Are local history society web rankings a three card trick or lucky dip?

What seems an age ago, I started to compile a list of 'top' local history websites in the United Kingdom according to Google, the premier online search engine, in groups of ten. If the list had remained static then I would now be telling you about those societies which are ranked 41st to 50th, but, of course, it doesn't work that way. Why? The answer is that Google's rankings are always changing because of the way their software 'crawls' the Internet looking for changes in all manner of things, including links and postings.

The list of top online local history related societies in this report uses a Google list I compiled on 10 February 2009 and has one new feature. After the name of each society, I show their [ranking]. If you compare this list and previous ones with Google after reading this report, you will see changes, some quite dramatic.

After compiling five lists over the last ten months I have decided to change the focus of my next report to online local history forums and discussion groups, both local and national. If you know of any forums you think are worth looking at (or not), I would be very pleased to hear from you. Simply email me at:

The Association of Northumberland Local History Societies [8th] uses its website to disseminate information about the work of the Association, including the promotion of periodic county-wide research projects. The results of a 'Village Shops and Trades' Survey 2004–2006, 'to record the changing patterns of retail and trade premises in the towns, villages and hamlets' in the county, have been published in the October 2008 edition of Tyne & Tweed, the Association's annual journal. Last year a new project, 'The names and signs of pubs and inns in Northumberland' started, although more topical events have caught ANLHS's attention, with an appeal in the News Section for members to photograph post offices and allotments, both of which are disappearing at, in the words of the Association's Chairman, 'a startling rate'. So are pubs of course and it may be this topicality which has pushed the website up the rankings. A good example of the fact that you don't need lots of historic photographs to create a good local history website

Family History Online [12th], a website belonging to the Federation of Family History Societies, makes no direct reference to 'local history'. The main item of news it carries is a message saying the site will close at Noon on 2 March 2009, when all its data and services will transfer to the website. So how have they made it into the list? The answer may be in 'meta tags' buried in the 'headers' on the site's web pages. Type 'meta tag' into Google and you will find links to websites explaining why meta tags are 'magical' and can 'skyrocket' you to the top of search engine rankings. The danger of this approach is that the 'crawlers' will find you out if you misuse them and your website will then disappear from the rankings.

Ponteland Local History Society [13th] is in Northumberland and was founded in 1968, since when it appears to have amassed an impressive amount of information and has a number of different collections. The Society has ninety members according to the website and operates a Help Desk at Ponteland Branch Library every Friday afternoon. There are some historic photographs of the area buried under 'Publications', which you can purchase. Any local history website which gives proper postal addresses for its officers deserves a pat on the back.

Old Father Thames [14th] was last updated on 9 October 2000 and on what appears to be an incomplete home page says the aim of the website is to 'provide information, mainly historical facts… related to an identified point in the course of or on the banks of the river Thames between the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. The ranking is actually for another incomplete webpage containing information about local history societies along the same stretch of the Thames. How it got this high up the rankings in 2009 is a mystery.

North Waltham, Steventon, Ashe and Deane History Society [15th] covers a group of North Hampshire villages just south-west of Basingstoke. The society was founded in 2000. Each village has its own section on the website and there is a webpage with further links to an 'image archive' which was created as part of a Local Heritage Initiative funded project in North Waltham. There are lots of links to websites associated with Jane Austen, who was born in Steventon. To appreciate fully what this website has to offer you will need a certain amount of patience.

Birmingham & District Local History Association's website [16th] has an up-to-date and comprehensive list of local history meetings across the city and surrounding area and plenty to interest its visitors, but some sections need updating. Looking after a website such as this is a mammoth undertaking and it has to be a team effort. Paul Baker, who looks after the website, depends on other members to provide him with information and news for the website. The sudden loss of a key officer in 2008 caused problems which other volunteers have had to address. Things are beginning to happen again and the site is going to have a makeover. What makes a good website is a combination of things: a good team, design, topicality and vision. If any of these elements is missing, for whatever reason, then there will be problems.

Betley Local History Society [23rd] is in Staffordshire, north-west of Newcastle under Lyme, and can trace its origins back to a university extra-mural class in the village in the late-1970s. The website is well organised and full of information, with a long list of page links in the left-hand column of every page, which is repeated across the bottom of every page, and an unchanging header bar saying 'Discovering Village History'. The section 'People Research' takes you to another section called 'Betley Research Contacts', which then links to a list of individual or family names of people who have lived in Betley at some time in the past which was last revised on 12 June 2005. I also like the fact that as well as listing all the Society's planned meetings for 2009 you can see previous yearly programmes dating back to 2005.

Dorset local history and heritage [33rd] is a section on the '' website, which is part of Dorset County Council, and the first local authority website to make it into the rankings which, on reflection, is somewhat of a surprise, given that archive websites are, almost without exception, full of information relating to local history. Part of the problem may be that they are constructed as searchable databases, which means there are few fixed pages — the pages you find are produced in response to a specific search. What you see in this particular case is a webpage containing a collection of links to other parts of the website, including Dorset History Centre.

Silverton Local History Society [39th] in Devon has a website which is elegant in appearance and tells you just enough to gain your interest. The Society was founded in 1981 and has a 'Welcome' page which tells you about the history of the village and a Society page about their history and activities. There is also a list of 2009 meetings. This website has a mission — to tell you about Silverton LHS and its location — and it does it almost faultlessly.

Hexham Local History Society [43rd] is hosted on a website called Northumberland Life, 'a free service supported by Local Government, Business and Community organisations to allow not-for-profit groups based in Northumberland to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet, without the high cost and need to understand website design'. Hexham LHS have taken full advantage of this service and created a website that won't win any prizes for its looks, but is full of information.

Finally, what is the answer to my opening question? I think it's a mixture of things. Clever webmasters can play the system and push local history societies up the rankings, but if someone goes searching for a particular piece of information and types in the right phrase, then bingo, they will arrive at your website. There is always another way, but that I will leave for another article.

Well, this is it for now. There will be future looks at local history societies on the web. In the meantime, you could carry out some local history searches of your own. You may be surprised and delighted by what you discover. As for me, well, I'm off to take a look at online local history forums.

Robert Howard

16 February 2009

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