ISO: search engine for FirstGov

ISO: search engine for FirstGov

When the General Services Administration this month released a request for proposals for a new search engine for FirstGov, the purpose was not only to find a vendor to supply new searching technology but to give the governmentwide Web portal a face-lift.

Industry experts said the winning vendor’s chief challenge will be fulfilling the agency’s aims for FirstGov—namely that it’s the best place to find government information.

“We want to get ourselves on a more systematic foundation and a more solid footing,” said G. Martin Wagner, GSA’s associate administrator for governmentwide policy. “We wanted to go out and compete for similar, if not greater, capabilities. Actually, I’m embarrassed on how long it took us to reach this point.”

By contracting for a new search engine to replace the current one, GSA officials said they want to silence the portal’s critics, who have pointed up its shortcomings, such as less-than-adequate search results and an inability to scan agencies’ databases.

Inktomi Corp. of Foster City, Calif., developed the current search engine, which was donated to the government through Federal Search Foundation Inc. of Washington.

Fed-Search agreed in September 2000 to provide the FirstGov search engine to GSA for up to three years, but GSA and the nonprofit corporation decided to dissolve their relationship, and GSA started looking for a new supplier. It issued a request for information in July 2001 and released the RFP Jan. 7.

GSA officials plan to have selected a new vendor by March 31. Fed-Search likely will be out of the picture by the end of April, after GSA has debugged the new search engine, said David Binetti, Fed-Search president and chief executive officer.

The replacement search engine by 2006 must handle up to 17 million visits and 65 million page views a year, and index more than 200 million uniform resource locators. The RFP lists 20 required features and 17 desired capabilities.

“The RFP is well-thought-through and seems to cover all of the bases from a technical and usability standpoint,” said Chris Sherman, president of Searchwise Inc., a search engine analysis company in Boulder, Colo. “They should get the tool that finally does deliver on the promise of finding government information easily.”

Enough time?

But the RFP also has raised some concern among industry experts. Inktomi’s close association with the original FirstGov project has some government watchers wondering whether the company has an inside track in the procurement.

GSA gave vendors 10 days to respond to the RFP when it was released but has since extended the proposal due date to Jan. 23. The contract award is scheduled for Feb. 28 but could change with the extension for proposals. Typically, agencies give vendors at least 30 days to respond to an RFP.

“We are concerned whether the short time window will preclude competition,” said Lori Metcalf, policy analyst for OMB Watch, a Washington watchdog group. “It seems when FirstGov came online, they did it in record time, and they had a lot of problems. We would hope they would learn from that process and not do it again so quickly.”
Brian Haney, director of Federal Consulting Services Inc. of Vienna, Va., also expressed unease about the speedy proposal turnaround.

“Typically when the government provides such a narrow window for response to an RFP, it indicates confidence that there is a set of vendors in the marketplace capable of meeting their requirements,” he said. “My personal gut feeling is that the government has very specific requirements, and only those companies with an intimate knowledge of the agency or the requirement will be successful bidding.”

But other industry experts said the buy is on the level.

Possibly 70 bidders

“Knowing the people involved and knowing how high-profile this RFP
is, I would believe it is above board,” said a former agency CIO who worked closely with the FirstGov team in the past. “The short time frame weeds out all the chaff. If you are a player, you know what is going on.”

David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, said the subcommittee is following this procurement and believes it is fair.

More than 70 companies signed up on the bidders’ list, including heavyweights such as AltaVista Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., and Yahoo Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., in addition to Inktomi.

Binetti refuted the idea of a fix, adding that whoever wins the contract will be brought up to speed by Fed-Search.

“No matter who wins, they will receive something we call a critical instruction manual,” he said. “It is how we built the index and the lessons we learned while doing this for the last 18 months.”

The winning vendor also will get a list of domain names of every federal Web site from which the index is created every two weeks, Binetti said.

“The domain names are critical,” said George Molaski, former Transportation Department CIO and a member of the FirstGov board. “If you are building a new structure, you will have to repopulate your search database, and the domain names are key to doing that.”

The manual outlines important instructions such as when to spider certain sites and how often and if the vendor will need to call before sending the spider out to collect data.

GSA’s Wagner said the new search engine not only will provide better search relevancy but also better system scalability, reliability and security.

Searchwise’s Sherman said improving the relevancy of search results is important but so is tapping into agency databases.

“No search engine has been able to search databases for statistics from agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the Census Bureau,” he said. “FirstGov must create an umbrella over all of these databases and talk to each one individually so searchers get what they ask for.”

French Caldwell, vice president and research director for knowledge management at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., said developing a content management strategy will help the relevancy of searches.

“It seems FirstGov wants to manage all the Web content from all agencies,” he said. “They instead need to look at what people will be looking for and increase what is most relevant to their constituency. They also must understand who is searching and the relationship
between the topics people may be searching.”

Better browsing

Caldwell also said he would like the portal to have a better taxonomy, which would improve search and browsing functions. Taxonomy identifies relationships among words, Web content and search subjects.
“FirstGov is better than it was a year ago, but the question is whether it can be further developed toward how citizens want to use it,” Caldwell said. “GSA is not moving as fast as the digital society is moving, but it needs to.”

GSA wants the new vendor to do just that: Keep the portal evolving as technology changes.

“FirstGov is at a crossroads,” Marin said. “It can either exist
largely as a search engine or as a more comprehensive portal to government services for citizens. Rep. Davis thinks it’s important for FirstGov to take the next step to provide a more service-oriented portal to citizens.”

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