Portal passes student exam
- By William Matthews
- Oct 29, 2000
With a deadline looming for her report on electronic commerce, Glynis Long
of the Small Business Administration needed more details on what other federal
agencies are doing in that fast-growing sector of the economy. But Long's
Internet search using SBA's search engine didn't produce the desired results.
She decided to search on the new governmentwide Internet portal, FirstGov.
The results poured in: 35,668 returns for "e-commerce," 230,980 for "e commerce"
and 140,501 for "electronic commerce."
"Just going through the first 20 or 40 hits, I found valuable stuff,"
said Long, an international trade specialist and a member of SBA's e-commerce
The same searches using the SBA search engine produced between 210 and
Through FirstGov, Long also discovered Exports.gov, a Commerce Department
Web site dedicated to helping businesses enter international trade. FirstGov
"does a remarkable job of bringing together links" to related Internet pages,
Long said. "It really helps stimulate your thinking. I'll tell you, it knocked
my socks off."
A high-performance search engine is the central feature of FirstGov.
When President Clinton unveiled the site last month, he called it "a breakthrough
in one-stop shopping for government services." The search engine, built
with the help of Eric Brewer, a University of California computer science
professor and co-founder of the search engine company Inktomi Corp., is
linked to an index containing the full text of every federal government
Web page, which totals about 27 million at the latest count.
The engine can search for words and phrases in all of them in a fraction
of a second. And it searches only government Web pages. Most commercial
search engines will search 5 million or fewer federal Web pages and millions
upon millions of other pages as well. Thus, in a search for government-produced
information, FirstGov may have the search engine most likely to find it.
But the find may be buried under mountains of other information.
How Much is Too Much?
FirstGov is "nicely organized," said Rebecca Andadi, a research librarian
at the think tank Rand Corp. "But I'm kind of leery about too many returns."
Plowing through tens of thousands of search returns is not a particularly
efficient way for a professional researcher to locate material. And because
Andadi has access to a number of sophisticated commercial databases, university
libraries and other professional research tools tuned to her needs, she
has used FirstGov little since it debuted Sept. 22.
"It's the kind of thing I would go to to find documents when I don't
know exactly where to look," she said. A report released by the White House,
for example, might not be available on the White House Web site but could
be found through the federal agency that produced it. FirstGov makes it
possible to find the report without having to know on which agency Web site
the document is stored.
But the volume of search returns can be daunting. "I think it's going
to be very frustrating for people who are looking for specific information,"
said Mary Alice Baish, a Washington affairs representative for the American
Association of Law Libraries. When a simple search returns 40,000 choices,
users may feel more assailed than assisted, she said.
Dave Binetti has heard that complaint many times.
"When you do very general, broad searches, the engine finds it in droves,"
he agreed. "If you just type in the word "legislation,' for example, you'll
be overwhelmed." Binetti is director of the Fed-Search Foundation, which
operates FirstGov's search engine.
The search engine works best when searching for hard-to-find phrases,
Binetti said. Rather than searching for "oil," which returns 302,251 Web
pages, he suggested that a user try something more specific, such as "strategic
oil reserve," which provides 8,424 returns.
Quantity, Not Quality
FirstGov does a poor job of identifying returns most likely to be helpful,
said Patrice McDermott, a senior policy analyst at the government watchdog
organization OMB Watch. "The relevancy of the search results to the user
request requires significant improvement," she said.
OMB Watch tested FirstGov by searching for information on how to apply
for food stamps. Typing "food stamps" into FirstGov's keyword search box
turned up 17,844 federal Web pages. But the results at the top of the list
were hardly helpful. The first return was a year-old "unscientific" poll
on food stamp fraud in King County, Wash. Next comes an address and phone
number for the food stamp office in Mesa County, Colo. Third is a press
release from Sen. John McCain, followed by information on duck stamps, Census
Bureau data and dozens of Web pages that contain the words "food stamps"
but no information on how to apply for them.
Binetti agreed that FirstGov searches could use some improvement on
the matter of relevance. "There are things we can do" to the search engine
to make more commonly requested Web pages "percolate up to the top" of a
list of search returns, he said.
Sally Katzen, deputy director for management at the Office of Management
and Budget, promised at an appearance before a congressional committee that
as time passes, "the search engine will learn which pages are the most useful
to the citizens and display them more readily."
But the search engine is only one way to search for information using
FirstGov. Its home page also features a list of "Interesting Topics" that
users can click on to link to federal Web pages specializing in those topics.
The first topic is "Agriculture and Food." A click there leads to a list
of other links, including one for the USDA page of food stamp information.
Finding the answers took three clicks.
By Binetti's count, FirstGov receives about 187,000 queries a day. That's
tiny compared with the daily traffic at commercial search engines. Ask Jeeves,
for example, receives 4 million queries a day, a company spokeswoman said.
So far, the government hasn't promoted FirstGov very well, said Tom
Tate, co-chairman of Americans Communicating Electronically. "The real payoff
will be when the masses learn about it."
Tate's organization is working to spread the word. A loose affiliation
of local, state and federal government officials, it is dedicated to promoting
electronic government. Tate, who works for the Agriculture Department, and
several colleagues have recruited county home economists, youths in 4-H
Clubs and others — 7,000 in all in 29 states — for programs such as teaching
the elderly how to surf the Internet.
But how fast FirstGov is catching on is unclear. The General Services
Administration, which manages the portal, refused to provide details on
the site's traffic. GSA officials won't say which government Web sites FirstGov
users visit most often or what information they search for. GSA also declined
to disclose the comments users have submitted through the portal's feedback
FirstGov's potential impact became obvious to Dick Griffin during the
portal's first week of operation. From Sept. 22 to Sept. 29, traffic at
the Web site that Griffin manages tripled.
"We're pretty prominent on FirstGov," said Griffin, who manages Disability.gov,
a federal site that provides information and links to government services
and resources for people with disabilities.
After the initial surge, traffic at the site dropped a bit but continues
at double the rate before FirstGov appeared, he said.
The benefit of FirstGov is that it provides a starting point for people
who want information but do not know where to look, Griffin said. It can
be especially helpful to family members, caregivers and friends of the disabled
who often know little about particular disabilities or about the services
available to people with disabilities.
"You can do a search or go [to the FirstGov topics section] where the
search has already been done and information has been gleaned by experts,"
Griffin said. Either route will lead to Disability.gov.
Griffin is aware of FirstGov's critics but is unconcerned. "This is
a first- generation Web site" that is certain to evolve and improve, he
said. A second generation is scheduled to go online in late December or
January, and a third is scheduled for March.
"FirstGov gets juiced up" [Federal Computer Week, Sept. 25, 2000]
"The end of government as we know it" [Federal Computer Week, Sept.
"Portal will help e-gov click" [Federal Computer Week, July 3, 2000]