In a previous blog post, I discussed how IRS Online Accounts must provide additional functionality and integration with existing tools to meet the needs of taxpayers and tax professionals. Today, I would like to zoom out and look at the larger picture – the usability of IRS.gov. In this two-part series, I will discuss three aspects of IRS.gov: the search engine, visual layout, and website content and how it can be improved to benefit taxpayers and tax administration, and to reduce frustration and confusion for taxpayers and tax professionals.
Websites, including IRS.gov, generally serve one or more purposes, such as providing information, solving a problem, answering a question, and/or providing the ability to make an electronic transaction. A well-designed website should be easy-to-use, reliable, and should contain information in easy-to-understand language with options to provide choice of language. The IRS has been encouraging taxpayers, their representatives, and practitioners to use IRS.gov, the official website of the IRS, first to find answers to questions and self-help solutions rather than calling IRS Customer Service Representatives or employees. IRS.gov is massive and contains millions of pages of information. In today’s day and age, technology is commonplace in our lives, both personal and professional. Taxpayers expect to be able to self-help and resolve issues through technology, and the internet has become the starting point for many. However, I suspect that I’m not the only IRS.gov user that finds it falls short for an easy to use or well-designed website. The positive aspects of IRS.gov – around-the-clock access and vast amounts of content – are diminished if taxpayers can’t find the information they need quickly, effortlessly, and in easy-to-understand terms.
Propelled into action by the pandemic, the IRS has been adding tools and information to IRS.gov at what, for it, is a lightning pace. While I encourage and applaud the IRS for moving in a technology-minded direction to improve the customer experience and service delivery, I want to call attention to the difficulties taxpayers are experiencing when using IRS.gov and share suggestions and observations to improve the experience.
In the age of technology there is constant access to vast amounts of information. The basket overflows, people get overwhelmed. – Criss Jami, Author
For information housed on the internet to be useful, users must be able to find the information they need quickly and easily. If a user doesn’t know which website contains the information they need, the user can perform an internet-wide search using a search engine, which acts as filter for the wealth of information available. Many websites, including IRS.gov, have their own search engines for users to search for content within that website.
A good search engine allows users to find pertinent information on the site without wading through numerous irrelevant webpages. Successful search results depend on the ability of the search engine’s proprietary algorithm to link the user’s query to relevant information. The better the algorithm, the better the search results.
Most users begin their online experience by using a commercial search engine to search for information rather than using the IRS search engine. The IRS focuses its efforts on this user behavior by ensuring links to relevant IRS.gov content rank high in internet-wide search results. However, there is a real danger that taxpayers doing an internet-wide search will be led to unreliable or incorrect information, or, worse, a fraudulent website. Fraudsters have created realistic replicas of trusted sites to mislead visitors and steal their information. Taxpayers must be able to get answers to their tax questions directly from a trusted source. And that trusted source should be IRS.gov. It should be the first place where taxpayers can find authoritative tax information.
According to the IRS’s Office of Online Services (OLS), ten percent of IRS.gov visitors use the IRS.gov search engine. But this statistic doesn’t tell us why the number is so low or whether these users found the desired information quickly using the search results. Based on my experience and others I’ve talked to, the IRS.gov search engine rarely returns valuable results. As a result, the shortcomings of IRS.gov cause many users to turn to a commercial search engine after the IRS.gov search engine proves to be less than useful, which is disconcerting.
Here is an example. A father searches IRS.gov, using “can I claim my minor child as a dependent if the child doesn’t live with me”. This search on IRS.gov returns the following message:
Your search did not return any results. Please try the search suggestions below.
Tips for searching
• Check the spelling of your search
• Try a different search
• Try using more general words in your search
• Alternatively, you can try using the menus to find what you’re looking for
What? The IRS has no information on this topic? Impossible. And unfortunately, the “search tips” are of no help.
Whereas the same question searched using a commercial internet search engine returned over 10 million results! Ironically, the fourth result on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is a link to information on IRS.gov.
This example highlights the limitations of the IRS.gov search engine. Unlike many internet search engines, the IRS.gov search engine doesn’t allow for plain language – which was the problem with the above example – and doesn’t adjust for incorrect spelling or use/non-use of hyphens.
The frustration is that the information does exist on IRS.gov; you just can’t get to it easily.
Helpful Hint: I find the IRS.gov search engine aggravating and unhelpful. In fact, I have quit using it. I typically use a commercial internet search engine and simply add “IRS.gov” to my search, which elevates any IRS.gov webpage to the top of my search.
To be fair, most people just use two or three words as their search query rather than the sentence I used in the above example. But keywords bring their own challenge to a search. The world of tax has its own language and even “common” tax terms can be confusing for the non-tax person (“dependent” versus “exemption” versus “credit”). Because the IRS.gov search engine is keyword-based, meaning users must enter the word(s) to be searched rather than a question or phrase, a taxpayer’s tax vocabulary impacts their ability to retrieve needed information.
Many search engines give search suggestions based on what is being typed into the search box to help users find terms or phrases for commonly searched information. IRS.gov doesn’t have this feature, so taxpayers are left to guess which words to use in their search or, worse, cannot search because they are unfamiliar with the needed tax terms.
Simply returning search results won’t satisfy the user if the user can’t quickly link to the needed information. The success of the search comes down to how well the indexing algorithm associates specific webpage information with the query at hand. Indexing also determines SERP page placement. According to firstpagesage.com, 75.7 percent of users select one of the top four search results, regardless of the total number of results returned. In other words, the link to the needed information must be high on the SERP for taxpayers to find it useful.
IRS.gov returns search results over 90 percent of the time, but I rarely find the IRS.gov SERP useful. When I searched for information about the current processing delays, IRS.gov returned over 300 results. As I scrolled through the SERP, I didn’t quickly find a link to the needed information. I gave up after the first few pages. I believe taxpayers have little desire to slog through SERP results hoping to find the information they need.
The good news is that the OLS is working to make IRS.gov content easier to find through ongoing initiatives to make content more search friendly.
We must understand what taxpayers have in their head so we can guide them to what they need in the language they are using. – IRS Office of Online Services
While not directly related to the IRS.gov search engine, the IRS is helping taxpayers connect to topic-specific information by including friendly shortcuts to detailed IRS.gov content in many of its forms, publications, and advertisements. Also, the IRS is including quick response (QR) codes in some letters and notices mailed to taxpayers that, when scanned, link the taxpayer to information specific to that letter/notice. I highly recommend the IRS continue to use QR codes as an option to direct taxpayers to the appropriate information quickly and in an easy-to-use format. COVID-19 has taught many of us how to use QR codes in our daily lives (whether we wanted to or not). Restaurants, service industries, and businesses are utilizing QR codes as part of their daily business.
Taxpayers should be able to find answers to their tax questions directly from the IRS, not the internet at large without knowing or understanding the credibility of the source. IRS.gov should be the number one source of tax information. But to be taxpayers’ first port of call when searching for tax information, the IRS must provide a search engine at least as useful as the commercial search engines most taxpayers use.
In my next post, I will discuss the visual layout of IRS.gov and the content. Stay tuned for Part Two!
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the National Taxpayer Advocate. The National Taxpayer Advocate presents an independent taxpayer perspective that does not necessarily reflect the position of the IRS, the Treasury Department, or the Office of Management and Budget.