Vendors vie for new FirstGov contract

At least three major search engine companies and scores of other businesses are competing to supply the new search engine for the federal government's Web portal, Inktomi Corp., whose donated search engine is now running on the site, is among the bidders. So are search engine company AltaVista Co. and Web portal giant Yahoo Inc. In all, about 80 other companies — including consultancies, technology vendors and Internet service providers — are vying for the contract.

"It's amazing," Yahoo's Jodi Beshara said of the eclectic collection of bidders. The number and variety of com.panies seeking the contract probably reflect the depth of the downturn in technology work, she said.

The General Services Administration, which operates FirstGov, expects to spend about $8 million during five years — or about $150,000 a month — on a new search engine for the Web site, said Martin Wagner, chief of GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

GSA hopes to have "cutover to live production" with the new engine by March 31.

Although FirstGov has free use of its current search engine for about 18 more months, the site has outgrown it, FirstGov officials said. They want a new engine with more sophisticated search capabilities.

In a notice to bidders this month, GSA said it wants a search engine that can search on documents in a variety of formats, such as PDF, HTML, Extensible Markup Language, plain text and Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint, Excel and Word. The current search engine cannot do all that.

The new search engine must be able to scan FirstGov's indexed content in no more than a quarter of a second. The current engine can search the index's 50 million current pages in that time; however, the index is expected to grow to 200 million pages in three or four years.

Greater relevance of search returns is another requirement. The new engine must do a better job of identifying the information that is most likely to meet users' needs. In a search for "white house," for example, the phrase " 'George Bush lives in the White House' should be rated higher than the phrase, 'Al's house is also white,' " the GSA notice instructs.

Relevance and the high number of search returns produced by the free engine were a problem during the early months of FirstGov's operation. Although it is fast, the engine often returned tens of thousands of documents — far too many to wade through — and often returned documents of little relevance. FirstGov's current search engine was a gift to the government in mid-2000 from computer scientist Eric Brewer, co-founder of Inktomi. Brewer said three years of free use of his company's search engine on FirstGov was payback for government support of his early research.

Brewer established the nonprofit Federal Search Foundation (Fed-Search) to run the search engine for FirstGov. Fed-Search will cease to exist when FirstGov acquires a new search engine, said David Binetti, Fed-Search president. But the foundation will happily go out of business, he added.

FirstGov has "gone way beyond what they were" when Brewer donated the current search engine, Binetti said. "We have done what we set out to do," which was to get FirstGov going.

Brewer's donation gives Inktomi almost 18 months of experience running a search engine for FirstGov, but Wag.ner, Binetti and others say that does not give Inktomi an unbeatable advantage in the contract competition.

"There's always knowledge that the incumbent vendor builds up, but we're kind of an open book," Wagner said. The sites that must be searched are well defined and FirstGov's procedures are firmly set. "Anyone with the requisite skills should be able to do it. There is not a high barrier to entry," he said.

The bidders that already operate search engines undoubtedly scan many of the same government Web sites they would be required to search for FirstGov. "The only difference is we require searching all the pages," Wagner said.

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

Technical requirements for the new search engine are posted at:


Fine-Tuning FirstGov

New search engine specifications include:

* Must handle 4.9 million page views a month now and 5.4 million in 2006.

* Must support 736G of data now and 820G in 2006.

* Must be able to index content in HTML, PDF, Extensible Markup Language, ASCII and Microsoft Corp. Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

* Must crawl and index about 50 million government Web pages every seven days at present, and 200 million pages by 2006.

* Search response time for Internet users must not exceed 5 seconds.

* Vendor must propose a turnkey solution, including hosting of hardware and installation, maintenance and operation of software.


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