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Victoria Boyko

You’ve got a nice, beautiful city hall building. Your staff makes citizens feel welcomed and happy. Your council meetings run smoothly and provide useful information to attendees.

Why do you spend so much time giving the best impression possible? Because you are proud of your city and want to show it off in the best light.

Now, look at your website. A website that will likely get many, many, many more visitors than your actual city hall. A website that is essentially your city hall on the internet.

Are you proud? Or embarrassed?

If you look at our #WebsiteFriday posts to our blog and social media, we highlight a great city website every week. You’ll notice these websites look modern, provide useful information to citizens, and present these cities in the best light.

How does yours compare?

Let’s examine how your website might make you look awful. Use the following checklist to see if you’re committing any of these website sins.

1. Your writing is terrible.

Yes, spelling and grammar matter. Correct sentences and paragraphs matter. Clarity matters.

Otherwise, people make judgments upon your city if the writing on your website is terrible. It suggests unprofessionalism, lack of care, and poor attention to details. It means you couldn’t take the time or bother to communicate properly about your city, its services, and its amenities.

Either find a good writer on your city staff or hire a professional writer to write website copy.

2. It looks like a high school student designed it.

Nothing against high school students, but many websites look like someone with very little professional experience designed them. In many cases, cities hired a student, intern, or amateur with a “knack” for web design to create the city’s website on the cheap.

Unfortunately, that also means the website may look outdated, poorly designed, and embarrassing when people are used to professional websites. Your website’s design should look modern, clean (without a lot of noise and clutter), and professional—built to both look good but also accommodate the needs of people using your website.

3. Lots of “coming soon” pages.

Even if their website looks good, many cities will set it up and then…not populate it with content. After a long while, this becomes embarrassing. You may have many pages that were originally meant to have information but they all say “coming soon” for a year or more. That’s frustrating to citizens who may—wrongly or rightly—perceive that you’re probably never going to actually provide that content.

Have a plan for making sure each public webpage has content. If you’re not using a particular page and it says “coming soon” or contains nothing of value for more than three months after you put the page up, then take it down until you can populate it with content.

4. Your “news” is old.

Websites need to deliver timely, regular content. So, if you have a “news” section, events calendar, or other webpage requiring fresh content all the time, use it. Otherwise, people will arrive at your website and see that your last news item was from three years ago or that you supposedly haven’t had any events for many years. People make judgments about your city based on this lack of news. Either nothing is going on at your city, or you are failing to communicate news and events.

5. Your website makes it hard to find information.

Websites should not be a puzzle to figure out. Quite the opposite. Websites need to provide information so intuitively that the search for information is effortless. Otherwise, creating a difficult path to information—from applying for a business license to paying a utility bill—is frustrating for citizens and will require them to call city hall. Many cities fumble the ball by failing to simply provide staff contact information.

A good website has clean, intuitive navigation that blends the art and science of organizing information on your website. A professional web designer will take navigation into account when they create your website.

6. Your website looks like a personal website, not a city website.

We admire the enthusiasm of cities when they like to add content to a website. But always keep one question in mind: Is it relevant content?

For example, it’s fine to post pictures of a recent parade or BBQ event. It’s fine to post historical pictures about your city. It’s fine to post pictures of interesting places around your city. However, when this kind of content dominates your website or it’s the easiest content to find, you may be losing focus. It’s frustrating if a citizen wants to find information about garbage and trash collection but can’t get to it easily while pictures of waterfalls and streams are plentiful and showcased.

Part of the responsibility of having a professional website is that it must deliver information to people. It’s not about you. It’s about your citizens.

7. The website renders poorly on mobile devices.

Today, the majority of your city’s unique website visitors will be from a mobile device. Think about all the people in your community with smartphones or tablets who access the internet. They search for information anytime, anywhere, and that includes accessing your city’s website.

Is it mobile-friendly? If not, you are looking bad to citizens and missing opportunities to serve them. Plus, search engines now penalize websites that are not mobile-friendly—which means you are less likely to show up in search results when people search for your city. Make sure your designer creates a mobile-friendly experience for visitors.

8. Many webpage links are broken.

Another frustrating and embarrassing aspect of a website is when webpage links don’t work. People navigate your website by going from link to link. When a link is broken, it’s like hitting an unexpected dead-end without explanation. Periodically, do an audit of your website to clean up items such as broken links.

9. Your website visibly lacks security.

Web browsers today get more serious about what they see as a secure website. As you browse the internet, you will see notifications in the URL bar such as “Not Secure” and warning pages that appear when people try to click through to your website.

Maybe hackers won’t threaten people who arrive at your website, but that’s not what people see. They see the web browser essentially telling them, “GO AWAY.” On the backend of your website, you need to fix some technical issues to make these issues go away (such as switching from HTTP to HTTPS, or updating your website’s security certificate).

10. Your website is not findable when people use a search engine.

At first, this might not seem too embarrassing. But think about it. A person searches for your city on a search engine. And your website—actually what they’re looking for—doesn’t show up as one of the first three or four search results.

We won’t reveal the name of the city, but we searched for a Georgia city that has its own website. These were results on the first page of the search engine results:

1. MapQuest directions for that city.

2. The city’s Wikipedia entry.

3. GeorgiaGov’s entry for that city.

4. City-Data’s entry for that city.

5. BestPlaces’ entry for that city.

6. Georgia HomeTownLocator’s entry for that city.

7. Explore’s entry for that city.

8. The city’s website.

While the city’s website eventually appears on the first page of the search results, it’s too low. If someone doesn’t scroll down that far, they won’t find it. Instead, that city is being represented by MapQuest, Wikipedia, and websites with questionable information (like City-Data and BestPlaces) that don’t represent that city well.

Instead, a city like Oxford, Georgia sees its website appear second in the search results listings (under the city’s Wikipedia entry). This is where you need to be—somewhere in the first three or four listings at the top of the page. A website that provides regular, relevant information helps get you more visible on search engines. If you are not providing regular, relevant information on your website, then you will drop in the search engine results.

Embarrassed about your website, but not sure about next steps? Reach out to us today.

Original Date: 4/3/2019