Search Overhaul for U.S. FirstGov Government Portal

FirstGov’s new, sparse search page is just the tip of the iceberg for a number of powerful, useful new features unveiled by the U.S. government information portal.

The new search page offers access to content from U.S. federal, state, local tribal and territorial sources. An advanced search interface with added functionality is also available along with a Spanish-language version of the interface that offers quick access to material in Espanol.

Back in September we posted that Vivisimo the company and technology that powers Clusty had won the government contract to power the new FirstGov search engine.

This marked the third change in underlying search technology for the portal. From 2002 until this year, FirstGov’s search capabilities were powered by Fast Search and Transfer and managed by AT&T. At its inception, FirstGov search was powered with technology provided by Inktomi founder Eric Brewer.

The feel, look, and organization of the actual FirstGov portal remains the same. What’s new is FirstGov’s search functionality.

What’s New

Unsurprisingly, many of the new features are similar to those found in Clusty, Vivisimo’s flagship search service. The new features include:

Larger Database. The database of searchable content has been expanded from about 8 million to 40 million “government related” web pages.

Dynamic Clustering. In addition to traditional search results, results are also sorted into automatically generated categories appearing in links on the left side of the result page.

Preview Function. Click the link labeled “preview” included in each result “snippet” and view a live version of the result page (not a static image) opens up, embedded directly within the result page.

Metasearch from Various U.S. Government Databases. Material comes from not only the open web but from specialty government databases like, (government forms), and

Within the first couple of searches I quickly noticed the improvements that the new search provides.

For example, the new search offers a plethora of options on results pages. Here’s a simple search for the phrase “student loans”. There are several things to take note of on the result page generated by this query.

The first result is a guide direct from the Dept. of Education, an excellent pick.

At the top of the page next to the web search totals you’ll see a link labeled “Details.” Click this to find out what sources were queried and how many results came from each one.

Directly below the search box are tabs. You’ll find links to questions and answers about student loans (a great use of the FirstGov FAQ knowledge base), along with tabs to find results from and a few student loan related forms from These tabs are dynamically generated, and change based on your query. Another query, produced a tab that lists government podcasts.

Note the first result for a search for “navy ships” and next to the url in the first result is a link that reads “more from the Navy.” Clicking this link runs a site specific search of the US Naval Vessel Register web site. You can see the results here.

Here’s another search, this time for “trade statistics.” In this case no tabs are available but numerous clusters appear in the left column. Click on the link and see the new results and/or click on the plus sign (+) to see sub-clusters.

Also at the top of the cluster section notice the tabs that allow you to cluster results by topic (default), government agency (very useful), and source. It would be great if they would also offer a tab that allowed you to quickly see clusters by U.S. State when running a general search.

Again, don’t forget that these clusters, tabs, etc. are all produced dynamically for each search. Tabs and clusters shown for one query may not appear in results for another query.

The Bottom Line

This marks mighty impressive beginning for the new search. I’m looking forward to seeing not only what other features they might offer in future releases but also the specialty databases and tools they include in the metasearch portion of the service.

A Note On Dynamic Clustering and Metasearch

We’ve been impressed with both Vivisimo (for many years) and Clusty since it launched in 2004. Here’s a the overview that Chris and I authored for SearchDay on the day Clusty debuted.

Those of you who read the Search Engine Watch blog on a regular basis also now that I appreciate the potential of metasearch more and more each day. The same is true with one form or another of dynamic clustering and/or query refinement.

As this PDF paper from Vivisimo puts it, dynamic clustering can help provide “selective ignorance” for web searchers. In other words, it can help get the searcher quickly and with little effort to the best results for their query. For many people the “deep web” is anything beyond the sixth or seventh result on a web results page.

Is dynamic clustering perfect? Is it THE solution? No, not at this point, but the technology is constantly improving. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by services offering clustering and dynamic query modification is one of training, showing searchers what clustering can offer and how to best take advantage of it.

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