The results provided me with a view of how important government websites are in peoples' online lives - not very. Less than 2.5% of website visits were to government sites.
It also helped me form some ideas as to how Australian government departments can make their online channels more effective means of engaging citizens.
Reviewing Hitwise's reports from July 2008, tracking around 2.95 million Australians' visits to over 647,000 websites (using ISP logs), the total government sector (6,634 sites) accounted for only 2.26 percent of all tracked website visits by Australians.
- Federal government's 2,094 sites accounted for 57.61% of all Government traffic and 1.3% of visits to all tracked websites,
- State government's 2,183 sites accounted for 30.82% of all Government traffic and 0.70% of visits to all websites,
- Local government's 1,596 sites accounted for 6.51% of all Government traffic and 0.15% of visits to all tracked websites,
- The other 761 sites (often foreign government agencies) accounted for 11.4% of all Government traffic.
Facebook, the fourth most visited website, received 2.36% of total tracked visits - slightly more than the entire Australian government.
MySpace, the seventh ranked site, received 1.78% of total visits - almost 50% more than Federal government sites.
Only one government website regularly reaches Hitwise's Top Twenty list of Australian sites, the Bureau of Meteorology (coming in at 16th position with 0.51% of traffic in September 2008). In fact, this site alone accounts for almost a quarter of the visits to the total government sector.
To put these figures into perspective, I roughly estimated from my Agency's actual web traffic that each Australian web user in July 2008 made 270 visits to Hitwise tracked websites (note that at an average visit duration of 10 minutes, this is significantly less that the figure reported by Netratings in March 2008 (PDF) - of 13.7 hours/week online).
Of these estimated 270 visits,
- 26.6 visits were to Google,
- 6.3 visits were to Facebook
- 4.8 visits were to Myspace
- 3.5 visits were to Federal government sites,
- 2.4 visits were to State government sites,
- 0.4 visits were to Local government sites.
What does this mean for government?
Even a few visits per month by Australia's estimated 11 million plus regular internet users users adds up to a significant online audience for government in Australia.
However my conclusion is that Australian government departments should not rely on reaching our citizen audiences simply via our official websites.
We need to reach out and engage our customers via the websites they choose to use.
These non-Government websites account for over 97.5% of regular internet usage by Australian (per Hitwise's July 2008 figures).
If Australian government wants to effectively communicate with citizens online, our departments need to invest in understanding where our audiences spend their time, reaching beyond our official sites to engage them in the online communities they choose to frequent.
How do we engage citizens on their own turf?
There are many different ways that private organisations reach out to user communities, and government can learn and use many of these approaches, such as
- using search advertising to promote Australian government services prominently across top search engines and community sites,
- providing web feeds (RSS, Atomic, etc) that other sites can merge into their own information channels,
- providing data feeds that can be mashed up into widely used sites and new functions (as the Bureau of Meteorology does so well),
- creating, and promoting, useful portlets and widgets on popular platforms (Google Gears, Facebook, Blogger, Ning) that can be added to individual and group social sites,
- white-labelling services that can be embedded in other sites (Slideshare, Youtube),
- reaching out and participating sensitively in forums, blogs and wikis relevant to our communities,
- engaging online advocates and supporting them as we do media representatives (as US consumer goods firms engage 'Mummy Bloggers' and US political parties engage political bloggers),
- creating and supporting themed community spaces for citizens (as Huggies has done in Australia for mothers).
Hitwise checked the numbers drawn from their web reporting service (thank you Alex and Rebecca). The idea for this post, the conclusions drawn and any calculation errors are mine alone.