Managing a government website is a targeted exercise — from knowing your audience to complying with federal rules and regulations. This article provides you with five ways to build and maintain a successful one.
Step 1: Know your audience to define your goals and determine success.
A successful commercial website sells items. A successful government website addresses its audience’s needs. Learn about your audience. Why are they coming to your website? What do they need? Make every page count, and get to the point. Put the public first!
- Design principles: start with real user needs — U.S. Web Design System
- Understanding your audience — Digital Services Georgia
- Making sure your users feel seen — Digital Services Georgia
- Do your research — PlainLanguage.gov
- Putting the public first: improving customer experience and service delivery for the American people — White House Fact Sheet
Step 2: Make your information easy to find and understandable.
Think about your content as a whole; from the way it looks, to the way it reads, to how people are accessing it.
How it looks
Use headings and lists to help your readers go directly to their areas of interest. You can also use bullet point lists, icons, and numbers to make text more readable.
- Use simple typography. The U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) shares how some typefaces (fonts) are easier to read on screens.
- Keep it short! Short sentences and short sections are best.
- Use meaningful images to make content clear.
- Use different channels to provide content. Some people prefer to read, but others glean more information from a quick video or even an image.
- Design for reading — PlainLanguage.gov
- How to tell your agency’s story plainly —Digital.gov
- User Experience Community of Practice —Digital.gov
How it reads
Remember, most people scan web pages and rarely read word-for-word. You want to make the key information easy to spot.
- Put the most important information at the beginning, and don’t try to put all your content into one paragraph.
- Organize content for the reader. Answer the “how” and “why” questions upfront. Make the action you want your readers to take clear.
- Only provide necessary information. Don’t overwhelm people with content that is only tangentially useful.
- Make your writing concise and targeted to the audience.
- Use simple words and phrases.
- Write in an active voice.
- Avoid jargon.
- Minimize use of abbreviations, such as acronyms that your readers may not know.
NoteThe Plain Language Community of Practice is a group of federal employees from different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing. Join the Plain Language community today.
Keep reading level in mind. Websites meant for the general public should not require a reading level more advanced than 8th grade. You can read more about assessing the text reading level in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Multiple online tools are available to help you determine the reading level of your content and make it more accessible.
- The Average American Reader Needs You to Write (Even More) Clearly — Digital.gov
- How to Tell Your Agency’s Story Plainly — Digital.gov
- Plain writing checklist — Archives.gov
- Top 10 plain writing principles — Archives.gov
How it is accessed
Make sure your website and its content is accessible to everyone, including people using assistive technology (such as screen readers). All federal agencies are required to ensure that their technology is Section 508 compliant. To meet the requirements of Section 508, you need to follow the U.S. Access Board’s Accessibility Standards.
The purpose of Section 508 is to ensure that federal agency technology (including websites) is accessible to both employees and members of the public with disabilities.
- Agency Section 508 Program Managers (PMs) are your first point of contact for questions about IT accessibility. Find your agency’s designated Section 508 PM.
- All document files (PDF files, spreadsheets, presentations, forms, etc.) must also be accessible.
- All image files (photos, graphics, data visualizations, charts, graphs, infographics, etc.) require you to use an alternative text description (also called “alt text”) so that screen readers can tell users who are blind or have low vision what the image represents. Screen readers only accept a limited amount of text, 100 to 140 characters, so if the image is complex, make sure that there is a long description provided as well. A couple of options are to add caption text below the image; or link to a file that contains a long description.
- All videos must be 508-compliant; this includes providing closed captions and audio descriptions for people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.
- Remember to test your website with assistive technologies and for color contrast.
- An introduction to accessibility — Digital.gov
- WCAG quick reference guide — W3.org
- Create accessible digital products — Section508.gov
- Section 508 accessibility checklists — HHS.gov
- How to test websites for accessibility — Digital.gov
NoteThe IT Accessibility and Section 508 Community of Practice is a group of federal employees who manage agency Section 508 programs or create electronic content. They work to create accessible online experiences for federal employees and members of the public. Join the IT Accessibility and Section 508 community today.
Step 3: Ensure your website complies with rules and regulations
Make sure that your website complies with all federal rules and regulations. Check out the list of federal website requirements (you can also download a checklist spreadsheet to keep track of your work), and the list of required web content and links.
- 9 Web resolutions to jump-start 2023 — Digital.gov
- 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA) — Digital.gov
- Meet your Federal Web Council — Digital.gov
- Customer experience toolkit — Digital.gov
NoteThe Web Managers Community of Practice is a group of government employees who manage government websites and digital services. They work to create a trusted, seamless online experience for all. Join the Web Managers community today.
Step 4: Understand your metrics and how they work
To set valuable metrics, review the Digital Analytics Program (DAP) and associated analytics training to pick the most valuable metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). Determine what “successful” means for your website. The intent and usage of your website will determine the metrics you track and how you understand them.
Remember that the target of “big website visits” might not apply to you. What counts is the right website visits. Are you providing the relevant information to the people who are coming to your agency’s site? For example, if people are looking for a form or application, how easily can they find it?
While some commercial metrics indicate that the more time spent on your site, the better, this isn’t always true. It might mean that your audience is frustrated, looking for information that they cannot find. If they came for a form and spent an hour looking for it, the “good” metrics might actually be telling a bad story.
Some things to keep in mind:
- The number of website visits or page views does not necessarily correlate to success.
- Time spent on your website can be either a good or bad thing. If your goal is for people to come and download one form, yet they spend 15 minutes on the website, that isn’t necessarily good. If your goal is for your audience to spend time reading research but they only spend 30 seconds on your website, that is also not good. Metrics are relative.
- The percentage of website visitors who navigate away after one page is called “bounce rate.” It can be good or bad, depending on the page and the purpose of your website. If someone comes directly to a page with a form, downloads it, then leaves, this is a success. However, if someone comes to your landing page, which is largely a collection of links and navigation options, and immediately leaves, then that is probably not good.
- Do you want return users? Does that signify success? If your goal is for the user to find a form and download it once, then having that user return might signify an issue.
- What do you want your users to do on the website? Do you want them to follow links, watch videos, download resources, contact you, fill in forms, sign up for the newsletter, etc.? If the answer is yes to any of these, you’ll want to pay special attention to these metrics.
U.S. government websites should provide regular web metrics, search, and customer satisfaction reports to the public. For an example, view the Department of Homeland Security’s web metrics and USAGov’s analytics dashboard.
- Digital metrics for federal agencies — Digital.gov
- The U.S. government’s web traffic — Analytics.USA.gov
- Research report on web accessibility metrics — W3.org
- Shifting your metrics mindset — Digital.gov video
Step 5: Analyze your metrics and update your website
Use metrics and feedback to make your website better. Metrics are simply numbers. You will use analytics to determine the story that those numbers are telling. You should use the stories revealed by analytics to continue honing your website and preempt any issues. Think of your website as a living entity. As you get a better understanding of your audience and how they are using the website, update it to make their user experience more seamless.
- How to build an analytics strategy — Digital.gov
- Web analytics playbook — Digital.gov
- Analytics playlist — Digital.gov videos