NASA uncovers sites unseen

The Mars Pathfinder mission generated some of the heaviest Web traffic ever seen, but
officials checking specialized NASA sites have discovered it takes more than a Web server
and a uniform resource locator to get information out to the intended audience.


"I'm learning a tremendous amount," said Linda Porter, site curator for the
Space Sciences Laboratory at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "It's
an extremely complicated problem that we're trying to work through."


For one thing, visitors who enter through the front door at http://www.nasa.gov have a tough time finding the lab's
location athttp://www.ssl.msfc.nasa.gov, buried
among more than 200,000 NASA pages.


"I challenge you to get to us," Porter said. "We're not visible. We're
five or six clicks away from the home page. That's about as close as we can get."


The Space Sciences Lab has resorted to a variety of commercial services to get its
information before the scientific community, including submissions of directory listings,
indexing on external sites and customized page development.


Results have ranged from mildly helpful to incredibly effective, Porter said.


NASA's Education Program Office, also located at Marshall Space Flight Center, wanted a
more user-friendly entrance to NASA pages through its own Spacelink site for teachers and
students. The headquarters' main page demands too much knowledge of the agency's
organizational structure for outsiders to navigate easily through the large volume of
information, said Jeff Ehmen, education office director.


Educators' time is at a premium, Ehmen said. "They don't have a lot of time to
surf."


The education office went online in 1988 as a dial-in site with eight 2.4-kilobit/sec
modems. In 1991, it began accepting telnet calls from the Internet, and it moved to the
Web in 1994.


"We made a decision a year ago that we had to embrace all the information
available" at the NASA site, Ehmen said. "We wanted to be able to search the
NASA Web [site] from Spacelink without having to know who manages what programs."


This led to a makeover of the Spacelink site and a new search engine from Infoseek
Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. The new, improved Spacelink page launched at http://spacelink.nasa.gov last June.


One advantage of the new search engine was natural-language querying, not just key-word
searching. The Infoseek engine can accommodate the chaotic nature of the Web, whereas most
search engines originally were designed for uniform proprietary sites, said Ed Hoffman,
Infoseek's director of software sales.


The Infoseek search engine, introduced in 1997, also is in use at the Energy, Education
and Veterans Affairs departments.


Hoffman said the Web is changing, as are users' navigation habits. The Web is getting
too large and too full of junk materials for directories such as Infoseek and Excite to
produce comprehensive but discriminating site lists, he said.


The large directories are relying more on owner submissions of site listings and less
on Web-crawling for inventory these days, he said.


"We do have an active spider, but we're not trying to crawl the entire Web,"
Hoffman said. When a site listing is submitted through Infoseek's Web page, the spider
goes out to capture that site.


As site owners such as NASA learn they must actively promote their pages, they are
creating a market for companies such as WebPromote Inc. of Libertyville, Ill.


"Our mission is to drive qualified visitors to our customers' Web sites,"
said Ken Wruk, WebPromote president. The company submits listings to 200 online
directories, search services and yellow pages, then follows up to verify accuracy of
listings.


Marshall's Space Sciences Lab paid WebPromote $600 for the service. But Porter said,
"I can't attribute any rise in the number of hits from WebPromote."


One problem is that the site was buried among the huge number of pages indexed by the
directories and search services.


"Do you know how many pages have 'NASA' in them? Millions," Porter said.
"NASA is extremely difficult."


The EurekAlert service at http://www.eureka.org was
more effective in drawing visitors to the lab site.


For an $800 annual subscription, the Space Sciences Lab can list headlines with links
to its site.


The greatest success came from Bishop Webworks of Bishop, Calif., a company that
studies the algorithms used by various search engines. It uses this knowledge to construct
pages that will pop up at the top of a list of hits.


"What the contractor is doing for us is incredibly effective," Porter said.
"He designs a content-based page that has a concentration of key words that produce
the best results for each engine. He is concentrating on five or six of the major search
engines and doing a very thorough job."


NASA's lessons learned mark a milestone in Web development: Making the Web data useful
to the public requires a different set of skills from just making it attractive.


"Designing pages that let your site be found is complex," Porter said.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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