The Register has a piece on an arbitration case where our own DVLA (Drive Vehicle Licensing Authority) wanted to take the DVLA.com domain name from its present owners, DVL Automation. I don’t have a clue about this case, why it came up nor do I know any of the background so I won’t comment on the merits of the case itself. But, it did make me think about URLs for government.
Government, of course, owns the “.gov” domain (in our case the “.gov.uk” domain) so we can pretty much put whatever we want in there (check the site www.hedgehogs.gov.uk) if you want proof. There are some rules, but given that we have more than 2,300 domain names it doesn’t seem likely that they are too stringent. So, if you’re a government department, you take your name, append “.gov.uk” and there you have it. So we have “dwp.gov.uk”, “cabinet-office.gov.uk” and so on.
But that, as I’ve said (once or twice) before is government speak. Even making it “dwp.com”, if we could do such a thing doesn’t make it any less government speak. It may be a few keystrokes shorter, but if someone is looking for “child benefit” (and I know I keep using that example, I could just as easily talk about fuel allowances or oil taxation or where you go when you want to export a collectible flint-lock rifle) would they know or care that it’s at “dwp.com” or “dwp.gov.uk”? I guess they might if they were either Internet-savvy or government savvy.
Don’t people find what they are looking for using a search engine? Do they even know the domain name of the site that they arrive at? It may be that you check the domain name when dealing with government because you trust the “.gov.uk” tag as a sign that it’s real, but I’m not even sure about that (the fact that people check as well as, perhaps, the fact that it must be real if it’s in the browser bar). If you type “child benefit” into google, the first entry is a page deep in the DWP website, so that works fine. Funnily enough, the first link on ukonline from that search is about “child tax credits” – I’ve written before about how confusing that must be for people; the third is child benefit.
The other way people find the stuff that they are looking for is probably by looking at whatever piece of paper they’ve got in their hands from the department. I know when I pay my British Gas bill it sends me to “house.co.uk” – nothing to do with Gas at all. So, a piece of paper from DVLA could have “dvla.gov.uk” or even “motoring.gov.uk” or something similar printed on it (and I imagine it would make sense to put it on every page so that people didn’t hunt for it). Once they were there, they’d bookmark it if it was good. And if it wasn’t, well they’d find it the next time using the same bit of paper or the search engine again.
So, either you need a great search engine, a marketing strategy that stamps your domain name on every single bit of paper that leaves your office, or maybe just a single domain name that gets you everywhere you want quickly and easily. The folks in Dubai have gone for the latter, so far we in the UK have gone for a mix of everything (without success as so many surveys and press reports tell me regularly – there’s a message there for the UK) – but there is still the matter have 1800 sites to navigate around. So, in the end, I don’t know what DVLA were trying to do when they had all the other tools at their disposal – but, as I said, I wasn’t close to the case (and I know the square root of nothing about domain name politics – I’ll stick to e-government if that’s ok).