Federal Web Search Upgraded

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Need to know how many calories are in that margarita you drank last night?

The temperature at the beach you hope to go to this weekend?

How many minutes your flight will be delayed because of high winds in Newark?

Or the winning number in the Pennsylvania lottery?

The answers are at a comprehensive one-stop federal Web site, FirstGov.gov, the official gateway to federal, state and local government Web sites and documents.

The nearly six-year-old Web site, which has won innovation awards for being consumer-friendly, has just been updated to make it easier for consumers, businesses and federal employees to find a mind-boggling array of information from A (airline complaints) to Z (Zip codes). With a click or two of the mouse, users can download tax forms, collect all sorts of economic trivia or play educational online games to learn about consumer scams and how to avoid them, of course.

FirstGov launched a powerful new search engine last month, expanding the number of accessible documents from 8 million to 40 million, including more state and local Web sites. Perhaps equally significant for time-constrained browsers, the new search engine uses improved algorithms to provide more relevant results.

With the old search engine, for example, a search for "baseball" brought up the Web site Afterschool.gov because it features a picture of a boy holding a baseball bat. With the new search engine, that same search steers you to a list of World Series winners. (Who knew the government even had such information?)

Using the old search engine, a person who typed "Social Security" in the search box would get a link to the Social Security Administration and related Web sites, including the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security.

The same search today turns up a list of frequently asked questions, such as "What are the Social Security and Medicare increases the government has in store for 2006?" or "How do I contact Social Security's nationwide Toll-Free Hotline?" There is also a special section where a browser can further refine the field of research by choosing retirement or disability, as well as a tab to easily download federal forms.

Consumers in the market for a new car can just enter a make and model to get gas mileage and crash test results on a single page. In the past, it would have taken visits to two different government Web sites (one by the Environmental Protection Agency, the other by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to get the data.

"All this information is out in the government, but it does you no good if you can't find it," said M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which oversees FirstGov.gov.

The government had been running its own search operations -- at an estimated annual cost of $3.2 million. The new search engine is being operated for $1.8 million a year under a contract with two private companies: Microsoft Corp. and Vivisimo Inc.

FirstGov.gov also offers podcasts, as well as Espanol.gov for Spanish-speaking consumers.

By presenting frequently asked questions and special sections to allow consumers to refine their initial search, FirstGov is more than a Google for government, said Larry Freed, president of ForeSee Results, a Michigan firm that measures customer satisfaction of Internet sites. "It's sort of a Google-plus" because you do not have to rely on scrolling through pages and pages of search results to find what you want, Freed said.

Launched in the last days of the Clinton administration, FirstGov was revamped in 2002 to make it easier to use. At that time, the goal was "three clicks to service." But under the latest redesign, just one or two clicks may be all that is needed.

When the site began, "customer satisfaction was fairly low," Freed said. But the government "has made great strides," he said. "Is the government really building Web sites for me? They are, and it's a win-win for the government and consumers. Consumers are getting more information, and the government is lowering its cost by making it easier to get information off the Web," helping reduce calls to call centers.

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