On Friday some of Britain’s geekiest local government comms, web and tech people gathered at Google’s offices in Victoria to find out how we can work together.

The offices are pretty much how I expected – bright and clean, creative yet corporate. This is how offices should look.

We arrived expecting a sales pitch, and that we certainly got. Google opened by telling us that they want to help the UK public sector deliver better digital content, better value for money, and maybe some profit for Google along the way. I’ll just cover the main points of interest for me here, but if you’re interested in hearing more, Sarah Lay and Carrie Bishop have both written detailed (and therefore lengthy) blog posts which cover all the topics.

We began where everyone begins with Google – search. Google’s organic search is driven by an algorithm which is as secret as Colonel Sanders’ blend of 11 herbs and spices. The exact nature of Google’s search might be an enigma, but it’s no secret that the best way to ensure your results are relevant and so feature high up in searches is to have good content on good pages.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that comes naturally to the public sector. So that’s where paid-for advertising comes in. This works by scoring ads by relevance (based on content) vs how much you’ll pay. The ads scoring highest are furthest up the page; you can increase your score without paying more by making your content relevant. This Paid Ads 101 rap on YouTube tells you all you need to know, fo’ sho’. But are paid for ads suitable for local authorities? Perhaps, in some contexts. Google have given us £300 of AdWords credit so we can try this out.

Google told us they can determine a user’s location from their IP address with 80 per cent accuracy, which means we can use geolocation ads to target advertising to our own residents. But this doesn’t ring true for me; I asked if they could clarify how that would work in London, for instance, where boroughs are geographically small and contiguous.

Nonetheless, by making our content relevant, we can score more highly in organic search. Usefully, Google have a clutch of tools to help us make our websites better. Website Optimiser, their website testing and optimisation tool, allows you to test and optimise site content and design in order to increase revenue and ROI. At a first glance this looked damned good and I will certainly take a closer look.

Google Analytics is a powerful tool not just for measurement, but also to help us improve our sites. By looking more closely at user journey and usability of our sites we can learn where they need to improve. But to do this we need more and better training, and the resource to do it. All too often web teams are tasked with creating more and more content without looking at what we’ve already got and how it can be improved. The speaker, Paul, has posted his presentation and you can read more on his blog.

AdSense is a means by which councils can make money out of Google, by hosting ads on our own sites. Dominic Miller talked us through how this has worked in Nottingham – netting them £15k in the first year, with apparently only a handful of complaints and very little work on their part.

In local gov we’re going to be asked to do more with less over the coming years, so the idea that our sites could generate income is an attractive one. But nonetheless I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, in part because it seems like unnecessary commercialisation of civic life, but also because there’s potential for reputational damage there. Some councils are going to be keener or this than others; we’ll need to debate this one within our own organisations.

Next up was Google’s apps suite. The demo showed how we can work collaboratively using real-time document editing, communicating by instant messenger and video chat. Here they were preaching to the converted. Battling daily with a 50MB (yes, really) mailbox limit that needs clearing at least twice a day, 250GB of storage space that can be accessed from anywhere sounds like heaven.

Unfortunately, it’s likely to remain a dream for the time being at least thanks to concerns over data security, and in particular the hoops IT departments have to jump through for Government Connect. Enterprise doesn’t even work very well on IE6, and most of us are stuck with this eight-year-old browser. Google are confident they can answer concerns, and given they have rolled Enterprise out in some major corporations I’m sure they can. Google assured us there are no Data Protection Act issues as all the data stays within the EU, which is one hurdle overcome at least.

Ultimately the decision to move to cloud computing will be an economic one. At £33 per user per year their offering is good value, but the associated costs of migrating to cloud computing are enormous. The Digital Britain report outlines government plans to move to cloud computing, but as ever I suspect local government will be slower to move.

Michele Ide-Smith argues that the move will be driven by societal expectations; we’ll be less willing to put up with outdated technology the further it diverges from out computing experiences at home.

Add to this moves towards greater flexible and home working, and increased pressure to work in partnership, and cloud computing starts to make an awful lot of sense for us in local government.

Next up was the fabulously-named Chewy, who talked us through some of the cool stuff you can do with YouTube. The video site is now the internet’s second most popular search engine, which shows people are actively searching for multimedia content.

Local authorities are increasingly making use of YouTube videos (Westminster, for one), but as with everything on the web, content is king. People don’t expect overproduced , corporate video, as our expectations have changed thanks to the proliferation of mobile phone video cameras – and the existence of YouTube. The most popular videos on council sites are ‘fun’ ones, like this video of Street Dance in Uxbridge, from Hillingdon Council.

Advice from Google is that you need to promote your videos and make them easy to find. Simply embedding them on your home page isn’t enough – take them to where people are, and you can link back to our site from there.

This YouTube walk-through got me thinking about resourcing. I’m not sure many local authorities have people skilled and experienced in making and editing video (as well as other media-rich content).

Newspaper publishers are moving away from a model where journalists simply write. Major newspaper groups are re-focussing their journalistic teams as ‘content producers’, responsible for creating photos, videos and audio files as well as text stories, and they’ll increasingly expect the same kind of media-rich content from us. At the same time, the growth of hyperlocal media, highlighted in the recent Digital Britain report, will place changing demands on council PROs.

I strongly suspect that in future press officers will spend less time ‘selling in’ stories to local media outlets, and more creating a wider range of content – which means we need to start developing the skills to do this.

Finally we moved on to Google Maps. By this point in the day we were all getting a little tetchy and tired of being sold at, and this is where dissatisfaction on the Twitter steam started to bubble over. Perhaps they were unlucky to have scheduled this last, but it was also very unfortunate that they’d made little effort to re-focus their business presentation to the audience to address the problems with local government have in adopting Google Maps.

They told us Google Maps is the most popular mapping site on the interwebs, and 150,000 developers are using the Google Maps API to create their own maps. We’ve all played with Street View to look up our childhood haunts, and few of us would struggle to make the mental leap to using it on council websites.

But we can’t use it, because of The Big Ordinance Survey Issue. I won’t pretend to know the details, but effectively most of local government is banned from using Google Maps at the moment because of a disagreement between Google and Ordinance Survey over their terms and conditions (read all about it here, if you’re really interested). This is a sizable stumbling block for us; that they seemed baffled when someone raised the question highlighted a remarkable lack of research into the local government market.

Although Google looked a little taken aback at the sudden outburst of negativity, to their credit they immediately offered to set up an ongoing dialogue between us where we can talk through some of these issues. I think this could be really productive for both sides.

Overall, I was a little disappointed that the day wasn’t more of a constructive, two-way session, but nonetheless it was a useful overview of their products. The key is in what happens next. I love Google, and I’m sure there’s potential for them to help us achieve our aims of communicating better with residents while bringing down costs. But this was only a first date; we’ve got a lot of flirting to go before local government will even consider going to bed with Google. Local Government just isn’t that kind of girl, you see.

For those who are interested, Google have made a sector-specific website for local government with summaries of content from the session. There was also plenty of talk on the #googlelocalgov Twitter hashtag.

More (and, frankly, better) blogs from the day:

Ingrid Koehler

Carrie Bishop

Michele Ide-Smith

Sarah Lay

Al Smith

(EDIT: Jon Cross from Google has responded to my complaint that GeoLocation doesn’t really work: “Just been reading your blog post and I have to say there seems to be a slight misunderstanding on geo targeting, and where you’ve said our geo-targeting doesn’t work you are actually referring to natural search results, not paid ads which is what I was talking about in my session. Geo targeting on paid links *does* work. We do not geo target in our natural search listings, and we never claimed to”. So there you go, although TBH I’m still struggling to see how they can find you from your IP address when boroughs in London are often only a mile or two wide, so I’d really want some further assurance that this actually does work).

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