The search is over … almost!

Analysing searches to make GOV.UK better

When it comes to improving our offering, looking at what people search for on GOV.UK is one of the best ways we can understand what you want from government information. The search box allows you to articulate what you want in your own words – and this data is easy to interpret, unlike a lot of the number-based metrics.

With our analytics package, we can quickly and easily look at what you’re searching for on each individual GOV.UK page. Our content pages are designed to appear high in external search engines like Google, so that you can click on a GOV.UK result that meets your need, find out what you want to know, then get out of GOV.UK quickly.

When people use internal search, it’s an indication that they haven’t found what they’re looking for first time. By analysing these results, we can make GOV.UK better for you.

For example, on the page ‘your contract and working hours’, we found that we’d left out information about taking rest breaks. By looking at search terms we discovered we’d left this information off the page, and lots of people were searching for it.

Contracts of employment and working hours GOV.UK

Our content team recently embarked on a mini-project to look at the top 100 searched-on pages, find out what information  was missing by analysing the search terms, and then include this information on the page. We didn’t want to get bogged down in big or complex changes to the site – we just wanted to help the most users we could in the shortest amount of time.

We ignored Departments and policy pages and first-level browse pages. We also left any major changes out of this round of tweaks. For example one of our findings was that on many of the passports pages, people were searching for ‘second passport’ – 735 searches across GOV.UK in November.

People can apply for a second passport if they travel a lot and need to apply for visas while traveling. We’ve identified this as a need that should be added to GOV.UK.

Searches for ‘second passport’ on GOV.UK in November:

Searches for ‘second passport’ on GOV.UK in November 2013

In the end, we made changes to 41 pages in the top 100 list. The process was quick and effective – we scanned the search term report for each page and noted what we could add to content to meet that need. We then formed a crack team and made the changes in the space of an afternoon. The whole exercise took less than a day of 6 team leads’ time.

After waiting a month to see if the changes had had an effect (disregarding a cheeky check after a week to see that we hadn’t INCREASED the searches on any page!), we were ready to see what our quick-fire project had achieved …

The results were good.

The pages we changed have had around 30,000 fewer searches in the  30 days following our changes. We can’t claim to have prevented all of these searches, as overall traffic to the site decreased by 9% in November. We’d expect searches to decrease proportionally, but searches on the 41 pages have decreased by an average of of 21%, so we’ve definitely improved the content. Searches only increased on two pages, and the highest increase was 6%.

We’d say that these results support our initial thinking that small tweaks = significant improvements for our users. A lot of the improvements connected different but related needs that were already on GOV.UK – we added links to content or browse pages and allowed people to navigate between them easily.

For example car tax is one of our most popular pages (the fourth most popular in November). After taking a good look at the search terms used on this page, it turned out that over 5,000 people were searching on this page for SORN, which allows you to surrender your tax disc so that you don’t have to pay vehicle insurance. But SORN information wasn’t housed on the car tax page.

We covered this need by putting a link to the SORN page in the related links on the car tax page. Searches for SORN went down by 95%, and searches on the page as a whole went down by 44%.

Car tax and SORN on GOV.UK

Browse pages featured highly in our top 100 searched-on pages. If browse pages are working properly, you should be able to follow descriptive link titles and summaries, and easily navigate through the site to get to the right content page. Sometimes we misjudge how people will interpret these link titles and text summaries – we are only human, after all!

For example, on the browse page Benefits Entitlement we provided a list of links to generic benefit pages like how and when your benefits are paid. As it turns out, people were searching for benefit-specific information such as ESA (Employment Support Allowance), on this page, so we included a few of the most searched-for benefits on this browse page.

The result? Searches on this page went down 29%, equal to nearly 1,800 searches.

We’re really pleased with the success of this little project, and it really shows how small changes can make a big difference to our users’ journeys.

Follow Lana on Twitter:  @Lana_Gibson


  1. Hi Lana

    It’s great to see the work you are doing to improve the internal search for

    I have spent a lot of time improving the search for It would be great to meet up some time to see if we are taking the same approach. I think its a really untapped resource – somethink I focussed on when I gave a presentation at @brightonseo on this last year

    I sit on the Local Directgov Programme Board so am down in London every other month. Hopefully I can tie in a visit to say hello.


    Alan @alanfergs E:

  2. Thank you. I’m forever cheerleading for Team GDS and it’s because of articles like this and your constant drive for innovation.

    We’re experimenting with Google Custom Search at the moment and loving it. Why use another search engine when they’re the masters of the effective algorithm – and it ties in with Analytics beautifully.

    1. Hi Dave – thanks. Yes, we need all the help we can get without referral keywords!

  3. Hi Lana,
    Excellent post.This article make me remember that quote “Need is the mother of inventions” :) Thanks for sharing such a great info here. Keep it up!!

  4. Hi Lana,

    I just searched for the term “second passport” but could not find anything on the result list that was relevant. Am I missing something?

    May I suggest the following

    01: You that you add a “How to search” page (with an icon somewhere near the search bar) to educate users on how best to use the search facility on Web developers assume everybody knows how to use a search engine/feature.

    02: You have an additional tab to the result page to show similar common search terms.

    Great job so far guys. Keep up the good work and have yourselves a very Merry Christmas.

    MG @notontwitter

    1. Hi Michael. We don’t cover the second passport need yet, it’s on our ‘to do’ list. Thanks for the suggestions – we’re continually iterating search and browse and finding out what people want with research and data so will keep these in mind. Merry Christmas!

  5. Hi Lana,
    I was really interested to see the work you have been doing to improve I was searching the other day to see how easy it was to find out how to change you address with the DWP. I have been working on seeing how to improve this for our customers. It was very hard to find out when and how to change your address. The instructions were buried away on the Pension Credit and State Pension pages but not anywhere that you would look automatically.
    If you search for change of address you get the top links for when the DVLA and HMRC need to know but not about DWP.
    As we more more towards asking our customers to go digital I think that we really need to think about what they will need to know and how we can gve them the information quickly and easily on
    Once again it was great to see the work that you have been doing.


    1. Thanks for this Fiona – I’ll pass your insight on to the content team and they’ll take a look.

  6. Hi Lana

    uber has benefits but unfortunately search and navigation are much more difficult and frustrating. My searches result in long lists of irrelevant results – success is rare. I can no longer find info that I could when searching the old organisation sites.

    Search is needed for the unusual not catered for by normal navigation menus. So looking at the top 100 won’t solve poor results for the thousands of other less common queries.

    “Advanced” options on the MAIN search e.g.filter by department(s) would help. It is not obvious to the public but filtering by dept is available but ONLY for “departments & policy” – and still does not give decent results.

    Standard search operators don’t work e.g. “-” to exclude pages that I know would be irrelevant beacause they contain certain words.

    So whilst additional options may help search needs a complete overhaul.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to feed back. We’re currently looking into navigation and search for niche audiences in order to address the issues you’ve raised. Departments and arms-length-bodies are coming on to GOV.UK after the majority of popular citizen-facing needs, so we’re looking at how to make this content easily findable. You can find out about the arms-length bodies transition on their blog – Cheers for your comments – I’ll pass them on to the team.

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