In the wide world of the web, nothing gets attention like the word Google. So, when Google announced the release of their new U.S. Government Search this month, government information researchers began to buzz and to wonder.
Silicon Valley-based Google has long offered a U.S. government search product called Google Uncle Sam. (For more information on Google Uncle Sam, see the February 2005 LLRX.com article entitled Why Google Uncle Sam?) The Uncle Sam URL (www.google.com/unclesam) now redirects to the Google U.S. Government Search URL (http://www.google.com/ig/usgov). Google is advertising the site’s address as usgov.google.com. At present, that URL also resolves to www.google.com/ig/usgov.
On the other side of the North American continent, the U.S. federal government’s own FirstGov site, launched in September 2000, has always featured its own government web search engine. Relevancy ranking of FirstGov’s search results had been so weak, however, that researchers stuck with their familiar friends, Google and Google Uncle Sam. FirstGov re-launched its search engine in January of this year with a pairing of MSN Search and Vivisimo clustering technology. For various reasons, it became a better government search tool than Google Uncle Sam. (See the LLRX.com article, FirstGov Becomes First in Government Search.) Perhaps MSN and Vivisimo's new high profile with the federal government customers is one of the motivators behind Google's decision to give old Uncle Sam an extreme make-over. One clue: the new search page has a convenient link to Google’s government enterprise solutions for government agencies.
Google U.S. Government Search Homepage
The New Look
Google’s U.S. Government Search complements its search engine and government web index with a news portal feature. The default news feeds are from the Armed Forces Information Service, the White House, Government Executive magazine, and The Washington Post Federal Page. It also features headlines from Google News that result from the rather interesting search string:
white house, OR president bush, OR U.S. Federal agencies, OR U.S. House of Representatives, OR U.S. Senate, -contract, -contractor, -bid location:usa
The new site also has a personalization feature, enabling users to display headlines from RSS feeds of their choice.
The Search and the Results
Aside from the news portal and the personalization feature, what has changed since Google Uncle Sam? One major difference is that the Google U.S. Government Search index includes government websites that do not use the .gov and .mil suffixes. Google Uncle Sam had defined the .gov and .mil domains as the government web. In reality, some important government and quasi-government sites use .us, .edu, .org, and .com suffixes. Examples include the USDA Forest Service, the National Defense University, HUD User, the CIA-funded In-Q-Tel, and military recruiting sites such as GoArmy.com. All of these are indexed, at least to some extent, in the new Google U.S. Government Search. My test searches show that FirstGov Search does not have this capability at the time of this writing, but I suspect that the race is on. (Oddly, the Google government index does not seem to include Smithsonian—www.si.edu—pages while FirstGov Search does. This was the case in tests on June 17; the situation could likely change.)
On its About page, Google states:
The Google U.S. Government Search index includes U.S. federal, state and local sites with domains such as .gov, .mil as well as select government sites with .com, .us, and .edu domains (eg. .usps.com, .ca.us and ndu.edu). We add content from these sites to our search index on a regular basis. If you cannot find content from your site in the search index, ask your site webmaster to use Google Sitemaps to identify what parts of their site we should index.
This last sentence is aimed at federal agency webmasters, as are other comments on the page.
The second major difference is that Google U.S. Government Search provides an advanced search form for government sites. Uncle Sam provided only the plain and simple blank search box; its advanced search option defaulted to a search of the web unrestricted to government sites. Having a true advanced search of government sites is a big improvement. Still, be careful to click on the “Search U.S. Gov Pages” button rather than the “Search the Web” button. Another warning: I have not had the time to do extensive testing but during my searching I noticed that hitting <Enter>, rather than either search button, sometimes resulted in a search of the full web index and sometimes resulted in a search of just the government web. To be on the safe side, use the "Search U.S. Gov Pages" button. Aside from the potential for confusion, it is admittedly convenient to be able to switch back and forth between a web search and a search of just the government index.
What has not improved? Google is well aware that the .gov domain is not unique to federal government websites; state and local government sites may use .gov (and .org, .com, etc.). However, Google is as yet unable to provide a search of federal-only or state/local-only sites. FirstGov Search does provide this power on their advanced search form.
What also has not improved is Google’s format for displaying search results. FirstGov Search still has a distinct advantage with its advanced display features, including handy "new window" and "preview" viewing options, clustering by topic, and—my favorite—clustering by agency. The screenshot immediately below shows the results of a FirstGov federal-only search on the phrase "avian flu." It shows both the agency clustering and site preview features.
As you can see from this screenshot, the federal-only limit on FirstGov is not perfect. Some state and local results seep through even when limiting to federal government sites. The cluster-by-agency feature makes it easy to sort the federal results out from the others, however.
Launched just last week, Google U.S. Government Search has a few navigation wrinkles to iron out. Most frustrating is the lack of a "new government search" button on the results screen. The only search links lead to regular Google; use the back button if you wish to return to Government Search. In addition, the advanced search screen and the search results screen display the old stars-and-stripes Google Uncle Sam logo. While not a technical problem, inconsistent logos make it difficult to tell where in the Google universe (the Googleverse) you are. These are small problems, and no doubt Google will fix them—perhaps even before this article hits the web. [Update, June 24, 2006: The Google U.S. Government Search website was offline late Friday through early Saturday, June 24. Google came back online today with a few improvements. The new Google-with-flag logo has replaced the old Google Uncle Sam stars-and-stripes logo on all pages. On the results screen, clicking on the logo will take you back—as you would expect—to the Google Government home page.]
Screenshot of Google results
As I said earlier, nothing gets attention like the Google word. June 15, 2006 brought a spate of news articles and blogs about Google's Government Search, including:
- Google to Launch Government Search Site, Washington Post.
- Google Unveils Government Search Portal, Federal Computer Week.
- Google Relaunches US Government Search, Search Engine Watch.
One interesting post I saw was a comment by librarian Daniel Cornwall of the Alaska State Library on the GOVDOC-L discussion list. Daniel noticed that the Google U.S. Government news portal features presidential, military, and commercial resources. While one can customize to add them, the default page that most people will use has no news from or links to the judicial or legislative branches. Personally, I suspect this is because the bulk of the federal contracting audience comes from the executive branch and the military. Nevertheless, it does give a distorted view of U.S. government information resources and of our constitutional government. Daniel also noted the lack of links to useful sites such as the Contact Your Government page on FirstGov, and the Ask-a-Librarian service from Government Information Online. Daniel concludes, "There are many more high-value services that they could have linked to. Why didn't they? Maybe because they're not experts in government information."
The Limits of Search
As many librarians know, web search is just one tool needed to research government information. It is best for granular information—such as finding mentions of a specific federal program or a law with a distinct title—and less helpful with exploring, understanding the context of information, or helping when you don’t know what you don’t know (which is much of the time).
The new Google U.S. Government Search and the relatively new FirstGov Search are useful search tools. They are part of tool chest, but they are not the only tools.