“We live in the capitol city of the state of Oregon; the city website needs to be prestigious,” says Dolores Mlynarczyk, a science outreach program coordinator at Willamette University. “Why even have a site, if the public can’t find what it needs?”
In response to locals who voice frustration as they wrangled with the City of Salem’s official website, Salem Weekly asked three college professionals to time themselves performing specific tasks on the site.
The results were not generally positive. All three – Mlynarczyk of Willamette University, Dr. Keller Coker, (university professor for more than 20 years and Professor of Music at WOU) and GwenEllyn Anderson, (who has a Doctorate degree, a Masters and two Bachelors degrees, and has taught at Chemeketa Community College since 1991) – agreed that there were fundamental challenges.
All three said they initially liked the site. “Finding the site was a breeze,” says Coker. Anderson agreed, adding, “The home page is engaging.” After that, though, they sided with Mlynarczyk’s frank assessment: “… but the site itself is kind of confusing.”
The city has worked strenuously to improve the site, says Mike Gotterba, Public Information Officer for the city of Salem. He notes the wide range of effort the city team puts in to connecting with citizens.
“Every day,” he says, “the city openly communicates with residents and stakeholders, providing relevant and timely information… the city’s website is only one piece of a larger communication strategy,” which includes radio, TV, billboards, email, printed mailings, door hangers, community meetings and social media like Facebook and Twitter.
We asked our college professionals to time themselves locating three things: (1) the minutes for the first City Council meeting held in June 2012, (2) the phone number and email for city staff person Julie Warncke; who works at City Hall, and (3) details on a vacancy on Salem’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
For Coker, finding the minutes took 2 minutes 18 seconds. This pleased him. “I’ve never been to the site before, so this didn’t seem like too much time,” he said. It took only a breezy 31 seconds for Anderson.
However, locating Julie Warncke was a greater challenge. Coker says that after 12 ½ minutes he gave up. “There are lots of phone numbers and emails, but very few names, aside from the names of the City Council members.”
“I tried to find Warncke within the City of Salem site,” Anderson reports. “After 5:20 minutes, I gave up. In my search, I reviewed the options on the first page and clicked on a few, like Administrative Services.”
“Surprisingly,” she continues, “the Directory A-Z is an in-house directory… and when I clicked on W (for Warncke) I immediately realized that this was not going to get me where I wanted to go.”
Next, Anderson scrolled down to the bottom of the page and clicked on Contact Us – “I DID find a link to Directory of staff by division. I clicked on this several times and have yet to get any results.”
Her solution? Anderson noticed “the Search link at the top [of the Home page]. I typed ‘Warncke’ and got many hits – ALL of them were PDF files.”
These consist primarily of meeting notes and former press releases issued by the City. Some of them – such as the main site for the City’s Transportation Plan – did provide Warncke’s contact info.
As for the third task, Coker had no luck at all. “After 3:26 [minutes], I came to the conclusion that there is no opening on the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission. If there is, I’m not sure where else I’d look.”
The same assignment took Anderson more than seven minutes. “I was determined,” she said, though, “I thought that the Job Openings would cover this and quickly found out that it was not listed there.“
Exploring the site she ran into “links that take you nowhere, or give you Error Messages when you try to link to them.” She explored several and got a message that she should narrow her search. Single words like ‘Commission’ or ‘Landmark’ gave her the same message.
She did a custom search for Historic Landmark Commission. The first link she found took her to the Commission website. Scrolling down, she backtracked to the agenda for the December 2012 meeting. A note under Action Items led her, eventually, to proof that there had been a position open.
There is no question that an organization as large and complex as Salem city government has to continually struggle to keep web content clearly organized and accessible. To face this challenge, Gotterba reports that “The Web Team meets regularly to collaborate, discuss, and plan for ways to improve the website through regular enhancements.” He says anyone having trouble finding information is welcome to email the firstname.lastname@example.org or call the City of Salem’s general public contact number at 503-588-6255.
He states, “The city’s website will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the Salem community, with a more citizen-focused navigation and site structure gradually taking form over the next several of years. The goal for this transition is to improve the sharing of information with the community and involve more Salem residents in city government.”
The city’s website is continually being improved and updated. Gotterba tell us, “Feedback on the website is highly valued and encouraged,” referring to the feedback form available on the ‘Contact Us’ web page.
“No matter who or where a comment or suggestion comes from, an effort is made to contact the person or group to find a way to accommodate the feedback… and improve the website for the community. During the 2012 Calendar year the City received almost 50 comments or suggestions, all of which had impact and value.”
This means that in future years, thanks to the ongoing efforts of Gotterba and his team, locals will have an easier time finding the information they need on the web site.