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Entry research (June 2017)
We could add links (or deeper integration) to ePermit in many parts of fs.fed.us. We want ePermit to be easily accessible, but don’t want to create “sign pollution,” or add too many distracting or redundant additions to the site.
In these situations, 18F conducts a brief study of our users’ behavior to find out where they actually look (rather than just what we think they do).
When attempting to apply for a Forest permit, where do outfitters and guides look? Christmas tree permittees? Non-commercial group use permittees?
Drawing from the participants in our earlier discovery studies, we recruited 5 outfitters and guides, and 4 people who might purchase Christmas trees in the future.
We recruited two types of participants:
- Members of the general public who might apply for Christmas tree permits or non-commercial group use permits
- Outfitters/guides (who participated in our previous research)
We intercepted members of the public in Boston, and contact outfitters/guides who have previously expressed interest in participating in our research.
We set up calls and asked participants to share their screen with us. Then we asked them to show us how they’d complete the following tasks:
- For outfitters and guides: Show us, where would you go to find out about operating a business that does something in [nearby National Forest*]?
- For outfitters and guides: Show us, where would you go to find out about hosting a large event in [nearby National Forest*]?
- For Christmas tree cutters: Show us, where would you go to find out about cutting a Christmas tree in a national forest?
We observed what they did, asked follow-up questions and affinity mapped our observations at the end.
Christmas tree and special use applicants rely on search engines to find permitting information. Even repeat outfitters and guides don't navigate directly to the Forest Service website; instead, they Google related terms to minimize traversing the Forest Service navigation hierarchy and get directly to the form.
There are three ways in which applicants use search engines to find permit applications:
- They search for the forest's name, find the forest's website and then navigate within the forest website to find an application form.
- They search for both the forest and permit type's name and attempt to find the application form without navigating the Forest Service website.
- They search for the permit type's name (without the forest's name) and the attempt to find forest-specific information with a national permit page.
Participants try to minimize the amount they navigate the forest services' navigation hierarchy. All the participants we observed tried to get to find a permit application in as few clicks as possible. They weren't "browsers" as much as "targeted fishers."
Forest Service permit-related pages rank highly in Google searches. In all of the above scenarios, applicants easily located Forest Service pages and didn't confuse Forest Service pages with others. With a .gov URL and accessible website, Forest Service pages are relatively discoverable.
A few participants used the interactive map, mostly to find activity focused information. A few participants navigated to the Forest Service's interactive map to find information about Christmas tree sales. No outfitters and guides relied on the map. Participants noted that they would use the interactive map if they were looking for locations to do a particular activity.
We should focus on making ePermit discoverable from search engines, not just the Forest Service website. As so many applicants search directly for permit applicants (not just forest websites), we should make ePermit easily findable directly from search engine results as well as via links from the forest webpages.
ePermit should continue to follow basic search engine optimization strategies including:
- Offering pages with rich textual descriptions of ePermit (not just the forms) that search engines can crawl and register. The words 'permit', 'application' or 'proposal' should appear in the title tag, header and body of the ePermit description page.
- Ensure that ePermit URLs continue to be canonical and descriptive. We should ensure that they include both the word 'permit', the name of the forest and permit type. A single URL should correspond to each forest-permit type combination and that URL shouldn't change after the system goes into production.
- Providing structured data for search engine results. For example, use the '' description tags to provide a quick description to search engine users. Even better: use PageMap and Microformats to provide search engine readers more readable information about ePermit offerings.
- Linking to relevant Forest Service pages related to permitting. These links are not only helpful for users, but to signal the ePermit system's relationship with a well-ranked website like fs.fed.us.
- The Forest Service should include links to ePermit that enhance its search engine visibility and aid user navigation. Multiple links from Forest Service pages to ePermit system will enhance its search engine rankings. In particular, the Forest Service could offer links from the following pages:
- "Passes and Permits" pages on forest websites (https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/mbs/passes-permits)
- "Event and Commercial Use" pages on forest websites for special use permits (https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/mbs/passes-permits)
- "Recreation Passes" and "Other Permits" pages on forest service websites for Christmas tree permits (https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/mbs/passes-permits)
- Christmas tree permitting-specific pages on forest websites (https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/passes-permits/forestproducts/?cid=fseprd500154)
- National passes and permits page (https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/passes-permits)
It's important that we only add links to forest pages in relevant places. The Forest Service website is already dense with links. "Over linking" will drive down ePermit's search engine rankings and contribute to a "sign pollution" problem. Instead, we want to add well placed links (described above) that aid users.
Explore adding activity-focused ePermit links to the interactive map. A few applicants used the interactive map to discover what forest to find Christmas tree permits within. We could add links between the interactive map and ePermit from particular activities displayed on a map. For example, if the map notes that Christmas tree cutting is possible in that area, the subsequent pop-up should ink to Christmas tree Open Forest.
Continue to monitor and measure the findability of ePermit within search engines. The Forest Service and ePermit team can use the Digital Analytics Program to measure how much traffic is coming from search engines and Forest Service links. Increasing traffic from search engines generally indicates people are finding ePermit faster.