GSA inks deal to upgrade FirstGov search engine

The search capabilities of the government's official Internet portal will be upgraded next year, the General Services Administration announced Friday.

The new search engine for FirstGov.gov will be powered by Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Search, in partnership with another search service, Clusty.com. The search engine is expected to be launched in the spring of 2006.

The new engine will be able to search state, local, tribal and territorial government Web sites. Later in 2006, GSA plans to launch a specific search engine within FirstGov for government news and photo images.

The current FirstGov search service, powered by Fast Search & Transfer, a Needham, Mass., company that works in partnership with AT&T, indexes about 8 million federal government Web pages. GSA expects the new service to index more than three times that amount.

The technology behind the new search capability will be based on both MSN Search and Clusty, which is run by Vivisimo Inc. of Pittsburgh. According to GSA, Clusty's technology allows for the simultaneous use of various search engines, a process known as metasearch.

Clusty is known for clustering search results in folders, grouping together similar items. For example, a search for the term "cell" organizes the top 200 or so results out of a total of nearly 75 million into the folders "cell phone," "biology," "fuel cell" and "stem cell." The search engine was developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Currently, a search for the word "cell" on FirstGov brings up nearly 300,000 results, starting with the home pages of the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, Radio Free Europe, and the Energy Department's Office of Science.

The new FirstGov search contract has an annual value of $1.8 million and a total potential value of $18 million.

"Together with Microsoft, we will build the finest government search portal the world has seen, helping citizens learn and profit from the rich information offered across thousands of government Web sites," said Vivísimo CEO and co-founder Raul Valdes-Perez.

After the first year of the contract, GSA has the option of switching to use search services offered by current provider Fast Search & Transfer or Gigablast Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M..

"By next year, who knows what's going to be going on in search," said M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

Pizzella said the search enhancements will improve FirstGov's ability to guide people through "the sometimes confusing federal bureaucracy, and translate to simple yet advanced searches of government information and images."

"People are used to that right now, being able to search all the content of the world real quickly," Pizzella said. "I don't what we did before the Web."

FirstGov won the prestigious Innovations in American Government Award in May 2003 for providing users with a single access point to government services and information.

Clusty started a government search service in early 2005 that provides clustered political news, government information, public documents--such as the 2006 federal budget and the 9/11 commission report--and the findings of various think tanks.

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