Editorial: The search mandate

The federal government made it official last week: Google has beaten GILS.

GILS, in case you don’t remember, is the Government Information Locator Service. That initiative, begun in 1994, was an early effort to make government records accessible online by using the principles of library science. GILS essentially provided a virtual card catalog system for tracking what information is available and where.

Earlier this month, the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced it was withdrawing the GILS standard. NIST’s argument was simple: Advances in commercial technology, as illustrated by Google, USA.gov and other search engines, have rendered GILS obsolete.

Some GILS proponents — they still exist, both at the state level and internationally — will argue that commercial search engines do not make government information as easily accessible as GILS would. Government sources often get buried in the search results, making it difficult for users to find the information they want.

But even if that is true, commercial search engines still rule the day, whether it’s Google for general searches, USA.gov or other niche solutions. Most people probably would view the end of the federal GILS standard — if they noticed it at all — as another case of a government-engineered solution being superseded by commercial technology.

However, in giving up on GILS, the federal government cannot abdicate its responsibility to ensure public access to government information.

If most people find information through Google and other commercial search engines, agencies have an obligation to optimize their Web sites to work with those systems. And the work never ends, because commercial providers continue to develop new and better search methodologies and algorithms.

The free flow of government information is nothing less than one of the foundations of American democracy. Who knew that our system of government eventually would depend in part on something as arcane as search engine optimization?

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About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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