The Federal Web in the Year of COVID-19
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought change to every facet of our lives. Americans faced challenges related to health, finances, and travel, just to name a few. Looking back at data from the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) and Search.gov since the pandemic began, we can see that online government services and information were in demand like never before. Let’s take a look at some of the insights from the public’s interaction with the federal government’s web presence in 2020 and 2021.
Government websites got a lot more visits
When comparing traffic from March 11, 2020 (the day the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic) to March 10, 2021 against the year before it (from March 12, 2019 to March 10, 2020, because 2020 was a leap year), the overall visits to federal websites that participate in the DAP increased by a staggering 57%, from about 14.82 billion to about 23.33 billion.
This 8.51 billion visit increase can be attributed to a few factors. First, there was an incredible amount of new content created by government agencies as a result of COVID-19. In fact, the DAP data tell us there were over 28,000 individual webpages that received 100 pageviews or more containing the words “COVID” or “Coronavirus” in the page title. Those pages include dedicated COVID-19 content from the Federal Aviation Administration, Small Business Administration, State Department, Defense Department, and so many more.
Second, and maybe most obviously, people wanted information about the virus and their health, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Visits to CDC sites increased 254%, from 578 million visits in 2019-2020 to about 2.05 billion in the year of the pandemic, making CDC sites account for close to 9% of total traffic of the roughly 6,000 federal government sites participating in the DAP.
Third, the public was concerned with their finances. During the year we examined, there were two stimulus packages passed (Note: the American Rescue Plan was signed into law on March 11, 2021, so it is not included in this data), and Economic Impact Payments were issued to qualifying recipients. To help the public track the status of their stimulus payments, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers the Get My Payment tool. The tool received so much traffic in the days following the payments, it actually temporarily broke the real-time counter on analytics.usa.gov. In the given time period, IRS.gov saw a 253% increase, from 535 million visits to 1.89 billion, accounting for over 8% of annual traffic to DAP as a whole.
Search.gov saw a similar traffic pattern, where search volume was stable until early March 2020, followed by large spikes in late March and early April. Search volume remained higher over the rest of the year.
Also of note, the pandemic seems to have caused more people to rely on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The USPS site tools.usps.com is usually the site that sees the highest volume day-to-day, and during the year we examined, it once again claimed the crown as most-visited site, with over 3.71 billion visits. This represents an almost 97% increase from the year before, which saw 1.89 billion visits. In the year of the pandemic, tools.usps.com alone accounts for over 15% of all visits to DAP-participating sites.
The dominant way to visit government websites was by mobile
In the year prior to COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, desktop traffic (PCs and laptops) slightly edged mobile traffic to federal government websites, about 49% to 47% respectively, and with tablets contributing to 4% of the share of visits (left pie chart below). In the year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, mobile devices became the dominant technology used to access federal websites, by about a 55% to 43% ratio, and tablets dropped to nearly 3% (right pie chart below).
Optimize mobile experiences
In 2020, the U.S. Web Design System team conducted research with federal partners to better understand the challenges agencies face in dealing with emergency response situations like COVID-19, and how the design system can better support them in the future.
They discovered five common agency needs about how the design system can better support emergency response within federal agencies, including the need to optimize mobile experiences.
“One big surprise we found during the COVID response was that even providers and first responders are using our website more on mobile than on desktop.” — From a designer during interviews
Mobile devices often become a primary source of connection in an emergency. Agencies need a better way of meeting customer needs by helping them more easily complete actions and digest complex information quickly from a smaller screen.
Learn more about the research findings and what’s next for the design system
Regular needs remained consistent
The pandemic created a surge in visits for information and services for some topics, such as benefits, loans, and medical information. Search.gov supported 500% more queries for loans in the last year compared to the year before. Health-related queries more than doubled in the past year.
This increase in certain needs, however, didn’t reduce traffic for other needs. Over the past year, searches for forms were just as frequent as the year prior. Similarly, within the health search data, we can see that about 50% of searches for last year were related to COVID-19, but that general health topics like diabetes, high blood pressure, and mental health saw an increase from 2019 to 2020 as well.
The bar chart above, Health Searches Not Including COVID-19 Topics, shows a comparison of search traffic related to health topics on Search.gov-participating websites. The first blue bar shows that during the time period of March 2019 to February 2020, Search.gov received about 5.4 million searches about health. The taller, second blue bar shows that during March 2020 to February 2021, Search.gov received about 7.3 million searches about health. These searches did not include topics related to COVID-19.
This second bar chart, Health Searches Including COVID-19, shows a comparison of search traffic related to all health topics, including COVID-19, on Search.gov-participating websites. During the time period of March 2019 to February 2020, the first blue bar shows that Search.gov received about 5.4 million searches about health. The much taller, second blue bar for March 2020 to February 2021, shows that Search.gov received about 12 million searches about health, including COVID-19 topics.
On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic caused some common topics, like travel, to drop dramatically. For example, the Trusted Traveler Programs got 90% fewer queries in 2020 compared to 2019.
One thing is clear: government-provided online content and services were in high demand over the past year. As we adapt to a post-COVID-19 world, we know our colleagues across public service will be ready to respond.
For more information on the effects of COVID-19 across the government, see the 2020 Search.gov Year in Review and A Year of Covid Search Trends From USA.gov.