it registers a low number of ‘hits’ is ridiculous. The fact that it’s being visited means someone needs that information.

    Regarding your example of not finding the word ‘deaf’ on a site: Do you think this could be classed as discrimination?

    Great article James, keep it up!

  4. simon gray says:

    My favourite case study in this regard is the highways services landing page, proudly declaring how many miles of roads and how many street lights it looks after. “who’s interested in that?”, the customer services obsessive asks. I can tell you who’s interested – the hundreds of kids throughout the year, all doing their school geography projects, who without that info on the website will be making hundreds of phone calls costing ten quid a pop to find out the information.

    I think where council websites have gone wrong is they’ve basically followed a steady expansion path since they were first set up 10+ plus years ago, all diligently following the lgnl at least in spirit if not in fact and become so cumbersome that they’re not much use to anybody, whether pothole reporter *or* obscure policy seeker. What’s needed is a complete abandonment of the one-size-one-site-fits-all mentality, and the sites being broken up. By all means, have a site dedicated to the so-called top tasks – but also have a site dedicated to the needs of business and partners, a site dedicated to the needs of families and children, a site focussed on getting around, on leisure, and of course a site dedicated to the needs of those who wish to democratically hold the council to account. And be realistic about content – what, in the modern era, would be better maintained – still by council staff – on Wikipedia rather than the council website?

    Trying to tie together 9000+ pages, all with radically different content aimed at radically different audiences, is where we’ve gone wrong. It’s time to be more radical in our approaches to content strategy. Actually having a content strategy would be a god start for many.

  5. PaulGeraghty says:

    @simongray – what? like the BBC you mean?

    The BBC managed to work out how to create sites within sites and make it work – floating content off into different sites is just a giant leap backwards.

    That the (majority of) CMS vendors cannot work out how to make poly-hierarchical menus in the LGNL fashion does not mean that body of work should be dissed out of hand.

    Making a “Top tasks” site is wrong thinking .. being clever enough to associate top tasks with each ones inevitable “long tail” infrastructure is the challenge.

    And the key to that challenge is metadata – that is what can magically glue all of this stuff together and automate the linking, automate the searching and automate menu associations.

    If the driver for removing content is that it is too costly to maintain the links to it, then let me tell you – you are doing it wrong.

    If the driver for removing content is that it gets out of date, then again – you are doing it wrong – if you have static documents containing variables like prices, times, people, telephone numbers – then I repeat, you have been doing it wrong.

    Isolate what changes from what stays the same.

    That is the challenge that LG CMS vendors are largely unable to rise to, sadly this is mostly the fault of those that are responsible for drawing up the specs – so instead of looking for proper fit for purpose Local Government solutions – we peek about looking for saviours.

    Now, let those who want to follow the Socitm pied piper do so – it will all end it tears – do you remember having to make a text only version of your site? Remember the bonus points that Socitm used to dole out for doing so? Then the mysterious volte-face the following year?

    This ‘focus only on top tasks’ has the same childish smell about it in my book, lets all run over and look through the … round window.

  6. Roger White says:

    Gary says:

    Regarding your example of not finding the word ‘deaf’ on a site: Do you think this could be classed as discrimination?

    Knowing bureaucracies, perhaps a search on “hearing impairment” might have returned a hit ;)

  7. Ryan Forrest says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that more intelligent use of metadata and taxonomies is the way forward. I’m thinking dynamic menus (ie menus dictated by metadata rather than being conceived in separation from actual content) and intelligent, suggestive search being promoted as key navigation.

    I am in favour of a model which gives ‘top tasks’/transactional stuff homepage priority but also provides a well-signposted, navigable repository (I like the Wikipedia model for ‘static’ pages and think it could work) – built around LGNL but with expanded and enhanced metadata taxonomies – to assist councils in categorizing information – the ‘long tail’.

    I am currently plotting a mock up to this end using Drupal.

  8. James says:

    Thanks for the comments so far, everyone. Clearly a subject of interest to many.

    SOCITM are holding an event in London tomorrow to discuss Top Tasks so I’ll be following that with interest.

  9. AlastairC says:

    The point on cost is also interesting, in my experience the level of cost (or at least effort) goes up in this order:

    1. Throw a website together, it’s got on it whatever you already had.
    2. Make a large website (2000+ pages) which is difficult to use, but comprehensive.
    3. Make a somewhat usable, large and comprehensive website.
    4. Make a very usable, smaller site (<1000 pages) that still covers the vast majority of things.

    The first is what LAs had in the 90's and early 2000s, and the rest is a natural progression, but it takes more effort to create a smaller site that is still comprehensive.

    The last is the most effective, but it takes a lot of effort to concisely cover everything you should.

    I get the impression that LAs would be going back to square 1, without the effort needed to make it useful and usable.

  10. simon gray says:

    @paul – actually, like the bbc site is exactly what i was thinking. the bbc does not have one site, it has many sites – eg the radio site, which itself is split into different sites for the stations, or the news site, which then splits into different sites for sport, and weather, etc. and there are sites for individual programmes.

    my point is, all these are contained under one overarching banner of ‘’, but the way they are held under that banner the content the user wishes to find is (for the most part) easy to find, with other content not interfering with it.

    so, yes, we indeed *should* be creating top-tasks-focussed sites, so that the 20% of content 80% of users want is easy to find, without the remaining 80% of the content interfering with that. my suggestion is that the best way of also making the other 80% of important content easy to find for the remaining 20% of important users is not to try to keep the entire site’s content constrained within a single one-size-fits-all site with a single global navigation and single global site design, but to break it off into properly segmented microsites. of course there needs to be a way for web users to find all these microsites – that’s what the home page is for!

  11. Nick Charney says:

    In Canada the City of Calgary chose to make search the central feature of the website rather than by pruning pages themselves. They worked directly with Google to help organize their stack and make it more citizen centred through search. You can see the site here:

    The move garnered positive response from the country’s national newspaper:



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