Look Who's Saving the Government Money Right Now With *Search*

First appeared on GovWin.com
Agencies with Websites who are searching for a little savings need only repeat one simple mantra: Affiliate Program. A-ffi-li-ate Pro-gram. Not exactly trance inducing but it could well be cost reducing. Specifically, that’s the Affiliate Programfrom the government’s search.USA.gov . And it could cut annual costs by thousands of dollars for each site using search.

Since Google pulled Uncle Sam search a few weeks ago, leaving the GSA’s search.USA.gov as the place to find data, files, information and recalls related to all government agencies, more focus has been placed on search as a solution rather than just a tool. That, coupled with all the new cost-cutting efforts, may point the light directly at how search can save money by offering free site-search engines for the asking. More on that in a minute.

You might recall a July 14 House hearing where exiting Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra endorsed USA.gov and the search portal (following recent improvements) by asserting it should be the one platform for all of government, according to FierceGovernmentIT.com.

“The idea is that for an average American person, they shouldn’t have to navigate the federal bureaucracy to figure out what services they want. They should be able to go onto USA.gov search,” he said while testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on technology, information policy, intergovernmental relations and procurement reform, according to Fierce.

This all comes amidst a thrust toward cost reduction and consolidation knocking some in DC on their heels. For example, the government has simply stopped issuing .gov URLs until ‘it’s able to get a handle on nearly 2,000 second tier domains clogging the ether. (See a fireside video chat about the topic with top govvies here. Tip to the Gov: for optics, when talking cost savings consider a more austere backdrop … just sayin’.) The White House has just formed a 17-member task force to look into the issue of domains.

So let’s get back to that cost-savings-through-search idea. It’s rather simple, actually, with the GSA’s 10-year-old (but revamped) Affiliate Program that invites anyone to give up their current search product in exchange for the free (yep, free) Microsoft Bing-backed hosted solution they’ll receive as an affiliate. [Disclosure: I work with Blue Beacon Consulting who worked on the Affiliate Program.]

For more on the story I turned to Erik Arnold, a search product veteran and a project lead working with GSA.

Q: Rick Robinson – So what was your initial goal with search.USA.gov after getting the assignment?
A: Erik Arnold – The GSA wanted to bring the management and operations of the search engine in-house. Previously, the search operations went to specific software vendors. This “locked in” the search program into proprietary technology that had to change with the end of every contract cycle. Now, with a scalable open source platform, the GSA is not in danger of vendor lock-in, or changing the search infrastructure every few years. 

Q: How did the “Affiliate Model” come about?
A: The USASearch Affiliate Program actually started about 10 years ago as a response to the explosion of new government web sites. Every web site needed a site search, and not everyone has the money and resources to dedicate to a good site search solution.

The idea behind the USASearch Affiliate Program was and still is to allow any federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal web site to access the USASearch technology so that they may offer their users a free site search engine.

Q: What role does Bing play in this solution — i.e. how does it work technologically?
A: The USASearch Program, in its early inception, did try to crawl all of the government’s Web pages. With the explosion of government content online, the government realised it was better to work with a commercial web search engine and get access to their government search results.

Q: And how many agencies (federal, state, local) are members of the affiliate program?
A: There are about 400 government Websites currently running the USASearch Affiliate Program.

Q: What are some of the bigger “names” using the Affiliate model?
A: On the federal level, we have the The Department of Interior, Department of Energy and U.S. Patent Office. On the state level, we have the State of Louisiana and the State of Connecticut. And on the local level, we have Broward County (Miami).

We are actually looking for additional customers, as too few people know about our program. We did not have a lot of spare capacity and resources until it was brought in-house by the GSA.
Q: How do you calculate the annual saving an agency might see by being a part of the program?
A: The formula for a site search is easy, but everyone takes a different approach. There is little doubt that implementing a good site search solution takes an enormous amount of time and resources. For every site to implement our feature sets on their own (rather than through the Affiliate Program) would require a substantial investment.

Cost = [Number of Sites x (Cost of Search Solution + Cost of IT Resources)]

Q: Have you faced internal resistance? For instance, from an agency currently using a proprietary site search solution or a Google site search appliance? Why are you better for agencies?
A: The Google Search Appliance is an enterprise search solution. The USASearch Program is based on Website search. The main difference lies in that Web search uses the link graphs to determine relevancy.

The USASearch team has found that web search solutions provide better relevancy for most users. Some web sites have enterprise search needs, and the USASearch team does not offer those types of solutions. The Affiliate Program is free, and enterprise search solutions are not, so it is a matter for the IT staff to determine resources and cost.

Q: For the technies, talk about the recent infrastructure changes you’ve made…
A: The current USASearch Program is built from scratch using open source technology stacks such as Apache, MySQL, Solr and Hadoop, and using the Bing Web Index for its government wide web search results.

For detailed background on search.USA.gov a good place to begin is on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firstgov.

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