What Must The National Park Service Do To Improve Its Web Presence?
The Internet is the currency of the media world these days, with smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops tied into it to get the latest news and information. While the National Park Service is promoting its social media tools, and has greatly improved its websites in recent months, there still are some weak links.
A good example of this need surfaced just the other day, when it was announced that "Tuskegee Institute NHS, Tuskegee Airmen NHS and Selma to Montgomery NHT are extending their reach by using mobile tagging with interactive quick response (QR) codes. Park websites can now be accessed anywhere via mobile devices with a simple scan."
While QR codes provide a quick, easy way to link your smartphone to a specific website, the websites need to be prepared for that traffic. In general, the three sites mentioned above cover the bases in terms of providing visitor information, but there are gaps, and some shortfalls. One disappointing aspect common to not just these three sites but to all NPS sites is the "Schedule of Events" search feature. If a park doesn't populate its calendar, no results are returned. So if you search for events at Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail between January 5 and the end of March, you'll find there are absolutely no events. Is that truly the case, or hasn't the park staff gotten around to loading that information?
Constant monitoring also is needed to see that a park's "News" section is updated with the most recent release. Visit Selma to Montgomery's website and you'll find that no news releases have been posted since last March 27. Has no other newsworthy item surfaced since then?
Now, there are some very good websites in the National Park System universe. Yellowstone National Park's website overflows with information, so much so that it takes quite a while to digest, and problems arise because it can seem like you're traveling through a maze. If you don't have a well-designed site and an up-to-date Site Map, discovering just what is available for you can be a hit-and-miss proposition.
And sometimes even with a Site Map, 503 errors -- "We're sorry but the page you requested can't be served at this time." -- crop up. Another curiosity about Yellowstone's website (and maybe other nps.gov sites, too) is what happens when you click on the "Website Policies" link. You get a blank page.
But the Yellowstone webmeisters overall do a pretty great job with their pages. Click on the "Plan Your Visit" link on the home page and after a quick, descriptive paragraph of what awaits you in the park they offer a paragraph riddled with hot links to topics such as "things to do," "places to eat," "fees, reservations and permits," "accessibility" and, being seasonally correct, "Visiting in Winter."
Sadly, though, the link to "brochures" was out of operation when I checked Friday. It was back in service Saturday, and the list of available publications was robust, from fire science, bison ecology, and birding reports as well as backcountry planners and historical information. Isle Royale National Park's link to brochures is not as flashy in layout, but still offers a relatively rich selection of topics, from camping and boating to invasive species, fishing regs and the park newspaper.
Most of the big parks -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain -- have content-rich sites that, in general, are easy to explore. Maintenance will take some pages down occasionally -- no doubt the situation with Yellowstone's brochures page -- and that should be expected with the amount of traffic these sites bear.
Still, a general criticism of park websites is they're inconsistent. While some park sites list a page "For Kids" that provides information on Junior Ranger programs, other park sites don't. Some parks view their site's home page as a tourism billboard, and rightly so. Go to Cape Hatteras National Seashore's home page and you'll see links to Directions, Operating Hours & Seasons, Fees and Reservations, Program Schedule, Park Newspaper, and Events, Ocean Swimming Safety, Off-Road Vehicle Use, Climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Bodie Island Lighthouse Tours. But there's nothing on camping, a topic that is deeper inside the site, taking three clicks to reach.
Smaller (in size) park units, and large (in size) units that experience relatively little visitation both suffer from a lack of web maintenance, something that could be tied directly to a lack of staff and funding. For instance, if you wanted this past weekend to tour Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve's photo gallery to go "on a virtual expedition through the vast, expansive, natural beauty of the Brooks Range," you were rewarded with, "Unable to connect to the CommonSpot SITES data source 'commonspot-sites'. Please verify that this is a valid ColdFusion data source."
Interested in camping somewhere in the Delaware and Leigh National Heritage Corridor in Pennsylvania? Click on the "Outdoor Activites" link and you're sent to a page that says, "A wide range of lodging and camping opportunities are available within the Corridor, from a gilded age bed and breakfast to primitive camping opportunities." Period. Where you might find those facilities is a mystery.
Some websites can seem a bit mysterious when you reach their homepage. Delaware and Leigh National Heritage Corridor's, for instance, greets you with two links in the left-hand column: Park Home and Plan Your Visit. Click on Park Home and you're taken...to the page you're on. Click on Plan Your Visit and the possibilities open up a bit, with links for directions to the park, operating hours, fees, accessbility, things to do, and things to know before you come...a link that leads to bare bones pages, one on weather that states: We have four seasons and the temperature varies 10 degrees from one end of the Corridor to the other on any given day. The winters are harsher in the two mountainous northern counties (Luzerne and Carbon) than in the southern-most county (Bucks).
No doubt, staffing and funding constraints surely are behind the inconsistencies and shortfalls of nps.gov websites. But here in the 21st century, where information can/should be a click or two away on the Internet, the Park Service needs to not just strive for consistency and delivery, but ensure it.
For starters, it should require that every park's homepage contain links for the basics: Plan Your Visit, Photos & Multimedia, History & Culture, Nature & Science, For Teachers, For Kids, News, and Management. And those pages should have information on them and content that is updated regularly.
If need be, park managers, give your social media staffers a break from Twitter and Instagram and have them spend some time on website content. The rest of us will appreciate it so much more.