The Government Domain: A Cornucopia of Government Search Engines

It is a time for giving thanks. After the more important thanks are given for life and love, let us be thankful for the plentitude of U.S. government search engines.

A U.S. government search engine is generally thought of as one that is limited to .gov and .mil sites. Unfortunately, those two domains do not cover all government sites. One clear exception at the federal level is the Forest Service at www.fs.fed.us. Then there are those entities that dance around the edges. The National Defense University site (an accredited educational institution under the direction of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is at www.ndu.edu. The Federal Reserve Board has a .gov site, but the individual banks - such as the information rich site from the St. Louis Fed - have sites ending in .org. In-Q-Tel, a private company receiving its funding from U.S. intelligence agencies, is at www.inqtel.com. The .gov domain can also be used by state and local governments, although they do not have to use it. Some states use the traditional .st.us ending, such as Pennsylvania at www.state.pa.us. Localities have moved to .org and .com as well as .gov, or stuck with the traditional format used by cities like Cleveland at www.city.cleveland.oh.us.

The first two government search engines described below do a fair job of including some of the legitimate government websites outside of .gov and .mil. When they don't, we can always revert to searching with a big general search engine to see what else we can find. A more stubborn problem is that much government web content can't be indexed by the search engines at all. A Government Computer Week article from October 25 quotes a Google executive as saying that as much as 40 percent of the content on agency websites is invisible to Google's crawlers because it is in a myriad of databases that the search engines can't access. Google is in talks with the agencies about this issue. In the meantime, try the variety of tools available now. Here are the current "big 3" for government search:

FirstGov Search
firstgovsearch.gov

We kicked off 2006 with the launch of a new search engine for FirstGov, reviewed in this column in February (see FirstGov Becomes First in Government Search). In October, FirstGov added search engines for images from government sites and for news from government sites. Unfortunately, these new options bumped the Advanced Search link off the FirstGov home page. Here is the current banner and search box:

Screen shot of FirstGov Banner and Search Box





To get to the advanced search page from FirstGov.gov's home page, do a plain-little-search-box search and then select the Advanced Search link at the top of the results page. Another route is to use the dedicated FirstGov Search page at firstgovsearch.gov.

What I like most about advanced search is the ability to limit to federal websites, because state and local content is also included in the FirstGov search engine. What I like most about FirstGov Search in general is the results screen. Results can be viewed in clusters by topic or by agency (very helpful). Each site can be viewed in a small "preview" window without leaving the results list, or opened in a separate window.

FirstGov Search also incorporates some insider knowledge of what government information is available and what questions citizens frequently ask. If your search is a popular one, you may hit upon a helpful "FirstGov FAQ." Try a search on telephone tax refund to see what a FAQ result looks like. See the features and shortcuts chart for more like this. The car search listed on the chart was new to me. Here is the results page from my Toyota Prius search:

Screen shot of Toyota Prius Search




Google Government Search
usgov.google.com or http://www.google.com/ig/usgov

Google announced a new government search in June of this year, and it was reviewed in this column that same month (see Google's New Government Search). The June article makes many of the same points I would make today.

The most important tip to remember when using Google Gov is to click on the "Search Government Sites" button rather than hitting the <Enter> key to run your search. Hitting <Enter> or clicking on the "Search the Web" button will run your search in the full Google database, .com and all. This inconvenience can also be an advantage. Because Google Gov makes it so easy to try the search in both databases, you can rapidly discover those quasi-government and relevant non-government sites that FirstGov-and Google Gov-would not have picked up. The habit of hitting <Enter> is a tough one to break; just remember that if you've got some dotcom in your dotgov, you probably forgot to click the "Search Government Sites" button.

Google Gov Search





For me, the disadvantages of Google Gov are the lack of a limit to federal sites and the lack of those wonderful clustering and previewing features that FirstGov Search has. But I use both. Because of differences in database content and in the way searches are processed and results ranked, you may find good results on one that you do not find on the other.

Note: Tara Calishain at Research Buzz has made a single-state filter for Google Government Search; check it out at www.researchbuzz.org/wp/tools/googlestatesearch.


GovMine
www.govmine.com

In August, just when I thought the year could not get any more exciting, search solutions vendor Convera introduced GovMine, which it calls the "Alternative Search Engine." GovMine is still labeled as a beta. Like Google Gov, GovMine includes state and local government content and does not have a single way to filter these from the federal-level sites. Also like Google Gov, GovMine makes it easy to switch between searching a general web index and searching the special government index. Don't be deceived by the ".gov" label on the results screen; this includes .mil results as well. But it only includes .gov and .mil; you won't find results from those non-.gov state sites such as www.state.pa.us.

Screen shot of GovMine-results





One aspect that is decidedly not like Google is the way GovMine ranks results. On the site, GovMine states that results are ranked "solely on the relevance of the term based on our understanding of the document," and not based on popularity factors such as volume of inbound links. I can assure you that for most general searches you will indeed have different search results come to the top using GovMine. Whether they will be more relevant to you…well, that's the Google/Convera question.

A key feature touted by GovMine is its classification tool, somewhat like the topical clustering on FirstGov but using a prepared taxonomy. The classification subsets you will see in your results can be customized in GovMine's advanced setup. This takes a bit of a learning curve and an understanding of whether a given classification may help sort out what you need. When GovMine has the right category for your needs, it certainly can help to sort results. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, I chose the troublesome word turkey and indeed found I was spared all of the recipes and White House pardons and could focus on issues concerning the Republic of Turkey.


Screen shot of GovMine-Turkey