Cruising the IRS' Web site really isn't too taxing

Cruising the IRS' Web site really isn't too taxing

Although visitors can't submit information electronically, IRS tries to make its site taxpayer-friendly

By Shawn P. McCarthy

Special to GCN

The IRS chose its informal, retro-style front page to make visits to the tax site less threatening.

If you think a typical government Web site looks officious and overly formal, visit the IRS' home page, at It's probably the least official-looking government site on the Internet.

The front page, called the Digital Daily, resembles a tabloid newspaper. Its retro-1950s graphics make you wonder: Can this be the tax agency's site?

It is. The tabloid design is all part of the agency's plan to put a more friendly face on the serious business of collecting taxes. The IRS adopted the tabloid newspaper approach nearly five years ago, and feedback has been positive, said Linda Wallace, chief of electronic information services.

But the front page doesn't deliver daily news'one of my few complaints. The front-page story and brightly colored links on the left side change only once a month. That's far less often than at many government sites, which use their home pages to highlight developments affecting their constituencies.

What's good and what needs work

'The site makes smart use of icons to point visitors to help and search tools.

'The IRS focuses its online offerings on the needs of its main constituents, taxpayers.

'The agency controls Web costs by using NTIS' shared government service to host the tax site.

'A forms overlay prompts taxpayers to fill in information before they print out PDF forms.

'The agency should post updates and agency news to the home page more often than once a month.

'The site needs better links to direct visitors to the forms area, the site's most-visited section.

'Visitors cannot fill out forms online and provide information electronically via the site.

'Visitors cannot get acount-specific answers to questions; they still must direct these to IRS representatives.

Visitors must look hard for the 'What's hot?' news link. The agency should consider dedicating part of the front page to news headlines, making the Digital Daily a true day-by-day experience.

Instead of highlighting news, the IRS tries to focus on the needs of its core audience: people who visit once or twice per year to download tax forms and publications. By far the most heavily trafficked part of the site is the electronic-filing section with hundreds of downloadable forms and documents.

The home page does only a so-so job of directing visitors to the forms area. As of late last month, there was no large, visible button; visitors had to search for the link at the bottom of the page. Just before the filing deadline on April 17, harried taxpayers might miss it.

The site does a better job using icons to steer visitors to search and help functions. The graphics resemble advertisements and highlight features such as a CD-ROM for small businesses and a system to set up installment payments.

The site generally succeeds in its main mission by concentrating on taxpayers' needs first. A neat feature called Tax Trails conducts an interactive interview, building a decision tree that leads to specific answers. It helps take pressure off IRS telephone services representatives.

System statistics

'Hosting by NTIS for more than five years in a distributed, redundant infrastructure with mixed operating systems

'SGML document generation by ArborText with distributed source file management

'Documents database with separate metadata files to track 86 attributes such as Privacy Act details, ink color and Government Information Locator Service information

'Interfaces to legacy mainframe data

'Forms stored mostly in Adobe PostScript and distilled as needed into PDF and other formats

'Automated nightly updates of the Web site and archives

'More than 19 million total downloads in January

'500 million hits'not page views, which IRS does not track separately

'15 million CD-ROMs of the site's information distributed to employers for posting on their LANs

'More than 1 million pages stored on the site

'Several databases, for example, charities to which donations are deductible

'A no-cookies policy for tagging visitors because IRS officials think people are more likely to use the site if they don't feel they are being watched

'Forms for asking general tax questions with answers returned via e-mail

'Electronic job banks for recruitment and acceptance of job applications

'An e-mail list server with more than 250,000 subscribers

The IRS site had the most page views of any government Web site in January, as measured by Media Metrix of New York [GCN, March 6, Page 1]. The tax agency's site typically sees traffic spike in the early months of the year, as the filing deadline nears.

Interestingly, it takes three page clicks to see a photo of IRS commissioner Charles O. Rossotti. Far less popular government sites sometimes place a photo of the top official on the front page or, worse, on every page via a branding bar'even though such photos contribute little to a site's success.

The most interesting thing about the IRS site is that the staff does not specifically manage Web content. Instead, the IRS has a large core knowledge repository, Wallace said. From the central repository, information can be published in various ways: to the Web, to CD-ROMs, to fax-back systems, to print forms and to the IRS' own intranet.

The central repository keeps all the information consistent, so the public gets the latest data no matter what the format'print, online, fax or CD.

The IRS is a longtime user of structured text, having parsed documents via the Standard Generalized Markup Language for years. The repository is based on AdeptEditor SGML authoring and editing software from ArborText Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich. Several hundred IRS employees have been trained in SGML this year alone, Wallace said.

Some documents are published via ArborText AdeptPublisher, but the more complex documents require custom-built software. Document management functions are separate, also via a custom software system, said Dave Brown, spokesman for the IRS' Electronic Information Services Office.

Conversion factor


'Linda Wallace, chief of electronic information services

'Core staff of 15 who operate not only the Web site but also CD-ROM production, a fax-back system and a bulletin board system that the IRS will soon retire

'Division directors who have content approval within the central repository

'SGML technical assistance from Plexus Scientific Corp. of Silver Spring, Md.

To publish information to the Web, the staff applies filters that convert documents from SGML to Hypertext Markup Language. The filters combine software from OmniMark Technologies Inc. of Ottawa with some homegrown applications. Documents then upload via the Web to a hosting area at the National Technical Information Service in Springfield, Va. Using NTIS' shared government services in a distributed, redundant architecture lowers the IRS' total site costs.

The online tax forms are in Adobe Portable Document Format, a popular government choice for documents that cannot be rendered in straight HTML. PDF is a relatively open standard, and the Acrobat Reader is downloadable for free. A good added feature: The IRS provides a forms overlay for filling in the PDF forms before printing them out. That's a timesaver because it's easier for the agency to deal with printed forms than handwritten ones.


'Secure sign-ons for access to personal information or to confirm that a check has been sent or received

'Secure e-mail trials ongoing with 100 tax practitioners for audit purposes

'Migration to the Extensible Markup Language for things such as a database of frequently asked questions and training manuals

What the IRS does not yet do is accept the forms electronically from the general public. Instead, taxpayers must print and mail forms, or file them via a commercial IRS partner such as H&R Block Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., or, a site operated by Gilman and Giocia Inc. of White Plains, N.Y. To see a complete list of IRS partners, go to

The IRS is conducting limited tests for accepting forms online and will likely offer such an option in the next couple of years, IRS officials said.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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