Government officials charged with rationalizing their agencies' Web presence should consider potential cost savings from cutting or consolidating seldom visited websites and aim for a sleeker online footprint that better serves the public, according to guidance released Tuesday.
Federal agencies have historically set a low bar for what warrants a new website, leading the government's online universe to balloon to nearly 2,000 domains and more than 20,000 individual sites.
A Web domain is essentially a packet of individual sites with similar names and architecture. The Internet is currently broken up into a handful of top-level domains, including dot-com, dot-gov and dot-edu. The State Department's main website, State.gov, for example, would be considered a second-level domain and the agency's various divisions would be lower level domains, each housing numerous websites. The distinction between a website and a lower-level domain gets murky after the first few levels.
An inventory of all government websites broken out by agency was due out this week on the government's internal MAX message board. A General Services Administration spokesman was unable to confirm whether the list had been posted by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The government's website cutting initiative aims to shutter some rarely visited legacy sites, such as Deserttortoise.gov, and to fold other sites into larger Web domains, where they'll share a common architecture, content management systems and security features.
Limiting agencies to one or a few major Web domains will cut down on upkeep and security costs, according to Tuesday's guidance from federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel's office. The Energy Department, for instance, estimates it will save about $150,000 for each potential new site that it builds within its main Energy.gov site.
The consolidation also will improve customer service, the CIO's office said, by putting more vital information where citizens will look for it first and by raising that information's ranking in search results.
"Setting up a new domain may actually hinder the 'findability' of separate content because it can take weeks or months to build up status on search engines," the guidance noted.
As agencies debate which sites to cut and which to consolidate, update or leave alone, the guidance recommends looking at Web metrics to determine how many visitors a site is getting, whether those visitors are finding what they're looking for -- gauged by how long they remain on the site -- and whether they're successfully completing tasks the site includes, such as registering to receive more information or filling out a survey.
Tuesday's guidance also directs agencies to review the number of redirects they log -- Web addresses that don't match an existing website but automatically send a user to a site that does exist. Redirects are typically old names for a new site, common misspellings of a site, or common variations on what a Web surfer might guess an agency's website is named.
GSA recently deleted redirects that refer fewer than 300 users to actual government Web domains annually, the guidance said.
In general, agencies should retain redirects that send a significant number of people to a particular site, such as firstgov.gov, a legacy name for usa.gov that sends "thousands of users annually" to its successor, the guidance said.
In some cases, though, "multiple redirect domains may dilute the primary brand you're trying to promote and marketing multiple domains can sometimes confuse your message," the guidance said.
A federal dot-gov task force is developing guidance for how interagency projects should be dealt with online.
"In most cases, a primary agency should be designated to host interagency content . . . and should use clear language on the site to indicate that it is a partnership among multiple agencies," the guidance said.
Agencies that manage an interagency domain name should be "the definitive, authoritative source for that topic across government," the guidance said, and "must have the capacity to broadly cover that entire topic."
Tuesday's guidance also directs agencies to ensure they archive Web content before deleting it to comply with rules for executive branch material established by the National Archives.