FirstGov search returns surprise result

The Norwegian search engine that beat American competitors to provide search services for FirstGov offered "the best technical solution" at "an incredibly lower price," a senior federal official said.

The General Services Administration said March 8 it will pay AT&T Business Services $1.84 million a year for up to five years to provide search engine services for FirstGov, the federal government's Web portal. AT&T has selected Fast Search and Transfer, an Oslo-based company, as its search engine supplier.

AT&T and Fast Search beat four major U.S.-based search engine companies and numerous smaller ones in the competition. AT&T also provides the hardware that runs FirstGov.

"The price differential was significant," said David Drabkin, GSA's deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy. But GSA also performed a "systematic, in-depth, thorough inquiry into performance issues," and concluded that the Fast Search engine was the "best in technical merit," he said.

The Fast Search selection was greeted with dismay by some of the American search engine makers also bidding for the job. 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."

But Drabkin and other GSA officials stressed that the prime contractor, AT&T, is an American company, and that in any case, "buy American" requirements do not apply to service contracts.

Choosing Fast Search "is surprising from [a] name-recognition standpoint," said Guy Creese, research director at Aberdeen Group, a technology market analysis firm. The company is well known in Europe, but is a relative newcomer to the United States, he said.

"It was not surprising to me," said search engine expert Paul Bruemmer. "Fast [Search] kicks ass. They are a sleeper and they are going to grow."

Fast Search customers include Reuters, eBay, IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and the German government.

The Web portal Lycos uses Fast Search's engine. It is also the search technology behind AllTheWeb.com, which retrieves videos, pictures, other types of files and HTML pages.

In a written statement, GSA touted Fast Search's "scalability," saying that the search engine can create a fast-growing inventory of federal, state and local government Web sites. "In the future, citizens will be able to request search results to be displayed by category, subject and agency," GSA officials said.

Inktomi Corp., a losing bidder, was considered by many to have a major advantage in the competition because it provides FirstGov's current search engine.

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 facilitate the federal portal's use. The current search engine has been criticized for overwhelming its users with too many results and for being imprecise.

RELATEDLINKS

"GSA debuts friendlier FirstGov" [Federal Computer Week, March 4, 2002]

"Vendors vie for new FirstGov contract" [Federal Computer Week, Jan. 21, 2002]

"GSA preps FirstGov contract" [FCW.com, Jan. 20. 2002]

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