NTA Blog: IRS.gov – How usable is it? (part one)


In a previous blog post, I discussed how IRS online accounts should 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 big picture – the friendliness of IRS.gov. In this two-part series, I will discuss three aspects of IRS.gov: the search engine, the visual layout and content of the website and how it can be improved to benefit taxpayers and the tax administration. , and to reduce frustration and confusion for taxpayers and taxes. professionals.

Functionality of IRS.gov

Websites, including IRS.gov, generally serve one or more purposes, such as providing information, solving a problem, answering a question, and/or enabling an electronic transaction to be performed. A well-designed website should be easy to use, reliable, and contain information in easy-to-understand language with options to choose the language. The IRS has encouraged taxpayers, their representatives, and practitioners to use IRS.gov, the official IRS website, first to find answers to questions and self-help solutions rather than calling customer service representatives or IRS employees. IRS.gov is massive and contains millions of pages of information. Nowadays, technology is commonplace in our lives, both personal and professional. Taxpayers expect to be able to help themselves and solve problems through technology, and the internet has become the starting point for many. However, I suspect that I am not the only user of IRS.gov to find that it is not an easy-to-use or well-designed website. The positive aspects of IRS.gov – round-the-clock access and vast amounts of content – are diminished if taxpayers cannot 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 it says is lightning pace. While I encourage and applaud the IRS for moving in a technology-driven direction to improve customer experience and service delivery, I want to draw attention to the challenges taxpayers face when using IRS .gov and share suggestions and observations to improve the experience.

It all starts with a good search engine

In the age of technology, there is constant access to vast amounts of information. The basket is overflowing, people are overwhelmed. – Criss Jami, author

For information hosted on the Internet to be useful, users must be able to quickly and easily find the information they need. If a user does not know which website contains the information they need, the user can search the entire Internet using a search engine, which acts as a filter for the wealth of information available. Many websites, including IRS.gov, have their own search engines that allow users to search for content on this website.

A good search engine allows users to find relevant information on the site without browsing many irrelevant web pages. 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 that links to relevant IRS.gov content appear prominently in Internet search results. However, there is a real danger that taxpayers searching the entire internet will be led to unreliable or incorrect information, or worse, to a fraudulent website. Fraudsters have created realistic replicas of trusted sites to trick visitors and steal their information. Taxpayers must be able to obtain answers to their tax questions directly from a reliable 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 Office of Online Services (OLS), ten percent of visitors to IRS.gov use the IRS.gov search engine. But this stat doesn’t tell us why the number is so low or if these users found the information they wanted quickly using search results. In my experience and others I have spoken to, the IRS.gov search engine rarely returns valid 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 has proven less than helpful, which is disconcerting.

Here is an example. A father searches IRS.gov using “can I declare my minor child as a dependent if the child does not live with me”. This search on IRS.gov returns the following message:

Your search yielded no results. Please try the search suggestions below.

Research Tips
• Check the spelling of your search
• Try another search
• Try to use more general words in your search
• You can also try using the menus to find what you are looking for

What? The taxman has Nope information on this subject? Impossible. And unfortunately the “search tips” are of no help.

While 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 does not allow plain language – which was the problem with the example above – and does not adjust for incorrect spelling or the use/non-use of hyphens.

The frustration is that the information Is exist on IRS.gov; you cannot access it easily.

Helpful Hint: I find the IRS.gov search engine annoying and useless. In fact, I stopped using it. I typically use a commercial Internet search engine and simply add “IRS.gov” to my search, which elevates any IRS.gov web page to the top of my search.

words matter

To be fair, most people only use two or three words as a search query rather than the phrase I used in the example above. But keywords bring their own challenge to a search. The tax world has its own language, and even “common” tax terms can be confusing for the non-tax person (“dependent” vs. “exempt” vs. “credit”). Because the IRS.gov search engine is keyword-based, meaning users must type in the word(s) to search for rather than a question or phrase, a taxpayer’s tax vocabulary matters. on its ability to retrieve the necessary information.

Many search engines offer search suggestions based on what is entered into the search box to help users find terms or phrases for frequently searched information. IRS.gov does not have this feature, so taxpayers must guess which words to use in their search or, worse, cannot search because they do not know the necessary tax terms.

Search results must be relevant

Simply returning search results will not satisfy the user if they cannot quickly access the necessary information. The success of the search depends on how well the indexing algorithm associates web page-specific information with the current query. Indexing also determines the placement of the SERP page. According to firstpagesage.com, 75.7% 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 necessary information must be high on the SERP for taxpayers to find it useful.

IRS.gov returns search results over 90% of the time, but I rarely find the IRS.gov SERP useful. When I searched for information on current processing delays, IRS.gov returned over 300 results. Browsing through the SERP, I couldn’t quickly find a link to the necessary information. I gave up after the first few pages. I believe that taxpayers have little inclination to wade through SERP results in hopes of finding the information they need.

IRS.gov – A Work in Progress

The good news is that OLS is working to make IRS.gov content easier to find through ongoing initiatives to make content more search-friendly.

We have to understand What taxpayers have in mind so that we can guide them to what they need in the language they or they are using. – Office of IRS Online Services

Although not directly linked to the IRS.gov search engine, the IRS helps taxpayers connect to topic-specific information by including user-friendly shortcuts to detailed IRS.gov content in many of its forms, publications and advertisements. Additionally, the IRS includes Quick Response (QR) codes in certain letters and notices mailed to taxpayers which, when scanned, link the taxpayer to information specific to that letter/notice. I strongly recommend that 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 like it or not). Restaurants, service industries, and businesses use QR codes as part of their daily operations.


Taxpayers should be able to find answers to their tax questions directly from the IRS, not on the Internet in general without knowing or understanding the credibility of the source. IRS.gov should be the first source for tax information. But to be the first point of call for taxpayers when seeking tax information, the IRS must provide a search engine at least as useful as the commercial search engines that most taxpayers use.

  • The IRS needs to improve IRS.gov search results by improving its search algorithm and content association.
  • Taxpayers should be able to search using plain language queries and the search function should correct misspellings and use/non-use of hyphens.
  • The search bar should automatically suggest search topics when the taxpayer types a query into the search box.

In my next article, I will discuss IRS.gov’s visual layout and content. Stay tuned for part two!


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