New Dept for Transport site misses opportunities

The new post-Stellent website for the Department for Transport has now gone live… and somebody has clearly been reading the Web 2.0 style guide. Big table-free layouts, gradient backgrounds, reflections, drop shadows… actually very pretty. And I don’t think I’ve said that too often about government websites.

The most striking aspect of the site is its reliance on search as the principal navigation method. The huge photo-buttons at the top of the homepage lead you into pages of search results, showing the latest 500 items on your chosen mode of transport, rather than any particular content structure. It looks like everything is categorised by mode of transport, ‘subject area’, UK geography and audience (plus date, obviously) – allowing for some very rich filtering of results. (I’m not sure about ‘audience’ as a filter though… the categories inevitably overlap, and people don’t always categorise themselves as you’d expect.)

It’s possible to leave people feeling overwhelmed with this kind of approach: but Transport have done a good job in making it all feel fairly manageable. If I come here knowing exactly what I want, I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to get to it. But on the flipside, if I don’t know precisely what I’m here for, I’ve got problems.

Like, for example… say I want to find out exactly what has or hasn’t been proposed in terms of road pricing, as stories of a million-plus people signing an e-petition hit the front pages. There is official information on road pricing in there: but you’re just not going to find it unless you search for the right keyword. The petition itself refers to ‘the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy’: but ‘vehicle tracking’ yields zero results on the DfT site, so you’d better guess right. You have 1.5 million internet users taking an active interest in this developing policy: why isn’t it splashed all over your front page?

And inevitably, the ‘jargon’ term isn’t the term used by mere mortals. As a search term, ‘road tax’ is five times more popular than ‘road pricing’ (Overture data, Jan 07) – and guess what, ‘road tax’ only pulls up ten documents at DfT, none of which is relevant to the road pricing debate.

Plus, I’m genuinely quite shocked to see zero use of RSS. Surely it’s mandatory on any major new site build now… with IE7 and Windows Vista a reality? There’s a What’s New page which is crying out for RSS; the press releases and/or speeches are ideal candidates; and frankly, for a site driven primarily by search, I’d expect to see a ‘saved search via RSS’ option similar to the recent addition to BBC News.