GSA launches upgraded FirstGov search engine

The General Services Administration launched a beefed-up online search engine late Monday night, calling the tool for government Web site-querying the most powerful of its kind.

As part of GSA's Web portal, the search feature scans government sites for Web pages, official documents, podcasts and databases of frequently asked questions. It compiles the results and organizes them to facilitate fast retrieval of information.

The search engine expands FirstGov's hunting capabilities to include state, local, tribal and territorial government Web sites, and will look through 40 million documents, up from the previous 8 million.

M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, said users will benefit from the fact that the FirstGov search feature exclusively returns official government information.

"There is a trend out there for sites to represent themselves as official sites, with official information that is not official," Pizzella said. "We have that certainty that [the search results] are official government documents."

Pizzella said the agency is considering how to deploy a search function this fall that would query the Web for government-related news and images.

"It's going to be news from all sources," Pizzella said. She would not specify the criteria for gathering such news. "It's still in design, but my understanding is that it's going to be closer to the model of any news in any news outlet about the government," she said.

GSA will publish standards for agency Web sites, as well as recommendations for agency call centers, in March or April through authority granted by the Office of Management and Budget, Pizzella said.

GSA officials said they plan to launch a fresh version of the FirstGov portal later this year and hope that the new search feature improves the Web site's score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is published quarterly.

FirstGov, which received 180 million hits and 27 million search queries last year, earned a 72 on a scale of 100 on the 2005 satisfaction index, ranking 20th out of 27 federal government sites. The site received a low score for its search function, according to GSA.

The technology behind the new search tool is provided though the Pittsburgh-based Vivisimo Inc. software company and its engine, in partnership with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Search. The old search engine was powered by Fast Search & Transfer, a Needham, Mass., company working in partnership with AT&T.

The FirstGov search contract has an annual value of $1.8 million and a total potential value of $18 million if five one-year options are exercised. The old search engine cost $3.2 million on an annual basis, and the contract is set to expire in September.

The Clusty technology allows the MSN search results to be grouped into categories.

For instance, a search for the word "flood" returns more than one million MSN hits, with results broken into eight topics on the left-hand side of the page by means of the Clusty technology. The breakdown includes 26 "Insurance" results, 19 "National Weather Service" results and 12 "Flood hazard" results.

Results can also be broken down by agency or by source.

When broken down by agency, the flood hazard search, for instance, includes results from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A breakdown by source returns "federal forms," a "FirstGov FAQs" Web page and a "Web results" category.

Richard Young, the chief technology architect of Microsoft's eGovernment Industry Unit, said people spend 30 percent to 50 percent of their time online searching for documents.

"Our goal is to reduce that amount of time so that the users are actually able to use the documents that they're looking for rather than spending most of their time sifting through information that is not relevant," Young said.

The search engine provides a "preview" feature that allows a user to look at the Web page behind the suggested link and decide its usefulness without leaving the search results page.

The service is also available in Spanish through FirstGov en Español, which searches federal, state and local Spanish-language government Web pages.

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