GSA preps FirstGov contract

Technical requirements for the new search engine

Despite having about 18 months more free use of the FirstGov search engine, the General Services Administration has decided to try to buy a new engine by the end of March.

The search engine is expected to cost about $8 million, according to a GSA official.

The GSA issued a detailed solicitation notice to vendors this week spelling out the specifications for the engine it wants. The notice says the GSA hopes to "cutover to live production" with the new engine by March 31.

Spokeswoman Eleni Martin said the GSA plans to stop using the free search engine because "the government is ready to move on."

A FirstGov official said the Web site needs a search engine that can search for documents in a variety of formats, such as PDF, Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint and Excel, as well as HTML, Extensible Markup Language and plain text. The current search engine cannot do that.

"FirstGov has become more than it was" when the site started up with its free search engine, Martin said. Among other things, the site has added millions of state and local Web pages, she said.

In addition to searching for government information, FirstGov is the federal government's Internet portal and it provides quick links to hundreds of government agencies, departments and programs.

FirstGov's existing search engine was donated to the government in mid-2000 by computer scientist Eric Brewer, co-founder of search engine firm Inktomi Corp.

Brewer's gift, which he said was a payback for government support of his early research, was three years of free search engine use.

Inktomi is expected to be one of the bidders on the new search engine contract, a FirstGov official said.

The notice to vendors says FirstGov's search engine must be able to scan its indexed content in no more than a quarter of a second. Today, that means searching through 50 million pages of government information, which the free search engine can do. In three or four years, the GSA predicts FirstGov will contain 200 million pages.

The new search engine will also be required to list search returns in order of relevance. In a search for "white house," for example, the phrase "'George Bush lives in the White House' would be rated higher than one containing 'Al's house is also white,' " the GSA notice instructs.

Relevance and the number of search returns produced by the free engine were a problem during the early months of FirstGov's operation.

Although it is blazingly fast, Brewer's search engine often returned tens of thousands of documents, far too many to wade through, and often returned documents of little relevance. Search capability was refined during 2001 to permit more specific searches.

Early plans for FirstGov called for a "dynamic reasoning" search engine that would find information in response to questions. Although the search engine company Autonomy Corp. says it was paid for such a search engine, the engine was never installed on FirstGov.

The GSA wants search engine vendors to submit contract proposals by Jan. 17. An award could be made by Feb. 28.

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