FirstGov portal revamps search functionality

Internet users looking for information at the U.S. government’s Webportal will get more complete and relevant results using a newsearch engine unveiled Tuesday, according to officials with theU.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

The GSA’s Web portal now will connect users to morethan 40 million official U.S. government documents and Web pages,compared to 8 million under the old search technology. GSAcontracted with Microsoft Corp. for its MSN Search functionalityand Vivisimo Inc., for its contextual search software, to createthe new search engine.

The new search, which went online late Monday, incorporatesfederal, state, local and tribal government Web sites, said M.J.Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of CitizenServices and Communications.

Improving FirstGov’s search capabilities was important because manypeople don’t know what agency or level of government to go to forhelp with passports, drivers licenses and Social Security payments,Pizzella said. “We know how important information on the Web is,”she said. “People don’t really want to be bothered with what levelof government.”

FirstGov’s new search provides more raw data, but also clustersrelevant links by topic. For example, under the old searchfunctionality, FirstGov users could enter “Ford Mustang” and seehundreds of unsorted documents, with the top result being a 2001manual on how to install a baby seat in a Mustang.

Under the new search, government agency fuel miles-per-gallonestimates and crash test ratings for the car appear at the top ofthe search results page. A list of grouped links on the side of theresults page includes Web pages about local police departments’ useof Mustangs, links to the U.S. Postal Service Mustang stamps andsafety information from the National Highway Traffic SafetyAdministration.

One advantage of the FirstGov search engine is it searches onlygovernment information, Pizzella said. Some commercial searchengines can search government sites, but also search sites notaffiliated with the U.S. government, she noted. Those commercialsites are useful, but if users want a search targeted to onlygovernment sites, they can come to FirstGov, she said.

“When you come to us, you’re getting only .gov,” Pizzella said.

The new FirstGov search engine also allows users to preview linksto other sites. By hitting the preview button, a section of thelinked page comes up just below the hyperlink, allowing users tosee a section of the linked page without leaving the search resultspage.

FirstGov also allows users to search for government forms, such astax forms, and to search for podcasts, such as President GeorgeBush’s latest speech on Social Security.

The FirstGov contract is the first time Microsoft has licensed itsMSN Search technology to a separate Web site, although the companyhas plans to sell it to more sites, said Richard Young, chieftechnology architect for Microsoft’s eGovernment Industry Unit.

Under FirstGov’s old search engine, GSA ran an in-house searchoperation, using 29 servers, with an annual cost of about US$3.2million, according to GSA . The new search engine, using Vivisimo’scontextual search software and MSN’s search index, delivers fourtimes as many documents and costs $1.8 million a year, Pizzellasaid.

“It was clear to us we needed to go to [an outside] service toscale,” she said.

Later this year, GSA plans to add search capabilities forgovernment news and for images on government Web sites, Pizzellasaid.

FirstGov had more than 179 million page views and 27 million searchqueries during 2005, according to the GSA.

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