Should the long tail wag the dog?

The burial of human remains at sea requires a marine licence.

That must be one of the more arresting first lines of any government web page. Its combination of human tragedy and bureaucratic process packs a lot into eleven words.

You won’t find that line, or anything else on the subject, at Directgov. That’s neither surprising nor perhaps unreasonable. Very few bodies are buried at sea – exact numbers are hard to come by, but estimates are in tens a year, a tiny proportion of the half million or so deaths each year in the UK.

The line instead comes from the website of an organisation little known, I suspect, to non-specialists, the Marine Management Organisation, the core purpose of which has little to do with the disposal of corpses. But getting a licence for burial at sea is without doubt a government service directed at individuals, so in principle it should be found where other such services are to be found, which in the not too distant future means the single government domain. I have no imminent expectation of finding it there (and make no criticism that it won’t be). But it is worth asking why that should be and what it tells us about government more generally.

Back in the early days of e-government, there was a target to get all government services online. Increasing the numerator would help achieve the target, but then so would decreasing the denominator. Creating a definitive list of relevant services was the only way of preventing a percentage score from drifting about uncontrollably. Burial at sea was often the example used in the largely pointless debates which ensued. It was a good example, because it brought together two separate issues:  was this a service which anybody was every likely to want to do online; and were there enough of them to justify putting it online at all?

Entirely expectedly, government information and services follow a Zipf distribution, made famous by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail (but applied to websites at least as early as 1997): there is a small number of things which get an enormous amount of attention, and there is an enormous number of things which get a small – sometimes a vanishingly small – amount of attention. Two lessons are often drawn from that: one good and one potentially very bad.

The good one is that there is great value in identifying the things which most people want to do most of the time, and ensure that they can do them easily and efficiently. The potentially bad one is to assume that the rest doesn’t matter and either ignore it or delete it.

In the physical world, it is more or less essential to cut off the distribution.  A good bookshop won’t just rely on best sellers, but equally there will be a limit to the number of titles it can stock which only sell one or two copies a year. Amazon, with warehouse fulfilment, can do much better than that, and it has been estimated that 37% of their revenue in 2008 came from sales of books ranked below 100,000.* It would be supreme folly for Amazon to announce one day that they were rebuilding their web presence and would henceforward only cover the top 100,000 titles.

Government is not Amazon. Web pages are not books. Analogies are flawed. And yet.

The question of how the government’s web presence should be culled and curated is not a new one. It has been around in various forms since the earliest days of e-government, documented perhaps most clearly and consistently by Alan Mather. At least as far back as 2003 (and actually well before then)  he had a strategy which looked uncannily like that of  the single government domain:

  • Fewer websites not more. Kill 50 websites for every new domain name.
  • Less content not more. Delete five (or fifty, or five hundred) pages for every page you write.
  • Solve the top 50 questions that citizens ask … and structure your content around those first. Then do the next 50 and the next. The people who know these questions are the ones that answer the phone in your call centres, the ones that write in to your agency and the ones that visit your offices for help; likewise, they visit accountants, advice bureau, charities and so on.
  • Test search engines to see how your site ranks – both from a mindshare side and for individual queries.
  • Impose rigorous discipline on use of “words” – plain speak.
  • Impose even more rigorous discipline on the structure of the content, including metadata so that it’s easy to read – by people and by search engines.

Or in other words, start at the top of the Zipf distribution, and work systematically along until you stop. Tom Loosemore has a pithier version which means much the same:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tomskitomski/status/111007350210576384″]

Taken as expressed, it’s hard to disagree with the approach Tom and his team are taking. But a great deal hangs on the word ‘superfluous’. In this context, I think it is being used to mean two quite distinct things, but risks treating them as one. The first is rot, decay and duplication. Too much money is being spent very inefficiently to maintain – or all too often to fail to maintain – information which is poorly organised, hard to find, badly maintained and structured round what organisations do, not what people need. The second is obscure specialisation: there is a vast amount of information which most people don’t want or need and won’t ever want or need, and its existence makes it harder for the important stuff to shine through.

Focusing on an ‘irreducible core’ is a very good way of tackling the first problem, but risks overlooking the second. Whether that is a bad thing is a contingent question which is not inherently an easy one to answer, and which potentially raises some awkward questions about the singularity of the single government domain. There are three basic options:

  1. Everything goes into the single pan-government site
  2. Popular and important stuff goes into the single pan-government site and the rest goes somewhere else
  3. Popular and important stuff goes into the single pan-government site and the rest doesn’t go anywhere

To an extent this is (or can be made to be) a matter of timing – pursuing Alan’s idea of tackling the problem in fifty-question chunks. But even with that approach, sooner or later we get to the question of whether enough is enough. In order to know that, we need to understand two things.  The first is the value to users of the long tail  – government’s version of Amazon’s 37%. If it is high, or to the extent that it is high, the choice is between options 1 and 2. Neither is entirely attractive: option 1 risks compromising the quality and clarity of the much smaller set of key services; option 2 creates a messy boundary and breaks the principle that there is one place to go. If though the value to users of the long tail, or some furthest reach of it, is relatively low, the choice is between options 1 or 2 and 3. And if option 3 is even to be considered for some subset of information that might otherwise have been included, that raises a very big question.

Luckily, GDS is full of exceptionally smart people (and now even fuller) and better still, they have invented the needotron. That’s the right systematic approach – but I will be fascinated to see whether they find a way of creating the right long tail, and of stopping the tail being so unwieldy that it trips up the dog.

*These numbers are hard to make intuitive sense of. Amazon are currently claiming to have ‘over 750,000′ books available for the kindle, which sounds like more than enough for anyone – yet I regularly find that the books I actually want to buy are not among them.

6 comments

  1. What a perceptive post.

    In response, to define whether a need is best met on single domain requires crunchy filters.

    Here’s ours:

    1) Is this something usefully delivered online at all?

    2) If so, is this something *only* government can do?

    (I give you “Keeping bees“?)

    3) If so, is this something that is best delivered on the government’s own website?

    (Drug info is best kept well away from gov.uk, while anti-knife crime campaigns work better on youtube. And arguably NHS Choices works better because its nhs.uk url associates it with the NHS (“our NHS”), not “The Government”.

    But after applying these filters, there’s still vast swathes of content & services which should be on the single domain. We’ve been spending a lot of time pondering this ‘boundaries & layers’ question with colleagues in departments whose tails of such specialist/statutory content are long – rightly so, in many cases.

    So, in answer to your query, the single domain will not just cater for ‘top tasks’, vital though it is to optimise and iterate these. We’ll also be providing a nice, clean, cost-effective home for the long tail.

    For example, one of the deliverables everyone is working hard on at the moment is a beta of a ‘corporate’ platform for departments & agencies to publish policies, speeches, news, consultations etc. And we know there’s more, much more, that should be on gov.uk

    However, a single domain need not entail the creation of a vast one-size-fits-all monster.

    BBC.co.uk is both ‘a website’ and a ‘portfolio of websites’. This is more than semantics, it’s about great , design helping people know when they’re in the right place to have their need met, so different bits of the site feel different, even when they work the same way. For example, there’s a lot of variation in content and design across various BBC.co.uk portfolio, but if you’ve learned to use one bit of it, you’ve largely learned to use it all.

    Ditto Amazon.com, and the better newspaper sites.

    We have to define, and then indicate to users, the boundaries between different layers/bits/chunks of the site, while making boundaries porous enough to stop users getting trapped if they end up in the wrong ‘bit’ of the site by mistake. It’s in the visual design brief that users should always know when they’re in the *wrong* bit of gov.uk – carefully differentiated visual design is key, here. Ditto careful use of tags and breadcrumbs.

    And we’ve got a *lot* of thinking to do about the scope of internal search for various ‘bits’ of the site, to make sure we don’t swamp mainstream users with specialist results, but also to allow large corpuses of niche content to be searched successfully.

    Again, BBC.co.uk is instructive here, its internal search results are highly context sensitive in how they are filtered and ordered. (Very nice url design, too)

    So yes, we understand that even an ‘irreducible core’ entails single domain playing host to a lot (a lot) of pages – but the vast, vast majority will be out of sight for most people, most of the time, until or unless they need to find them.

    I know, I know, I should write a proper blog post on this…

    -Tom, running the single domain beta in Government Digital Service

    • Tom – It was well worth writing the post just to get so rich a comment in response, thank you.

      Most of what you say feels absolutely right, but I am not sure that your second filter quite works in its current form.

      Other organisations can and do provide information on, for example, taxes, benefits, getting visas, and no doubt much more. But to my mind that would be a slightly odd reason for excluding them from the government site. Apart from the strange gaps that would be left, it seems to me that the fact that others may seek to explain government does not relieve government of the obligation to explain itself.

      It may well be that the government does not need to cover the finer points of beekeeping or how to fly a model aeroplane. And it is very easy for alternative providers of information to feel crowded out by government (and so an argument about whether government needs necessarily to make its own).

      So I can see a version of filter 2 working – but in its current form, it surely constrains too much.

      • I agree that “only do what only government can do” is a filter that sounds easy to apply, but in practice requires a lot of unpacking and a large dose of judgement.

        For example, take two areas where a case can be made for “only government can do this” online. They are very different.

        The first is when government is acting as the canonical, statutory or quasi-statutory source of definitive information. Other organisations may, can and should provide advice on benefits, tax, visas etc., but *only* the government can be canonical source. This stuff is pretty easy to spot, and there’s lots of it, dealing with a squillion edge and niche cases and providing chapter and verse on the rules and regulations.

        The second is when market failure rears its ugly head. Much trickier, and slipper. For example, provision of advice to a small businesses or start-ups. Even if there is a failure in the market to provide the breadth, depth and quality of information which is in the wider public interest (not saying there is here BTW) it is by no means certain that such a market failure will persist. Whereas government ‘crowding out’ risk is real and persistent, even if it is only in the minds of potential investors and entrepreneurs.

        (However, ensuring government-provided information & services are very easy to reuse via syndication & APIs reduces the crowding out risk and increases reach, hence its attraction as a strategy – I believe most NHS Choices information is now read away from the NHS Choices own website, while 75% of self-assessment transactions happen away from gov.uk via commercial, third party online services).

        Given the dynamic nature of the online world, identifying market failure in the provision of online services is a judgment call. It is far from being plausibly quantifiable, as Ofcom’s shoulder-shrugging analysis of BBC Local Video showed. (Right decision; shonky economics).

        But the precautionary principle should be to the fore when market failure is asserted as an argument for government provision of online services, just as it has been applied to BBC.co.uk’s portfolio following the Graf review of 2004.

        Alan Mather’s right. If in doubt, do less.

  2. I think you just have written a proper blog post on this. And there is clearly something of the hive mind at work – I had bees in the post as well until it all got too complicated

  3. Just a reminder that the long tail doesn’t just consist of lots of lots of ‘little’ things that are *different* from the things in the head and shoulder.

    So, for example, as you move into the tail a variety of facets of ‘big’ things reveal themselves. Take ” Council Tax” – a popular concept, but digging deeper, you find:

    council tax bands/council tax rates
    council tax exemptions
    how much is council tax?
    pay council tax/ pay council tax online
    council tax benefit
    council tax exemptions
    council house discounts
    council tax moving house
    Registering for Council Tax

    As Tom says, there’s also statutory and specialist information and opportunities to link to policy and legislation. So it’s important to provide strong clues to help users orientate themselves and get to the ‘right’ bit if they need the long tail information.

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