Among the incidental, minor topics touched on at the April 16, 2014 mayoral candidate forum was the city of Ann Arbor’s website. Praise was not heaped upon it – as a2gov.org was described by one candidate (Sabra Briere) as “a terrible website to try to tell anybody how to navigate.” That’s not an uncommon view.
So stop navigating it. Stop “reading” it.
Start searching it – and you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.
That’s not to defend the user interface or the look and feel of a2gov.org. Maybe it is terrible. I don’t have a strong opinion on that. It’s worth noting that the city council approved a contract with Keystone Media ($26,900) at its Oct. 21, 2013 meeting to redesign the basic templates for the city’s website.
I’m not sure if that work has yet been implemented – as I just don’t pay that much attention to the look and feel or the navigational features of the city’s website. That’s despite the fact that part of The Job is to look stuff up – quite frequently on the city’s website. And mostly I find what I’m looking for pretty quickly.
So my point in writing is to share one simple technique I use dozens of times a day to do The Job. I use Google search – but constrain the search to just the one website where I’m looking.
The syntax goes like this:
site:terrible-to-navigate-website.com word-1 word-2 word-3 word-4
To illustrate how effective this can be, let’s consider an example from real life. Last year, the March 18, 2013 city council meeting featured extensive public commentary on the 413 E. Huron project that pushed the meeting conclusion to around 2 a.m. I wanted to include in our meeting report the names of all the speakers.
But the final speaker stated her name in an unclear way, so that it was not possible to discern what it was – even after listening to an audio recording several times. She did, however, identify herself as a member of the Old Fourth Ward Historic District Study Committee.
That historic district study took place 30 years ago. What are the chances the city’s website had a list of the committee member names to which I could compare the audio? To find out, I didn’t read the city’s website. I did not navigate the city’s website. I did not even “visit” the city’s website.
The first thing I tried was using Google’s site-specific search. Here’s a screen shot of the search results from Google:
The third result looked likely to have a listing of committee member names. It did. Comparing the audio to the list was easy work: Cappy Bilakos.
I don’t mean to suggest that site-specific search syntax is magical or that the city should not worry about improving the readability and navigation for its website.
But I would suggest that frustration levels for users could be reduced if Google’s site-specific search were used as a primary strategy for finding information. That goes not just for the city’s website, but for the Internet in general.
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