SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc. said on Sunday it was working with the governments of Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia to make it easier for consumers to search for hard-to-find public information on state sites.
Google, the dominant provider of search services on the public Internet, said it has struck deals with the four states on a two-pronged approach to make state government information more accessible, both via Google and on the states’ own sites.
“A lot of state agencies view their Web sites as billboards as opposed to dynamic means of two-way communications between governments and their citizens,” said Darrell West, a professor of political Science at Brown University.
“The problem is that there are some parts of government sites that search engines can’t reach,” he said.
The private-public partnership involves no financial payments between the parties, but it unlocks the vast amount of information stored on state Web sites that had not previously been indexed and available on consumer Web search services.
“The reality is that much information on state Web sites is public, but effectively it’s not, because it’s hard to find,” said J.L. Needham, Google’s product manager for public sector partnerships.
The effort takes advantage of “sitemap protocol,” which makes it easier for Web site administrators to let search engines such as Google crawl their sites to generate a list of Web pages on the site.
Google developed the protocol and it has been embraced by other search engines including Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask.com.
No new equipment or revamping of existing government Web sites is necessary, Needham added.
What it means to Web users is that information that previously did not appear in a casual Google search will now appear when searching for results on relevant topics ranging from education to health to property records or regulations.
For example, Arizona home buyers seeking to check up on the track record of real estate agents in the state will find links on Google to the Arizona Department of Real Estate’s database of licensed agents. Similarly, job seekers in Utah can search on Google for employment in the state and find job postings provided by the state’s Department of Workforce Services.
“This is not really putting more information online as it is just giving users a tool to find existing information,” said West, director of Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and author of a 2006 book entitled “Digital Government.”
A second feature of the partnerships calls for the states to upgrade how search works on their own sites.
Two states so far — Utah and Virginia — are using the free Google Custom Search Engine service to create richer catalogs of search terms that makes it easier for citizens to find relevant information buried on those states’ sites.
While increased access to government records could raise potential privacy concerns, Needham stressed that no previously undisclosed information is part of the improved state government search efforts. “We are only here making public information more accessible. We are not about cracking open internal records and making them public,” he said.
“These partnerships are among many that Google is pursuing with government agencies to better serve the public,” Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said in a company statement.