Sunday, January 21, 2007

Australian Government Web Design, Acccessibility and Market Share

The Seventh Canberra WSG meeting on 18 January 2007 was excellent, as is usual for the Web Standard Group: with Navy web site redevelopment, 2006 web standards audit of Australian Government home pages, and Best practice tactics for government web sites. These are some notes taken during the presentations:

Navy web site redevelopment, Alexi Paschalidis, Oxide Interactive

Alex gave a passionate exposition on how to redevelop a web site using web standards, the battle against those who just see the web as a form of graphic design and the wishes of "corporate" for something flashy and fleeting.

The Royal Australian Navy were one of the pioneers of web development in the Australian Government. They had developed a web site of their own <> before I initiated the project to create the Defence Home Page <>. The Navy seem to have maintained their independent tradition with their own web site, working alongside Defence's central site and Defence Recruiting.

A feature of the Navy site redevelopment is semantic consistency. They are using Semantic XHTML with structural consistency; for example a second level heading <h2> always has a first level heading above it <h1>.

Images are important for the Navy, as might be expected with photos of ships. But Alexi pointed out that photos of people are actually more popular than those of equipment.

The Navy web site is relatively modest, with 2,500 static web pages and 4,000 visitors a day (my web site gets about 1,000). Because of the use of centralized maintenance there is no need for a CMS and the staff code directly in HTML without the use of a web layout package.

Alexi argues that using Semantic XHTML (as emphasized in XHTML 2.0 ) cuts out many day to day design decisions is creating web pages. Clearly he saw this as a positive feature (whereas some of the creative types might see it as a negative). Some of the metadata for the web pages can be inserted automatically from the content (for example the TITLE from the H2 heading). There is minimal layout in the HTML code, with this done in the CSS.

In place of the usual web development tools, the open-source revision control system is used <>. This is usually used by computer program developers to maintain multiple versions of complex systems, but has been used for document editing, but is also used in the ICE educational document creation system <>. This allows for smart change control of the web site with detection of conflicts between different updates.

Because the Navy have an emphasis on photography, the Navy site has a special system for collecting the professional take photos and uploading them to the web site. The system creates versions in multiple resolutions and maintains the metadata from the originals.

Interestingly the Navy use Google, rather than their own search software. They use the Google Public Service Search program <>. This provides the Google search engine, tailored to the organisation's needs but without ads. Given the importance of Google to Australian web sites (discussed in a later talk below), this is a reasonable decision. But it might be disappointing to Australian web search companies, such as Public Service Search program enterprise search companies, such as Funnelback <>.

A little AI on the site's feedback form had allowed 80% of queries to be answered automatically.

Alexi emphasized the need to educate the customers about the benefits of using standards on web sites and the need to be vigilant about the danger of graphic designers being brought in to design web sites. This and the frustration with senior executives wanting to make quick changes are problems familiar to IT developers.

The Navy has to position its web site with the others of the Defence portfolio, principally the central Defence site <> and Defence Recruiting <>. Some might ask why the Navy needs a web site at all. However, having one large amorphous web site will confuse the clients and lead to expensive extra layers of coordination (as the UK Government is likely to find out in the next year with its centralist push). An emphasis of Defence's at present is recruiting (the Defence department advertise jobs on my web site using Google AdSense <>).

The next version of the Navy web site will have the text rewritten for the web (rather than just whatever was take from an existing source). Consideration will be given to adding commonly used business transactions and support for reserve personnel without access to the Defence secure network (this was an issue ten years ago when I was at Defence HQ).

Some items on the wish list were blog style pages (with moderation) for a more personal view of the organisation, tags <> and wiki style text based cross references.

Google Analytic is used for analysis of web site use. I have used this myself, but with a small site the novelty wears off quickly. If you do want Analytics (which is free) it might be quicker to get it by singing up for Google AdWords <>.

Unfortunately some of Alexi's credibility as a web worker was undone when I went to his own web site and found a message saying "... our website will be offline from Friday 19 January to Sunday 21 January for a complete overhaul ..."<>. Why give a presentation on web site design one day to hundreds of potential customers and take your web site off-line the next?

2006 web standards audit of Australian Government home pages, Dispain, Department of the Environment and Heritage

During December 2006, Gavin arranged for 105 Australian Government web sites (from AAD to WEA) to be tested for accessibility, compliance with web standards, and Australian Government guidelines. The results deserved a whole day presentation, not the few minutes available.

Gavan used tools such as the W3C HTML and CSS Validators, Xact's Bobby tool to test the sites. In 2001 I did a similar analysis but only did one page per agency <>, whereas Gavan has done up to 5,000 pages per agency.

The results showed government web pages are good orverall, but with room for improvement:

* 69% had the correct government logo on them. Most used the 48 pixel size version. But I wonder what percentage of web traffic is being wasted transporting duplicate copies of the Australian Arms <>.

* Only 28% of home pages had an accessibility link (but this is not required by the guidelines).

Some hot topics on government web sites were "connected water" 4% and "access card" 14.2%, while 28% of all the traffic to government web sites was coming from Google. 55% of the Government web pages are in HTML, 18% PDF and 1% Microsoft word. Annual reports have 55% PDF documents and the Budget 84%.

Home pages contain an average of 17 images and other pages 12 images. This is much lower than the industry average of 53 images per page. 77% of HTML web pages have DTD references. 48% of the HTML is XHTML level 1 transitional. Only 27% of the pages are valid HTML, but with Gavin commenting most of the errors were only minor.

One site which rated badly was that of CrimTrac <>. So I ran a few tests myself. The W3C Markup Validation Service reported 120 errors in the CrimTrac home page <>. The page has 42 images, which is a little high. There is dublin core metadata on the page but not an ordinary author, description or keywords. The page failed an automated accessibility test <> with: 66 level one, 31 level two and 12 level three problems. Also the favorites icon <> seems to be missing <>. In addition CrimTrac's use of the Australian Arms does not appear to comply with government guidelines.

In terms of web site accessibility for the disabled, the sites rated relatively well on the W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines:

- 78% A
- 10% AA
- 6% AAA

The "A" rating could be improved with simple additions of ALT text on images <>.

71% of home ages were less than 100kbytes (which is good). There were 100,616 broken internal links on government web pages (which is not so good). There were 404 misspellings of "Australia" (which is odd).

Some hot topics were "community water grants", "e-strategy guide". Highly rating web sites were BOM, ATO, Job Search and Center Link.

Gavin got a show of hands at the end to indicate that a similar survey should be run next year by AGIMO. But I doubt that a more official audit will be so entertainingly reported.

Best practice tactics for government web sites, Karl Hayes, Hitwise

Hitwise provides statistics on who is looking at what web page <>. Karl provided some fascinating statistics and insights. Hitwise combines traditional market research with on-line monitoring of what people are looking at on the web with information obtained from ISPs.

A very surprise to find the Online Opinion web site <> tops the "political" category, greatly outperforming any of the web sites of political parties. On Line Opinion is a non-profit academic style e-journal. I am on the advisory board for the site and have suggested we up our advertising charges as a result <>. ;-)

As noted in Gavin's talk, BOM dominates government web sites in terms of page views (56%) and Google dominates in terms of searching (86%). One surprise is that Google is also a significant web site in its own right (16%).

Karl had some interesting speculations about the future of web sites with consumer generated media, MySpace,YouTube, Podcasts and Wikipedia.

Hot topics: "water crisis", "water saving".

Karl argued that Australian advertisers were overspending on advertising in tradition radio, TV and print media, given the Web's increasing influence. He quickly skipped over some of the demographic categories which market researchers divide the population into. Some of the categories I saw were "Australia: Raising Expectations: comfortable outer suburban families in affordable homes", and "US: Cracker Barrel Cheese: Satellite dish, field and stream magazine, NASCAR Wilson Cup, Ford F250 Pickup".

One point he made was that commercial advertisers were buying government related keywords from Google and directing viewers to their commercial sites. This seems to be legal and largely ethical. About all the Government agencies can do is to bid for the keywords themselves (my web site gets ads for Defence recruiting).

One thought which occurs to me is that web sites featuring the whether and disaster information might rate very well. Government's may not wish to have paid commercial advertising on their web sites, but perhaps they could have internal government advertising. Each government web page could have a space reserved for advertising. Normally this would be used to promote government initiatives and publicize web sites (in effect the Government's own Google AdWords). The reserved space would also be used to advise the public of emergency information (emergency information is an area where Federal and State Australian governments do poorly online and as a result are placing the lives of citizens at risk).

Unfortunately Karl's excellent content was let down by slides with largely unreadable text. Hitwise need to study up on the accessibility standards the other two speakers were talking about.

This was very much a user group with a comfortable camaraderie amongst the speakers and audience, without the usual phony pretentiousness of many corporate IT events. One surprise is that AGIMO came in for light hearted banter, unlike the usual cold resect (or loathing) that central coordination agencies usual get.

I attended to hear of the audit of web sites, but both of the other presentations were worth attending for on their own. WSG meeting usually have two talks and they should return to that format. While it was all good, there was just too much content to absorb in one session.

It was a little cramped, with every seat taken in the "bunker theatre" under the Department of Environment <>. And yes, my phone didn't;work in the radiation shielded former cold war nuclear shelter.

The WSG is providing an excellent forum for government web developers in Canberra.

One use of such meetings is to chat with other web workers.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the detailed comments on my presentation about the Navy website redevelopment.

I've often wondered myself why the Navy site isn't just content underneath the Defence umbrella. Currently, I think the identity, branding and competition of the three services would make such a feat difficult. A centralised maintenance team with members from each service would help foster a more cohesive user experience. I've read your points about centralised/decentralised models, but feel there are core differences between a maintenance team (who direct and integrate the content) and the content creators (who are, and should be distributed within the organisation).

Why did we take our business website offline after the presentation?

We recently decided upon a new direction we wanted our business to take - and unfortunately this coincided with the time of the presentation. We felt our old content had been neglected in favour of client work and as it stood, was outdated and didn't reflect what we wanted people to see.

Taking a website offline is not an approach I'd generally suggest to clients. However, there are situations where increased awareness of the wrong message will be more detrimental than politely asking interested parties to make contact or check back on a specific date (a few days away). We understand that a person who's browsing for a service will bounce out of a "coming soon" page and find another site to satisfy their needs. However, we felt most people with a specific interest in our site after the presentation would either contact us or return once the new site is up.

The timing wasn't ideal but I can't see the impact this issue would have on the credibility of me as a professional - after all, we did resist the temptation for an "under construction" animated GIF...