FirstGov pick stirs controversy

A Norwegian company will provide the new search engine for the federal Web portal FirstGov, and American search engine makers expressed dismay that the federal government chose a foreign competitor.

The General Services Administration announced March 7 that it would pay $2 million a year for up to five years to AT&T Business Services, which will use search engine services from Fast Search & Transfer. The Oslo-based company has a U.S. subsidiary with headquarters in Massachusetts.

The AT&T and Fast Search collaboration beat four other major search engine companies in the competition. AT&T provides the hardware that runs FirstGov.

Within hours of the award, at least two of the losing bidders demanded "debriefings" on the contract award. A GSA spokeswoman said that such requests are routine. During debriefings, the agency expected to explain why it selected Fast Search & Transfer.

One bidder said GSA could have bought search engine services from Google, a top-rated search engine, for more than $2 million less than it has agreed to pay for Fast Search's services.

Deborah Diaz, GSA's associate administrator for FirstGov, remained unavailable to discuss the contract March 7. AT&T and Fast Search representatives also declined to discuss it.

In a written statement, the GSA touted Fast Search's "scalability," saying the search engine can spider a fast-growing inventory of federal, state and local government Web sites. In addition, the Fast Search engine can search HTML pages, PDF documents and other file formats, GSA said.

"In the future, citizens will be able to request search results to be displayed by category, subject and agency," GSA said.

According to a search engine expert, however, most search engines have that capability.

Inktomi Corp., which was among the losing bidders, was considered by many to have a major advantage in the competition because it provides the search engine now in use by FirstGov.

Inktomi founder Eric Brewer donated use of the engine to the federal government for three years.

Equipping FirstGov with a new search engine is the next step in an overhaul that is intended to make the federal portal easier to use. The current search engine has been criticized for overwhelming its users with too many results. It has also been faulted for being imprecise — returning documents with words that match the search terms but do not fit the context of the search.

GSA officials did not respond to requests for information on how the Fast Search engine would solve those problems.

One bidder, who asked not to be identified, said that choosing a foreign company to provide the search engine for "the premier U.S. government Web site is almost blasphemy."

However, a GSA spokeswoman said the agency does not believe "buy American" requirements that apply to some government purchases apply to the search engine procurement.

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