My whirlwind trip through all 50 state websites
Content strategist’s review of state website homepages reveals online chat, Texas lingo, and services everywhere
The next best thing to traveling across the United States is visiting all 50 states’ websites. It saves on gas, too.
I did just that during my first months as a content strategist with the Digital Services team working on Mass.gov, just to get some perspective on what other state websites looked like — see the embedded slideshow at the bottom of this post to flip through the homepages yourself, with a disclaimer that content and designs do change. I already knew that we optimized our digital front door, which launched in 2017 on an open-source Drupal platform, delivering services and information to our visitors regardless of the device they use. But what about the other 49 states?
Some quick highlights of my trip
I focused my trip strictly on states’ homepages, examining them from a content strategy perspective. Yes, a touristy approach, but I swear that I learned a few things.
- A couple of classic rock bands named after states give those states’ websites a run for their money on Google rankings. The bands Alabama and Kansas challenge Alabama.gov and Kansas.gov on respective Google searches.
- Wisconsin.gov gets moving with a video on their desktop homepage.
- Texas.gov by far has the most fun on its site, from its “Take it online, Texas!” tagline to its use of Texas-y terms like “y’all,” “dern it” and “wrangled.” (That state’s answer to our use of “wicked awesome” in referring to how we want visitors to feel on Mass.gov.)
- Governors are not mentioned on about 40% of state homepages. But the top state executives are front and center on plenty of others.
- Portals remain alive and well. Nearly 1 in 5 states either has “portal” in its URL or references the term on its homepage.
- Online chat services are available on about 1 in every 5 state websites. Feedback surveys are sprinkled across most.
Information architecture and search appreciation
State website homepages have plenty in common in terms of their information architecture and use of search tools. However, they definitely aren’t cookie cutter designs. Instead, the similarity is more around a focus on simplicity and trimming the fat. Getting rid of the clutter and providing clearer pathways for finding information is something we believe in, so this is great to see.
Search bars tend to be prominent, often centered at the top or middle of the page. But even here, states show some flair. Arizona invites you to “Search for agencies, services, more…” and Georgia encourages you to “Search for topics, agencies, cities.” Utah personalizes its search bar by including the words “I want to:” right above it, and offering suggested searches such as “renew my license” or “see the State Capitol.” Delaware gives you the option of using geolocation to narrow search results to items relevant to where you are at the time of your search or where you live.
About 1 in 4 states bolster their search bars with a selection of popular or trending topics, anticipating visitor needs. Mass.gov highlights Popular Searches, such as how to get a fishing license during the summer, right underneath our search bar. We also offer faceted search that lets you drill down by organization or types of content such as News or Services.
All but a handful of states use horizontal navigation bars across the top, while a smaller number employ a vertical list, and still others use a combination. When I refer to top-level nav bars, I’m talking about the basic list of terms you can see on the homepage, such as Government, Online Services, Business, and Residents on the Alabama.gov page shown here.
Alabama, Nebraska.gov, and other sites use drop-down menus activated by hovering or clicking. The highest amount of top-level nav sections we found on any site was 10.
As the word cloud below shows, the most common terms in the top-level navigation are what you’d expect: Government, Business, Education, and Services being among them. We also noticed some verb-first navigation headings, which is something we embraced on Mass.gov, with terms such as Living and Working.
It’s refreshing to see states emphasize their personalities, too. Outdoorsy states such as Oregon and Vermont include Environment in their top-level nav.
The service-oriented model of Mass.gov is ingrained in everyone who works here. Services can mean everything from allowing users to file taxes to finding information about a state park. Massachusetts isn’t alone in focusing on services, and also addresses an audience that includes constituents, businesses, visitors, and government workers.
Four out of 5 state websites push services on their homepage.
Alabama, Idaho, and Louisiana are among those that promote “Services” or “Online Services” within the navigation bars across the top. Missouri mentions services right in its search bar — “Search MO.gov for Services, Agencies & More…” Louisiana’s “Ask Louise” Q&A tool helps those seeking service-specific answers.
Kentucky.gov highlights data by showing how many people over the past month have requested particular services, such as medical imaging licenses or driving records.
News and social media
News and social media take a backseat on most state website homepages. Small Facebook, Twitter, and other social media icons are common, but only a handful of states give their sites a newsy feel through features such as Twitter streams.
There is a risk that news highlights can call unwanted attention to negative events, but there’s also a benefit in showing transparency.
Some states do promote news. Alaska, for example, features a “Latest News” box front and center. North Dakota features “State News and Announcements.” And Iowa.gov runs a Tweet column smack down the middle of its homepage.
New Jersey is low key about social media on its homepage, though it does direct visitors to a nice NJ.gov social media directory broken out by agency.
I’m no design expert, but I found it hard not to like what many states are doing with their websites, at least from an information standpoint.
First off, most states refrain from overdoing it on their homepages with all the latest bells and whistles. A handful of states keep everything above the fold on desktop, but most require at least some scrolling to see everything. The default on 4 out of 5 sites is keeping it simple, often with beautiful photography, a big search bar, and straightforward links to key services.
South Carolina, for instance, features a big photo that changes only when you revisit the page, a streamlined list of services and topics, and a fun but unobtrusive eGov fact that changes about every 7 seconds.
States are also experimenting with interactive technology in the form of chatbots, personalized services, and mobile apps.
New York’s website, for instance, lets visitors zero in on news and resources within their zip code and invites them to subscribe to updates. Separately, Arkansas.gov offers an app that reminds you of key government-related tasks — like renewing a license — that you need to take care of during the year. Indiana and Colorado are among states offering live chat from their homepage.
Opening up the data
It’s also encouraging to see that open data and transparency efforts abound.
Illinois.gov, for example, includes contact info for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. California “believes in the power of unlocking government data” via the California Open Data Portal. Washington’s state website features a button that brings you to geospatial, budget, and other data.
Regardless of why states are being so generous with their data, they are making it easier to access and digest.
What’s next for these homepages?
A couple of things I suspect that more states will prioritize down the road include:
- Responsive designs: About 1 in 9 states still don’t have designs that adjust to fit the screens visitors use, such as mobile phones. That needs to change ASAP.
- Hot topics highlighted: As states figure out how to make better use of the data they collect about the needs of their website visitors, I’d expect to see homepages automatically reflect the very hottest issues on people’s minds. Pennsylvania takes a nice approach by allowing you to view the most popular pages on PA.gov over the past 24 hours or 7 days.