on Legal Research
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Internet users have been clamoring a long time for a full-scale government Web site that's all-inclusive, easy to use, and quickly searchable. Does FirstGov.gov fit the bill? While there's a lot of information here, it's not well-annotated and would be greatly assisted by some categorization and increased searching options.
The site starts off with a directory of sites, divided by topic, that seems oriented to the nonprofessional just looking for information. Pick a category and click it, and you're taken to a second menu with a list of selections in REALLY TINY TEXT. Give my eyes a break. And note, when you click on a link of a subcategory, you leave this site. So FirstGov.gov is not all inclusive -- it's a gateway.
It feels weird to say this, but I almost wish the site had used frames. Even a simple frame that says firstgov.gov, a link to the home page, and a search box for the entire site would be very useful.Now, does that mean that the firstgov.gov search engine searches only the firstgov.gov site? No, it searches what looks to be the entire network of federal government sites.
The search box seems to work as expected, with a default Boolean AND. Unfortunately, however, I couldn't get the phrase function to work properly (though the search tips at http://www.firstgov.gov/top_nav/help.html#search say that phrases are supposed with the use of quotation marks.) For example. I typed in "gray hairstreak" (it's a type of butterfly.) I typed it with quotation marks. However, the result page brought up 2150 matches -- and no quotation marks around my query.
Next, I typed (using quotes again) "hairstreak gray." Again, 2150 results and no quotes around the query in the search box. Phrases are essential; I hope this is corrected soon. In addition, the only special syntax that the search help mentions is URL:, which searches only the text of the URL.
If you have no need for phrases, the search results provide you with the site title, the URL, the summary with at least one relevant keyword, the document size, and what I think is the date of the page's last update. If you click on the title of the page, you'll move to the page. If you click on the small icon (it looks like two screens) next to the title, your browser will open the site in a new window. A nice touch.
As I work with this search engine, four words keep echoing in my mind: "TOO GOSH DARN BIG." While this collection of pages may help the expert searcher who needs things from government site and knows exactly how to search for them, it's going to be a big disappointment to the average Web surfer who just wants to know about changes to the tax code.
What Firstgov Could Do to Make this Portal Easier to Use
Firstgov could do several things to make the huge collection of federal information easier for the general public to use:
1) Divide the morass of pages into several different collections to search. It should still be possible to search the entire collection, but it would also be excellent if pages were divided into categories, like laws, taxes, military, etc.
2) Introduce more special syntaxes. A Title: syntax would be excellent. Introducing meta-tags and then making them searchable is another possibility.
3) Make it possible to sort search results by date. That way it would be possible to set up some way to monitor the search engine for new additions containing a keyword in which you're interested.
4) More information on the categories. Listings in the categoric list of sites are not annotated at all.
5) Team up with a natural language search engine company like AskJeeves and develop a way that end-users can ask questions of the page database and get more useful answers. My complaints are, I think, indicative of a larger problem. There are tens of thousands of government sites -- and there is no standard of design, so once you leave the FirstGov site, it's easy to get disoriented.
Further, there are literally millions of pages in the database, and they need to be analyzed for keywords and key phrases that would make them more searchable. Wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of cooperative effort among the librarians and researchers of the Internet to split up the database and annotate each page?
My point is that there needs to be some value added to the database. You can't just lump all the pages from federal sites into one place and yell "FINISHED!" You've barely begun. You need to make the data more accessible, create categories for searching, combine data in new and interesting ways to make other things. And somebody at Firstgov knows this, because there are a couple of gorgeous new resources that make visiting this site a must.
Two New Resources That Make Firstgov Worth a Visit
The first successful new resource is Workers.gov, which describes itself as "Connecting American Workers and Their Families to Government Services and Information." The site is divided into several different categories: jobs, learning, money management, rights & protections, etc.
Click on one of the categories and you'll get a summary of information and a list of subcategories along with featured links. Listings in subcategories are annotated (although "featured links" aren't -- go figure!) The search engine provides categorical links first -- search for "insurance" and the first five results you get are for insurance related categories. Results include title, URL, and annotation (not a page summary with the search keyword highlighted.) Very well done.
I do have a couple of nits to pick with this site. The "Worker's News" is dated July. And the first icon on the main page - the "Using the Net" icon -- leads off-site. I can see it now -- someone unfamiliar with the Internet finds this site, sees the icon, and thinks, "Oh, this site can help me learn to use the 'Net! I'll click on this." And they click on it and find themselves at a TOTALLY DIFFERENT SITE! How confusing, since the prominence of the icon could easily lead one to believe that it's part of the workers.gov site.
Go back to the Firstgov.gov site and look on the left side, below the Workers.gov link. You'll see a link for MapStats.gov -- which is at http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/; when I tried pulling up www.mapstats.gov, I got a host not found error. Rrgh. Anyway, once you get there you'll find a pull-down list of states or a clickable image map of states. Choose a state and you'll be presented with a pull-down list of counties in that state and a clickable image map of the state's counties. Choose a county (or, if you want the entire state, leave the pull-down menu on "State level only" and click the "Get Profile" button.
You'll be treated to a wonderful aggregate of links related to that particular county or state, including agriculture, population and demographics, banking, crime, energy and environment, and business. Some areas have more information available than others, but this is still a great example of pulling together information from a wide variety of federal resources and making it easily accessible through simple menus.
More Work Still to be Done
The idea behind FirstGov is an excellent one. Unfortunately, the effort feels unfinished. More needs to be done -- more categorization, more aggregation, more annotation -- before it can become the solid resource that I'm sure it can be.