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FirstGov -- A Second Look
Longtime readers may remember that on September 24, 2000, I wrote a review of the FirstGov search engine (The engine itself is at http://www.firstgov.gov, while my first review is at http://www.llrx.com/buzz/buzz25.htm.) The initial review can fairly be described as crabby. I concluded with, "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."
Over a year and a half later, FirstGov has a facelift, and I'm back to take a second look at it. Does it have the chops? There have been some changes for the good made here, but there's still much that needs help.
The first page immediately presents you with four columns of goverminty goodness. The left column with the blue background looks like contact information, while the other three columns are devoted to resources for individuals, businesses, and other governments. Each column has a list of
topics beneath it of interest to that group (Find Government Benefits, Employer ID Number, Government Jobs, etc.) Thankfully the new incarnation of the site has ditched the tiny fonts in favor of text I can actually read.
Unfortunately, while the links on the front page are very useful, the problem remains that they remove the visitor from the FirstGov.gov site without any warning. Since the various agency sites do not have a uniform design (and
that's fine, they don't have to) visitors who move from site to site could easily get confused. I recommend either a) warning visitors on the front page that they will be moving to external sites, or b) framing external site content in a
standard banner across the top of the page, ala About.com. The idea would not be to include advertising but to provide a standard for navigation that users could always refer to no matter how many government sites they were visiting.
(I always feel so weird when I recommend frames.)
That isn't to say that nothing on the front page links to a FirstGov site. the "America Responds to Terrorism" page is on FirstGov, for example.
Though I do have some complaints about the browsing links on the front page, FirstGov has created several more ways to browse and search its directory of sites. You can browse by state, search by keyword, or search by topic.
The top left search form allows you to choose Federal, State, or both search engines for your search keywords. Underneath you may choose a state, and the query box itself is underneath that. Choosing state search, and specifying a state, you'll get results just by clicking the submit button -- you don't have to include a keyword. Unfortunately you'll easily get over a thousand results, so for practical purposes you'll need a keyword.
I ran the "Gray Hairstreak" search again, and as before it doesn't seem that the basic search uses phrases. Again, searching for "Gray Hairstreak" and "Hairstreak Gray" both provide over 1000 results, and in neither case does the query on the search results page have quotes. As before, the search
results default to AND.
If you want to force a search for a phrase, you can use the advanced search at
http://www.firstgov.gov/fgsearch/index.jsp. There you can use a pulldown menu to specify exact phrase, all of the words, or any of the words. (Phrase searching works fine via that interface.) You can also narrow down your results by word filters or by including and excluding domains.
This advanced search is definitely a step in the right direction, but there are still some things lacking here. The titles of most pages are not explanatory enough for the average surfer. Furthermore, there don't seem to be meta-tags that explain what the document is all about; just a summary. If I search federal sites for "tax code change" and get a summary that says, "endeavors. The measure also provides a tax credit, up to $30,000 per year,... and pension improvements, this tax code change would help taxpayers keep more ..." how much is that going to help me?
Search results do not open in a new window and they do not have a frame that gives them a design link back to the FirstGov site. As I noted earlier in the article I think that's a mistake.
A little further down the leftmost column there's the option to search by topic. Pick a topic from the pull-down menu (topics range from agriculture to voting, with government-specific topics like passports and government contracts) and you'll be taken to a page of links divided into categories.
(At least two of the topics take you to a page offsite: the passports topic takes you to a page at the State Department, and the Gov't Jobs topic takes you to a sub-site of the Office of Personnel Management site.)
The pages of links divided into categories (that are hosted on the Firstgov.gov site) are interesting, and the division into categories is helpful, but there is no link annotation, which is unfortunate. The titles of some of the sites are pretty good, but just a few additional words -- even the name of the agency where the information is coming from -- would help tremendously. First of all, it would let
people know they're going offsite, and second, they'd learn over time what agencies are providing the information they want.
The last time I reviewed FirstGov, I discovered that the really good stuff wasn't even being hyped by the site itself. That's happened again; a really useful resource isn't highlighted like it should be on the front page. Click on that little unassuming "Questions About Government?" link in the left column.
Now, when I think of "Questions About Government" I think about things that I would have been asked on my 10th grade Civics class exam. But that's not what this is. Instead, this is a collection of FAQs. The one at the top is about
FirstGov.gov itself. But below that are a collection of FAQs by topic (including Social Security, Recalls, Savings Bonds, and even how to order a flag. Finally, beneath that, there are links to FAQs of various agencies, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs (some of the agencies have several FAQs, so this is quite a list.)
I really like this resource. A FAQ is something that many Internet users have encountered, and it's something they can understand. I would almost like to see this on the front page. The only suggestion I would make is to change
the wording of some of the links. Instead of "Order a Flag" try, "How do I order a flag?" Not only might that be more helpful to the visitor, it might help people using search engines find it.
FirstGov has made many improvements to the site. The many ways that a search can be narrowed down and the advanced search are both helpful additions. The topic listings are pretty good though they could do with some annotation. But despite the fact that the search engine can be narrowed
down, it's still too big for any but the most specific searches (and hey, "gray hairstreak" still gives over 1000 results). The pages within the search still lack meta-data that could help the searcher understand the results. Furthermore, there are many more ways this data could be split up -- search Congressional pages? Search Senate pages?
I am not leaving the site with the "ack plbt" feeling I had reviewing the last one. It's greatly improved. But there's still a long way to go.