EDITOR'S DESK: Search engine puts gov first

Tom Temin

When FirstGov, the federal portal, recently switched to a new search and index technology from Vivisimo of Pittsburgh, I wasn't optimistic. I've never thought much of the FirstGov site. From its inception, I've found it lame compared to Google. I know my way around the federal government better then the average citizen, and I always wondered how an average citizen could find anything easily on FirstGov.

But an admittedly unscientific test of FirstGov versus Google has changed my mind. FirstGov is now demonstrably better than before, and, in my limited testing, is now equal to Google in finding government information. As it adapts to search patterns, I expect the portal to get better.

That's saying a lot. Google, for all its travails with China and the stock market, may have lost its 'cool' cachet as a company. But its Web indexing and search capabilities leave it the gold standard for finding information.

Vivisimo was founded only in 2000 by a bunch of Carnegie Mellon University researchers, according to its Web site, partly with a National Science Foundation grant.

Vivisimo supplies a fast and powerful search engine. On the FirstGov project, the company combines its technology with results from Microsoft MSN Search to index millions more government Web pages than the previous FirstGov tool. Vivisimo goes a step further than Google and other search portals with a technology it calls 'clustering.' It organizes search results into hierarchical folders by relevance.

In my first test, I typed 'federal research grants' into Google. That's not a typo'I mistyped. Google returned some marginal results, together with the familiar question, 'Did you mean 'federal research grants?' ' Re-entering the search, the first three Google returns were the Energy Department, a commercial site called Community of Science.com, and the Small Business Administration grants site. Limiting Google to just .gov sites left out the commercial site and, for my purposes, slightly improved the return.

Repeating the initial spelling error, I figured Vivisimo wouldn't have that spell-check type feature. Well, it sure does. Its first three returns were the Federal Consumer Information Center site, a White House site I'd never heard of called Federal Funds Express that is quite useful, and SBA's page. Following these was a succession of links to other agencies' grants sites.

Interestingly, Grants.gov came up in neither portal's first page of returns. But more important, someone looking for a grant can use FirstGov with a degree of confidence equal to that of Google, maybe a bit better.

Either Vivisimo is a learning engine or the folks at FirstGov are busy optimizing things on their own. Two weeks ago I typed in 'telework' and got several state-related documents, whereas Google returned spot-on with a link to the teleworking office of the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget. And Vivisimo took about six seconds, compared to Google's near instant response.

When I tried the same search a week later, Vivisimo's returned www.telework.gov. in less than a second. Its second listing was that site's frequently asked questions page.

Also two weeks ago, I typed in 'SeaPort-e' and could find maddeningly little about the Navy's carrier-sized multiple award contract program. But last week, Vivisimo gave me a tidy piece of research that, were I a buyer, seller or simply interested party, would tell me anything I wanted to about SeaPort-e.

There isn't space to describe the results of other topics I tried. The bottom line is, the new FirstGov technology visibly improves the utility of this long-struggling portal.

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