Energy offers a website redesign cautionary tale

Editor's Note: This article was changed after its original publication to correct Dawn Stover's title.

The Energy Department’s recent website redesign and move into the cloud apparently created a "black hole" for some documents. Users complained that they could longer find documents that were once easily located. 

"Energy.gov—where information goes to die,” was the headline on a Jan. 25 article written by Dawn Stover, contributing editor for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Stover, in the article, described her frustrations in her recent attempts to locate key documents at Energy.gov related to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste proposal and other projects. She blamed the apparent disappearance of the documents into a "black hole" on the recent Energy.gov redesign completed in 2011.

The Energy Department has found the documents and returned them to prominence, according to its own blog, but the cause of their dropping out of view might affect other agency websites. And while Energy found the specific documents that Stover was seeking, other documents may still be difficult to locate.


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“Does the overhauled website look prettier and make it easier for visitors to get localized information about tax credits, rebates, and energy-saving tips? Yes. But people who want to dig deeper into energy information may encounter dead ends,” Stover wrote in the article, which was tweeted and linked around the Internet and was picked up by a prominent editor.

“In short, documents that were once available online are now locked away,” Alexis Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote in a Jan. 27 article on Energy.gov that cited Stover’s research.

Responding to the complaints, the Energy Department has set up a new Web page for the Yucca Mountain documents.

“Within a couple days of the concern being raised, we were able to quickly elevate additional Yucca Mountain Documents, update their metadata and make them more findable,” Cammie Croft, the department’s senior adviser and director of new media and citizen engagement, wrote in a Jan. 30 blog entry at Energy.gov. She led the redesign effort for the department.

Croft asserted that the inaccessible documents occurred most likely because of improper or absent tagging of older Portable Document Files, which is a longstanding concern. “That challenge existed before our redesign and still exists today,” Croft wrote. “The problem is that unless older PDFs are correctly metatagged with relevant keywords, they may not show up in search results.”

The website redesign, which moved the website to a Drupal-based content management system, actually has made it easier to identify and address the tagging concerns for the documents, Croft added.

“The Energy.gov of today … is much better than what was offered before,” Croft wrote. “And it’s getting better every day as we migrate additional documents and departmental office websites to the new platform.”

The website redesign document accessibility problems at Energy.gov may affect other federal agencies as well. Other federal agency Web portals may face similar complaints from researchers and specialists following website redesigns that focused on enabling “top tasks,” according to a recent study by Professor Cary Coglianese of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The top tasks generally included just a handful of the most popular activities associated with the federal Web portals, such as searches for the most popular documents or services. The top tasks generally did not include researchers’ access to specialized documents or regulations.

As a result of the redesigns in the last three years, Coglianese found that agency Web portals currently provide fewer links to e-rulemaking resources than they did in the past.

For example, in 2005, 27 percent of agency portals linked to Regulations.gov. In 2011, only 21 percent were so linked.

Coglianese told FCW in an interview in 2011 that following the wave of federal website redesigns, it became more difficult to find rulemaking information online.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Feb 1, 2012

Sadly, the search capabilities of most CMS systems (even excellent ones like Drupal or MediaWiki) lag behind the general search such as Google. The standard advice (sometimes even provided by the very sites in question) is to use Google for search. This is because Google is good at its core competency, both because of technology and because Google's search uses third party links, which can be seen as an independent third party document quality assesment.

It's also worth keeping in mind that sometimes people complain because their bookmarks no longer work. This is hard to avoid when redesigning websites. One technique worth remembering is to look at the server logs, pull out most frequently accessed documents and implement URL rewriting module specifically for a list of those high traffic documents.

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 bendygirl DC

Of the 3.7 million documents, how many were repeats? Tagging helps de-clutter sites that have duplicate information. Searching helps even more. For other documents that may have once been available, ask for them or do a FOIA request. The DOE isn't a group of mind readers. You have to migrate top tasks first. That does mean some things will get dropped or pushed down the list until they can either grab your attention or can be added to the next phase. DOE has a much better and easier site to use. Hopefully, researches can also help push away from documents and more into data so that we can look at ways to using APIs or exposed data to better understand what government does, does well, does poorly or still needs to address.

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 P. T. Barnum

DOE made 44 documents available out of 3.7 million Yucca Mt. licensing-relevant that were formerly available in PDF with metadata as of Aug 2011.

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