Despite site’s popularity, IRS begins revamp

Despite site’s popularity, IRS begins revamp

BY PREETI VASISHTHA | GCN STAFF

For the first time since the IRS made its debut on the Internet in December 1995, the agency is giving its Web site a makeover.

The major problem with www.irs.gov is that information is hard to find, said Gregory Carson, director of the Electronic Tax Administration and leader of the agency’s electronic-commerce efforts.

“The goal is to arrange the content in a way to make it easier to access and use,” he said. The redesign will be done by the next filing season.

The decision to change the site comes despite its apparent popularity. A report earlier this year by Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. of New York said the IRS’ site in January had the most page views of any government site.

The site has received 2.2 billion hits so far in fiscal 2001. Traffic peaked with 186.2 million hits between April 9 and 15, as the 2000 tax filing deadline loomed.

Even so, Carson said, the site could be more user-friendly. Besides trying to make information easier to find, the IRS is also adding new features.

“We also wanted to improve the technical functioning of the site, including meta-based searching,” he said.

The agency in the next few weeks will announce the contractor who will host and provide the framework for the revamped site.

The site will feature what Carson called community-based sections. For instance, the front page will have a section with information for individual taxpayers. Users will be further subdivided into categories such as military, overseas taxpayers and foreign nationals. Under the business section, there will be links for self-employed taxpayers, small businesses and corporations.

Narrow the search

“The new site will be updated every day, literally all day long,” he said, adding that the IRS is training its content managers to identify metatags.

Carson said the site would also get a faster search engine that would limit searches to a particular section depending on the query, rather than searching the entire site. So if the user does a search for “small-business tax,” the engine will look only in the small-business section.

The fate of the site’s newspaper-style front page—the Digital Daily, which offers updates on happenings at the IRS—is uncertain.

“We have not yet decided how we are going to place the Digital Daily,” Carson said. “We want to continue with that, and that’s a place where we can be tongue in cheek about ourselves.”

Originally, the revamping of the site was part of a three-portal architecture effort under the agency’s modernization umbrella: Internet access for the public, a registered user portal for tax professionals and an intranet for IRS employees.

But the agency later decided to separate the public Web access from the other two portal initiatives, Carson said.

“We wanted [the public site] to be a single, one-way source of information for users,” he added. “We also wanted to get away from the Big Brother kind of image.”

The other two portals are still a part of the agency’s Business Systems Modernization.

The IRS in February launched a preview section for the new site at www.irs.gov/preview/index.html after the Electronic Tax Office took over the reins of the project from the forms and publications group.

Feedback factors

The preview section, which is managed by the IRS and Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va., has been undergoing stress tests that will continue until Oct. 31.

“We are getting comments on the look and feel of the Web site—from taxpayers, tax professionals and the IRS advisory board—that we are going to use in the rebuilding of the site,” Carson said.

Page stewards will be assigned to make changes on particular pages. Content area stewards will be responsible for particular subjects on all pages, Carson said.

The stewards will collaborate with each other and with the IRS’ business units about the updates.

“We will use an automated tool to keep track of when and how frequently the page is changed,” Carson said.

The IRS’ Web site currently sports more than half a million pages, including access to hundreds of forms.

For years, the IRS has been parsing documents via the Standard Generalized Markup Language. The repository is based on AdeptEditor SGML authoring and editing software from ArborText Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich.

The staff applies filters to convert documents from SGML to Hypertext Markup Language, Carson said. Homegrown applications are used with software from OmniMark Technologies Inc. of Ottawa for the filters.

Documents are uploaded via the Web to a hosting server run by the National Technical Information Service at its data center in Springfield, Va.

The forms on the revamped site will be available in Adobe Portable Document Format, Carson said, adding that the agency is looking at Extensible Markup Language for submission processing.

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