Critical search

Thomas R. Temin

The General Services Administration is closing in on selection of a new search engine vendor for the FirstGov Web site.

Let's hope it chooses carefully. There are a lot of search engines and technologies out there, and they're not all equal. Search engine technology is complex. A good engine balances speed, thoroughness and relevancy of what is returned to the viewer. If FirstGov is to become the portal GSA envisions, the choice is all the more critical.

Sometimes, people are browsing in the ordinary sense of the word'they may not know exactly what they are looking for. Other times, people are looking for discrete information. A site must recognize the difference.

Operators of many search engine sites don't simply mount a piece of software and let it rip through the Web. They have staffs of people examining sites on popular topics. They constantly fine-tune where, how and how frequently their crawlers operate. High-quality searching blends technology, intuition and experience.

Like millions of other people, I've grown dependent on a favorite search engine. Mine happens to be Google.com because it always seems to help me find'and darn quickly'what I'm looking for. As a test the other day, I tried to find an obscure piece of writing. I found it quickly using Google. I tried another site, searchwise.com, and even with much prompting gleaned from the Google search returns, all I got was the spawning of pop-up ads for online gaming. I could barely hit the Alt-F4 key combo fast enough.

In fact, I find Google and a few other sites work better than FirstGov for finding government information. Let's be honest: To date, FirstGov's search capabilities have been mediocre.

When searching specifically for government information, with its limited field of top-level domain names, some subtle frequency and relevancy rules used for commercial searches don't apply. So GSA's choice is not a matter of simply saying, 'Acmesearch.com's technology works the best, so let's use that.'

GSA's main criterion for FirstGov should be whether the technology, via the insertion of fresh search techniques and rules, is capable of constant improvement.

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