By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006
It's finally happening: The ever-expanding Google Inc. is making its move on the federal government.
Today the company plans to announce a new online product aimed at being a one-stop shop for searching federal government Web sites. The launch of Google U.S. Government Search, http://usgov.google.com , targets federal employees who often need to search across several government agencies.
The site is also designed to help citizens navigate convoluted pages of government-speak and tailors news feeds to their interests. Users can customize the layout of their page to remain updated on government-related news from official and commercial sources, including the White House, Department of Defense, The Washington Post and CNN. Google is also working with agencies to increase the frequency of news updates to keep content current.
"People are moving away from directory access to enter these sites," said Kevin Gough, product manager for Google U.S. Government Search. "They just want to type in a few words to pinpoint the information they need."
The product is an outgrowth of the company's flagship site, which has the largest share of the U.S. search market -- 50 percent in April, according to Nielsen-NetRatings. It aims to "unify disparate Web sites," Gough said, so people have a single source to find everything from Social Security policy to income tax forms.
The government search site joins similar engines that target the same audience. The five-year-old FirstGov.gov, a government-sponsored site powered by Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, is geared to help citizens locate federal, state and local information without sifting through individual agency sites.
Gough said he expects Google's product to "complement" FirstGov without directly competing with it.
But Google's name recognition, especially among first-time users, may give it an edge over FirstGov, said Larry Freed, president of ForeSee Results Inc., a Michigan firm that measures customer satisfaction of Internet sites.
The new site could actually drive traffic away from other government-related search engines that buy ads on Google's main search engine, he said.
"Google drives a fair amount of traffic to those sites," he said. Now that Google has its own portal that serves the same purpose, "they could potentially be creating competition for their customers."
Many government employees access documents and information through agencies' intranets, or inter-office Web sites, and through FirstGov, said Stephanie Zaiser, communications director for the National Association of Government Employees.
But they may switch to the new engine if it is easier to use, she said. Zaiser expects federal employees to use the Google site because of the company's "ubiquitous presence" in the search-engine market.
More than 87 million unique visitors used Google's search engine in May, compared with 443,000 that searched FirstGov, according to Nielsen-NetRatings.
In recent years, Google has launched several specialized search engines to help users narrow their results. In addition to heavily used sites geared specifically for news, directions and maps, newer sites search the contents of scholarly journals, books and blogs. Yesterday, Google Book Search launched a Web site geared toward searching Shakespearean plays.
"There is a trend toward developing more finite, category-specific searches," said Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Government employees are among the heaviest users of government Web sites, so there's a market."
A November 2004 Pew survey found that 54 percent of Internet users have looked for information from government Web sites, and 10 percent of users will look for such information on any given day.