New Google portal delves into gov sites

Search giant says site complements rather than competes with FirstGov

Google has created a new Web portal for searching federal, state and local government sites via its own interface. Google officials said the portal’s largest target audience is federal employees, who can tailor it to their needs.

The portal, called Google U.S. Government Search, in many ways competes with the federal government’s FirstGov. It lets federal employees find official government content and government-related news relevant to their jobs. But it also helps them find information of personal interest, such as sports scores or stock quotes.

Federal users can customize the layout of the Google government page and add content from other Web sites via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, the same way people personalize the Google home page.

The new search service is the latest in a series of recent Google releases aimed at government users. The company has a long list of agency customers that already use its search appliances and geospatial aids. However, the official federal search site, FirstGov, is powered by Vivisimo, which uses its Clusty.com search engine, and Microsoft’s MSN Search.

Although the new site was not created in partnership with the government, company officials said their Web portal and FirstGov are not rivals, because each offers users a different set of capabilities.

“We are not trying to compete with FirstGov in any way,” said Kevin Gough, product manager for Google U.S. Government Search. “We actually think they are complementary offerings. FirstGov has a directory structure. Google U.S. Government Search focuses on Google’s core strength, which is search.”

Federal employees can combine the two services by linking news feeds from FirstGov to the customizable Google U.S. Government Search home page. “We hope that this motivates [agency] Webmasters to expose more of their info via RSS,” Gough said. “We are going to ask them to format their content in a way that can be easily accessed by Google users. The government has a lot of rich content, but people don’t necessarily know where to look. Google has a large user base.”

Government officials said they welcome any commercial attempt to make it easier for people to find government information. M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which oversees FirstGov, said the Google search portal serves an important function that FirstGov cannot and should not duplicate.

“I think our role in being inherently governmental is to distribute only government news, not news written about the government,” she said. “We’re not going to have feeds from the wire services. Why would we compete with the private sector? That’s what they do. They do it well.”

Raul Valdes-Perez, co-founder of Vivisimo and an adjunct associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, took a dimmer view of Google’s new offering, criticizing the search giant’s capabilities. Google queries turn up a long list of hits, while FirstGov displays results grouped by topic, agency and source through an enhancement called clustering.

“Beyond mere ranking of search results, government search sites need custom treatment of their highest-value information, and users need navigational aids and trust that the information is authoritative,” he said.

With FirstGov, a search on “identity theft” pulls up frequently asked questions about reporting identity theft, along with direct links to helpful resources on the Web sites of the Federal Trade Commission and Social Security Administration. FirstGov’s rankings are based on the requests that agencies most often get from citizens or the forms they routinely ask for.

Google relies on an analysis of links between Web sites to determine an individual page’s value. “They don’t spotlight the most frequently needed information,” Valdes-Perez said.

He encouraged citizens to test the two services against each other with keywords such as “hurricane” or “retirement.” On FirstGov, he said, “note how the highest-value information is spotlighted at the top and how clustering really helps users navigate when the spotlights aren’t enough. Government search needs to be done right.”

What you can do with the new Google U.S. Government Search

Users of Google’s government Web portal can tap into government information sources and set up various content feeds on a personalized home page.

Specifically, it lets users:

  • Search across official government information and government-related news from nongovernment sources.

  • Query federal, state and local government Web sites or the entire Web from the same search box.

  • Read current news from government agencies and media outlets on the home page.

  • Customize a home page by adding content feeds from government and other Web sites.

  • Receive weather forecasts, sports scores and stock quotes.

— Aliya Sternstein

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