Google moves ahead with plan to open up federal Web sites

Google is making strides on an initiative to make information stored on public government Web sites more accessible to people looking for it, but challenges remain, officials with the search engine company said Wednesday.

Three federal organizations recently agreed to structure their sites to make them accessible for nearly all Internet searches, the officials said.

Information on the Plain Language Web site aimed at eliminating jargon in government communications, and on sites by the Energy Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information and the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, has been opened up to the three most popular search engines: Google, Yahoo and MSN.

Ninety percent of searches are conducted through one of the three, according to J.L. Needham, a strategic partner development manager at Google.

The three entities used the open source Sitemaps.org tool and removed technical hindrances to search engine Web crawlers. The Sitemaps tool initially was developed by Google, and is offered under a creative commons license supported by both the Yahoo and MSN search engines.

But despite months of meeting with officials at nearly every agency, Google still faces misconceptions, Needham said. "Literacy about search engines is lower in the federal government than in the private sector," he said.

Needham said about 80 percent of visitors to government Web sites arrive through search engines rather than the home page "front door." Only about 5 percent come directly to the sites, he said, and because about half of all government Web pages remain inaccessible through search engines, a substantial percentage of people are passing up information they would otherwise find.

Federal managers cite other priorities and a potential increase in bandwidth use, which could drive up costs, as their primary concerns about optimizing their sites for searches, Needham said.

But in the case of the Plain Language Web site, a part-time Web manager was able to implement the Sitemaps tool in eight hours, Needham said. This opened up hundreds of documents. Energy's Scientific and Technical Information office was able to implement the Sitemaps tool in 16 hours, opening 3 million documents to common search engines.

Ultimately, Needham said, Google wants to get government content onto Google services, such as Google Maps, and offer it for dissemination. Late last year, Google announced a partnership with the NASA Ames Research Center to make information, including three-dimensional maps of the moon and Mars, accessible to the public.

Darrell M. West, a professor of political science at Brown University and author of an annual report on state and federal e-government, said he agrees that most people are likely to visit government Web sites through searches.

"Sites have to be designed realizing that not everyone comes in through the front door," West said. He noted it would be technically difficult to evaluate how well agencies are performing in that area.

Google's attempt to open up government information is laudable, said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based online strategy firm ForeSee Results. But it raises the question of how much information is too much, he said.

"If Google makes more information available, does that help or hurt?" Freed asked. "There is the paradox of choice. If you're presented with too many choices, you're dissatisfied."

Freed, who helps publish commentary analyzing the American Customer Satisfaction Index scores compiled every four months by the National Quality Research Center at the University of Michigan Business School, said agencies are focused on taking care of the Web site visitors they already have.

"To a great extent, you want to clean up your house before you invite people in," Freed said. "People coming from outside search engines are not going to be as satisfied as the people who are coming directly to the site."

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