GSA Advantage gets face-lift

GSA Advantage gets face-lift

Searches will be speedier on the Federal Supply Service's ordering site

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

The General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service is nearing the end of a multiphase upgrade of search capabilities for its GSA Advantage online ordering site.

FSS has used Knowledge Organizer from Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., to reduce search time to about two seconds for anything in its multimillion-record database. The agency is gearing up for more volume with new categorization technology from Sageware Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

What do these three items have in common? You can find them all in a two-second search for 'vehicles' at

Searches will be faster and will pinpoint specific items more easily, said Frank P. Pugliese Jr., who retired last month from his post as FSS commissioner and was replaced by Donna D. Bennett.

'The original version of Advantage was not particularly user-friendly,' he said. 'We realized we had to make it as easy to navigate as a successful commercial site such as'

In the past year, he said, the number of orders placed at rose from 8,782 to 19,301, the quantity of items sold from 15,157 to 33,330, and the vendors from 98 to 684. In all, the site offers 1.05 million items from 2,616 catalogs, 2,352 vendors, and 109 schedules, all served up from a facility in Arlington, Va.

'The site gets about a million hits a day, equating to a search per second during business hours and a search per minute all night long,' Pugliese said.

That includes the recent addition of all of FSS' contract items.

Small price to pay

'We added reference items, the products and services that can't easily be sold with a price,' he said. Of the 137 listings of program manager services, for example, the first 25 are reference items that have no price. Instead, vendors post details of their operations and the types of projects in which they have experience.

'We changed the look and feel of the site based on detailed analyses of user behavior,' Pugliese said. 'We put the search button, for instance, on dozens of screens instead of the one or two available before.' That single change boosted product searches by 50 percent and brought the site up to 750,000 hits a day.

The GSA Advantage logo was added to each of the 100-plus pages because many visitors enter from other sites and are often unaware they have reached GSA Advantage.

Originally, FSS used Sybase Inc. search engine software. The growing size of the database, however, began to slow the searches. Also, the search engine produced too many hits for common items, sometimes thousands per search.

Over the last 18 months, FSS has phased in Verity's Knowledge Organizer. A user can type in a sentence, a part number, a manufacturer number or a contractor name to locate a set of items or one item in particular.

'We've been tweaking searches in the last month,' Pugliese said. 'Verity has 20 search fields.' A search for copier paper, for example, brings back 58 items out of a million in less than two seconds.

FSS officials also decided to modernize their homegrown system of nonstandard product categories and, at the same time, get out of the categorization business. They adopted the Universal Standard Products and Services Classification, a standard promoted by the United Nations. The agency hired Sageware to categorize and standardize its database.

Previously, FSS vendors had to comply with the agency's homegrown classification system, and mistakes could take months to clean up. Sageware is now indexing the GSA Advantage database according to a set of subject-specific retrieval programs that automatically categorize items to make them easy to find.

'FSS is working hard to make the site more attractive to government buyers. There is a lot of competition out there, and they are not mandated to use GSA Advantage,' said John Lehman, founder and chief executive officer of Sageware. 'So far we have delivered individual retrieval programs for several categories that cover everything in each category.'

Someone searching on the word pen, for instance, previously might have seen numerous irrelevant responses for pigpens or paper types for certain inks. Now users can specify writing pens.

The tree structure narrows down 'pen' to types of pens, ink refills, ink colors, fineness of point and other categories. When the user clicks on one category, subcategories appear.

Search is on

Although the million-plus GSA Advantage items have not yet been fully classified, Sageware will eventually present them all in a tree structure so users can easily locate the information they want.

'The categorization is a several-month effort,' Pugliese said. 'We expect it to be up by early 2001.'

In keeping with the standard categorization, Sageware will first ensure that all new vendor material is correctly tabbed. If not, vendors will be asked to use the standard categorization structure. Once a new product list is verified, Sageware will pass it on to FSS.

FSS has expanded its database to include Federal Technology Service, Public Buildings Service and Veterans Affairs Department items, products and services.

Searching on the word wireless, for instance, takes the user to FTS' wireless store.

Similarly, a search for the word contractor leads to the PBS site.

FSS will change the site through a contract with a consortium of five companies'BroadVision Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., Computer Technology Associates Inc. of Bethesda, Md., KPMG LLP of New York, Sybase and Verity.

The consortium will give GSA Advantage a new look, as well as so-called up-selling and cross-selling capabilities. A user buying a printer, for instance, will be told what toner it requires and have a chance to order the toner without additional searching.

The site's five-year-old Sybase and Hypertext Markup Language infrastructure means that any changes involve significant time and complexity. BroadVision's template-based Web site structure will simplify making later revisions [GCN, Aug. 14, Page 60].

'We anticipate a fivefold increase in usage this year, which is expected to grow to tenfold by next year,' Pugliese said.

Regular GSA Advantage customers will notice another service: e-mail acknowledgment of orders and follow-up e-mail when the orders are shipped.

FSS is introducing still another use of
e-mail, known as e-Buy, which will let users distribute electronic requests for quotations to any of the 2,300 GSA Advantage vendors involved in a particular market [GCN, Sept. 25, Page 65].'

'We've bought a couple more Sun Microsystems Enterprise 450 servers to run it, and it's undergoing testing,' Pugliese said.

Further down the line, FSS will probably hook a comprehensive customer relationship management package from an undetermined vendor into BroadVision's existing CRM capabilities. It will perform detailed customer analyses and target marketing campaigns to the user base.

Pugliese said CRM represents part of FSS' commitment to what the agency sees as an e-business future.

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