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Question to Kent County Council [with answer], 13 December 2012: Google, cookies and the Kent County Council website

January 14, 2013 10:54 AM
Originally published by Liberal Democrats on Kent County Council

Question by Tim Prater to Mike Hill, Cabinet Member for Customer & Communities

On searching through Google for "Kent County Councillor Mike Hill", a link is found to Mr Hill's Councillor profile on the kent.gov.uk website, but the description underneath reads that "A description for this result is not available because of this site's robots.txt".

The same applies to many other pages across the site, and the indexing of still more files on the kent.gov.uk are explicitly blocked.

a) In these days of transparency and openness, would the Cabinet Member for Customer and Communities explain why?

and

b) Given web users must therefore visit the KCC site to acquire any description, could he also inform the Council what prior consent is sought from users of kent.gov.uk to store cookies on users computers?"

Answer

a) This particular issue is simply a technical problem, which was caused by a change in the way Google searches our site - this is a recent update made by Google and we are already making the necessary amendments to accommodate the changes. Effectively, those changes affect the page description Google results show when specific search results are given. We are working with Google to find a solution but the problem is intermittent and several improvements have already been made. For example, entering Mr Hill's name into Google on Tuesday 11 December delivered the appropriate result.

b) Our approach on managing cookies has been informed by the Information Commissioners' Office guidance published in April this year. Our approach mirrors that of many other councils and organisations. Since we don't use cookies to identify individuals or target advertising, we've taken a sensible approach that will explain why and how we use cookies, direct people to information elsewhere on the web to find out more about cookies and to websites that explain how they can disable them if they wish on their browsers. It will also allow the usability and accessibility of the website to remain unaffected while still observing ICO guidelines. This approach has been agreed by our Information Governance Team.

Here is the link to our cookies policy - http://www.kent.gov.uk/website_information/how_we_use_cookies.aspx.

Update: the Council then provided a further written supplementary answer the following week as below:

Google search results for councillor web pages

Google has made a change to the way it shows search results by showing the description that Mr Prater refers to when it can't show any search snippet in the search results.

The wording Google displays implies that we have deliberately blocked Google from searching these pages, but we haven't. Our robots.txt has always allowed Google to search our website. We investigated the problem on Wednesday 12 December and followed some advice recommended by Google. However, the problem still occurs intermittently. For example, after we made the change on Wednesday, Google had removed the description from the search results. I checked again on Friday morning and the message was there, but by Friday afternoon message was gone. I have checked again this morning and the message is still not there.

We have logged a call with our CMS supplier to see if they are aware of the problem and are waiting to hear back. We have also contacted modern.gov, the supplier of the committees system, to see if they are aware of the problem as it particularly affects the councillor pages set up on our website that automatically direct visitors to the pages in the modern.gov system.

Use of cookies on KCC's website

After reading the advice from the Information Commissioner's Office and the guide from the International Chamber of Commerce designed to help website operators interpret the legislation, in spring 2012 we:

  • · Conducted an audit of cookies used on the main KCC website
  • · Published this audit on the website
  • · Reviewed our cookies policy
  • · Published an easy to read, clear explanation of what cookies we use on the website and signposted people to websites that explain more about cookies and how to disable them

We decided that implied consent was a reasonable approach based on the types of cookies we use. This is in line with the guidance from the Information Commissioner's Office and is the approach that many other organisations and councils have followed.

We will review our cookies policy annually - the next review will take place as part of the website redevelopment in 2013.