FirstGov.gov revamps search functionality

Users can access more than 40 million government documents and Web pages

Internet users looking for information at the U.S. government's Web portal will get more complete and relevant results using a new search engine unveiled Tuesday, according to officials with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

The GSA's FirstGov.gov Web portal now will connect users to more than 40 million official U.S. government documents and Web pages, compared to 8 million under the old search technology. GSA contracted with Microsoft Corp. for its MSN Search functionality and Vivisimo Inc., for its contextual search software, to create the new search engine.

The new search, which went online late Monday, incorporates federal, state, local and tribal government Web sites, said M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

Improving FirstGov's search capabilities was important because many people don't know what agency or level of government to go to for help 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 level of government."

FirstGov's new search provides more raw data, but also clusters relevant links by topic. For example, under the old search functionality, FirstGov users could enter "Ford Mustang" and see hundreds of unsorted documents, with the top result being a 2001 manual on how to install a baby seat in a Mustang.

Under the new search, government agency fuel miles-per-gallon estimates and crash test ratings for the car appear at the top of the search results page. A list of grouped links on the side of the results page includes Web pages about local police departments' use of Mustangs, links to the U.S. Postal Service Mustang stamps and safety information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

One advantage of the FirstGov search engine is it searches only government information, Pizzella said. Some commercial search engines can search government sites, but also search sites not affiliated with the U.S. government, she noted. Those commercial sites are useful, but if users want a search targeted to only government 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 links to other sites. By hitting the preview button, a section of the linked page comes up just below the hyperlink, allowing users to see a section of the linked page without leaving the search results page.

FirstGov also allows users to search for government forms, such as tax forms, and to search for podcasts, such as President George Bush's latest speech on Social Security.

The FirstGov contract is the first time Microsoft has licensed its MSN Search technology to a separate Web site, although the company has plans to sell it to more sites, said Richard Young, chief technology architect for Microsoft's eGovernment Industry Unit.

Under FirstGov's old search engine, GSA ran an in-house search operation, using 29 servers, with an annual cost of about US$3.2 million, according to GSA . The new search engine, using Vivisimo's contextual search software and MSN's search index, delivers four times as many documents and costs $1.8 million a year, Pizzella said.

"It was clear to us we needed to go to [an outside] service to scale," she said.

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

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

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