Most fed data is un-Googleable

After five years, a major E-Gov Act provision goes unmet because of search problems

Search engines' blind spot

The Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch issued a report last week detailing the difficulty that commercial search engines have finding information on federal Web sites.

The report’s authors found that searches on Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Live Search, Ask.com and USA.gov missed critical information because of the way agencies publish data online. For example, when the authors searched for government telecommunications contracts, the search engines didn’t turn up anything from FedBizOpps.gov, Export.gov, GovSales.gov, the Central Contractor Registration site or the Federal Procurement Data System.

In another case, the authors searched for Smithsonian African mask collection. The engines didn’t find relevant material in the Smithsonian Institution collection or the Library of Congress’ online catalog.

“It is unclear…whether these agencies know that their information is not publicly searchable and have not taken adequate steps to change their practices or whether the agencies simply do not know that this important information is not being crawled,” said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Our findings show that this is a systemic problem that should be addressed as soon as possible.”

— Jason Miller

Five years after the E-Government Act’s implementation, a glaring shortcoming of the legislation has been agencies’ failure to make federal information more accessible. The legislation’s sponsors, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), say they plan to address that issue in the bill reauthorizing the act.

The E-Government Act, which President Bush signed into law Dec. 17, 2002, led to many significant information technology advances in cybersecurity, privacy and governance, including establishing an executive position in the Office of Management and Budget to oversee IT issues. But agencies have been less successful in implementing the law’s Section 207 provisions for making agency data easier for users to find.

Agencies do not let commercial search engines index their sites, said Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Our intention is for everything, to the maximum extent possible, to be easily available, except for personal information and classified data,” Lieberman said during a hearing last week on the E-Government Reauthorization Act. “There are more than 2,000 federal government Web sites not included in commercial search engine results. Is it accidental, or is there a policy, or it is just laziness? I would like to know why.”

Lieberman’s follow-on e-government bill would help solve the problem by requiring agencies to annually review, report and test accessibility via commercial search engines; ensure that information is accessible in that manner two years from now; and require OMB to develop relevant guidance and best practices.

The reauthorization bill also would renew several other provisions of the original law through 2012, including the E-Government Fund and appropriations for developing protocols for geographic information systems.

There still is no House companion bill for the E-Government Reauthorization Act, but Lieberman’s staff members have been working with their counterparts on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to create one.

Even so, the search problem is far from having a solution, and it continues to frustrate commercial and federal search experts.

“The government produces a lot of information, and those databases cannot be navigated by Web crawlers,” said John Needham, Google’s manager for public-sector content partnerships. “Agencies are concerned more about how information is presented than if users are finding it.”

Needham and others said it wouldn’t be hard to solve the search problem. Agencies must start using the Sitemap protocol, which will allow commercial and government search engines to index their sites.

“The protocol by far is the most important thing,” said Chris Sherman, a search expert and executive editor of Search Engine Land. “Google and other search engines give site owners extreme control [over] what is and what is not indexed, so there is no reason not to use the protocol.”

However, Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for e-government and IT, said agencies must be careful to ensure that users understand government Web pages in the correct context.

“There is a lot of information, and agencies are trying to figure out the best way to deliver it,” Evans told lawmakers. “We need to work out a partnership with commercial search engines so we present information that doesn’t frustrate the user.”

Some experts say context isn’t a significant issue.

“If you look at the private sector, just about everyone leaps to add the Sitemap protocol so all their content is included,” Sherman said. “It is the complete opposite of what the government is saying.”

The General Services Administration — which operates the federal government’s portal, USA.gov — is aware of the chal enges of using commercial search engines to find governm nt information, said John Murphy, director of USA.gov technologies.

To overcome those limitations, portal officials work with Web managers in forums and via the Web Manager University to introduce them to the Sitemap protocol and teach them to write better page titles and descriptions, said Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov.

Officials also ask the portal’s vendor, Vivisimo, to crawl frequently asked questions, forums and other specified areas of 48 agency sites, Murphy said.

“We continually try to improve the search results,” he added. 

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