Widgets to the rescue

USASearch.gov aims to make agency info easier to find with new spotlight tool

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A search with depth

The rise of widgets on the Web has spawned a virtual industry of plug-in capabilities. Now a Web services group in the federal government is entering the fray with a new set of search widgets aimed at improving government Web sites.

The new plug-in applications, developed for USASearch.gov by Vivisimo, are in final testing and due for release next month. They are designed to address a frequent failure of search engines tethered to agency Web sites: getting often-sought government information and services to appear prominently in the search results.

The widgets aim to solve that problem by giving agency Web managers new tools to spotlight selected information and extend the capabilities of USASearch.gov, a customized search engine launched three years ago by USA Services, a unit of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

'The old paradigm was to deliver brochureware ' come see us online,' said John Murphy, director of USA.gov Technologies at USAServices.

'For years, USA.gov [the government's portal] has been like a directory,' he said. 'We're still asking them to come to us,' but now the vision is to provide added services ' reference data, forms, frequently asked questions, maps, news and other information ' and make them easy to find, regardless of which agency Web site people are searching.

Delivering on that vision requires a sophisticated search engine. Since its inception, USASearch.gov has added a powerful dimension to USA.gov and more than 200 affiliated agency Web sites. The service primarily benefits federal sites, although pilot projects are under way at state and local agencies, such as Broward County, Fla. The search engine relies on two applications working in tandem: Microsoft's Live Search, which has been set to index government agency Web sites and deliver the filtered results, and Vivisimo, which sorts and displays the search results into keyword clusters based on underlying themes.

USASearch.gov's structured results simplify access to the contents of more than 50 million federal, state and local government documents.

The search engine fields nearly 4 million search queries a month. The service is offered free to qualifying federal, state, local, tribal and territorial government Web sites.

Widgets are small programs that address specific needs. They can be written relatively easily and are just as easily discarded. Their use has grown rapidly on social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which provide frameworks for users to write them. One widget on Facebook, for example, is a slide show application that has been installed 95 million times. Some software experts say the speed and ease with which widgets can be written could change the face of application development (GCN.com/1076).

Vivisimo's new widgets will allow affiliates of USASearch.gov to create a spotlight section with customizable features that will appear at the top of their agencies' search results page. Web managers will only need to create an approved account, copy a set of HTML instructions onto their templates and select specific types of content or links to populate it. Then they can preview and publish the results.

The spotlight will make it much easier, for instance, to ensure that someone looking for passport information on participating government Web sites will find highlighted links to the State Department's latest information and instructions rather than a variety of other passport information links, Murphy said. As more agencies participate, someone searching 'wildfires,' for example, is likely to also see relevant information on disaster relief from federal, state and local agencies.

The selection tool built into the spotlight widget makes it possible to elevate items, including maps, images, forms and FAQs, into tabbed sections of the spotlight box. The expanded offerings also will let administrators select information from specific states and territories or limit searches to federal sites. It also will let them select information on government jobs, aid, grants, and members of the House and Senate.

Search simplification

That kind of search capability is simplifying Web site work for affiliates such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

'NOAA has over 800 Web sites and more than 30 domains,' said Mike Shelby, an information technology specialist at NOAA's National Ocean Service Communications and Education Division. Because of the worldwide diversity of information and interests, 118 of those sites have separate search affiliations.

Using USASearch.gov, visitors have the choice of searching across all NOAA sites. The savings that come from using USASearch.gov are hard to ignore, Shelby said. Estimates for licensing a comparable commercial search service could exceed $250,000 a year for an agency with NOAA's traffic. But Shelby also appreciates the Vivisimo rendering that comes with USASearch.gov.

'Clustering brings together common themes and highlights them,' he said, giving greater visibility to a broader range of content. For instance, a search for 'hurricane' on NOAA's National Weather Service site points to 3.5 million links consisting mainly of news and topical reports. Vivisimo's clustered-topic window groups the results into 10 or more categories, including advisory, most intense, track, winds, supply kit and cyclone names. Based on recent tests, the spotlight widgets will make it easier to highlight important information that NOAA employees know exists on the sites but which indexing robots can underrate or miss altogether, he said.

NOAA's Aviation Weather, National Weather Service and Tides Online sites are some of the most frequently searched USASearch.gov affiliates. But other agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, also generate high search volumes.

Contract countdown

If there's a downside to USASearch.gov and its latest tools, it's that managers don't have control of the index, Shelby said. That can mean delays in getting Microsoft's indexing spiders to capture new material after a Web site redesign. Another concern is that USASearch.gov is now in the third year of a five-year task-order arrangement with Vivisimo, leaving open the question of what happens when the contract expires.

However, Murphy said, the search affiliate program 'is a key part of our strategy. We will either recompete the contract in order to continue outsourcing the service or move the service to an internal operation when the contract expires. Since we relaunched our search functionality in 2006, many of the industry's best search companies have opened their development platforms and made it much easier to access their indexes' through common application programming interfaces.

Vivisimo also continues to refine its approach to making government resources accessible, in part by more thoroughly harvesting document metadata and style sheets, said Raul Valdes-Perez, the company's chief executive officer.

He added that the governments of Norway, New Zealand and Israel now rely on Vivisimo's technology for sites that mirror USASearch.gov's approach.

And Vivisimo, a privately held company that Valdes-Perez and two other scientists from Carnegie Mellon University founded eight years ago, is expanding on a search engine it built for the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, the world's largest biomedical library. The search application clusters medical information for a service called MedlinePlus.gov using a consumer-facing database of 16 million references from articles published in 5,000 biomedical journals in the United States and 80 other countries.

It's too soon to tell which way USASearch.gov will turn when the license deal expires. One factor likely to shape the decision is how many federal, state and local agencies use the service and how quickly they come on board.

Fielding about 40 million queries per year, USASearch.gov is only using about a quarter of its capacity. Exceeding that threshold isn't likely to trigger a significant increase in cost.

But with hopes of doubling the number of affiliates ' and expectations that the new widgets will make USASearch.gov more desirable ' the internal cost of supporting the service might become an issue.

Either way, Murphy said, 'we plan to continue to offer this program with a number of common menu options so each Web site can choose the options best suited for their operation.'

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