The United States government procures most of its
goods and services through competitive bidding. The notices of its
requirements are posted on a centralized website called FedBizOpps
www.fbo.gov. Contracting officers and liaisons of government agencies
to private sector providers recite from rote the message that everyone
should search for opportunities on FedBizOpps. Yet, the system is an
abject failure for providing adequate search, requiring private sector
providers to needlessly scour irrelevant and numerous postings to find
information which may be pertinent to their abilities. Consequently, the
right opportunities are not provided to the right providers, which
means that competition is not optimal, the government doesn’t always get
the best providers, and it often winds up paying more for less quality.
Let’s take several examples of the inadequacy of search and examine them in detail.
* No document searching
Here is a posting of Solicitation Number FA8771-12-R-1013 for the
Air Force. The Air Force needs a search engine. From this page, all you
can tell is that the Air Force needs a search engine. What if you
provided an image search engine? Does this requirement pertain to you?
Looking at the attached document reveals that the Air Force is looking
for a full text search engine to index millions of documents and provide
in-document searching (which, ironically, FBO does not provide). One
specific requirement is Boolean search. What if you were a provider who
had a great Boolean search and wanted to find requirements of the
government that had the term Boolean search?
We would have to search FBO for the term. Below is the search
interface provided on the home page, with no links to an advanced search
Typing in “Boolean Search” in the keyword box leads to the following result page:
However, we know that Boolean Search is in the RFI; it’s highlighted here.
Therefore, the search functionality of FBO does not include the
attached documents, which is often how contracting officers actually
post their requirements. Rarely are full requirements posted on
FedBizOpps; instead, theychosen fac are placed in attachments or on
links to other websites which FedBizOpps does not index.
* Does not account for misspellings
FedBizOpps does not account for misspellings, either on the part of
the searcher or the part of the content provider. It asumes perfect
spelling on both parties’ parts, which is a bad assumption.
Let’s take the example of a couple of commonly misspelled words in the English language.
First, let’s search for the term “calender.” A system with an
appropriate misspelling cross-reference would understand that the term
provided is the misspelling of “calendar” and adjust appropriately.
Instead, the user gets a paucity of results.
The problem is worse if the content provider misspelled calendar as
calender and the searcher was looking for the properly spelled term. It
wouldn’t show up.
Another example of a commonly misspelled word is jewelry. It’s
often misspelled as jewelery. Searching for the properly spelled term
yields 12 results.
Misspell the term, and there is no love from FedBizOpps.
* No facets, poorly chosen facets on advanced search page
A well-designed search system should allow a user to filter out
results directly from the search page rather than needing to flip back
and forth between search query pages and search results pages. For
example, the term “ruby” is ambiguous. Is it the programming language,
the mineral, the color, or something else? Allowing for faceting in the
SERP would, with a couple of clicks, allow the searcher to narrow down
on the desired type of ruby. Instead, the searcher is required to look
through a panoply of results and required to flip back and forth with
the advanced search page, hopefully not losing the context along the
The advanced search page has many of the facets that someone
searching might require, but they also require significant domain
specific knowledge, which raises the bar for someone who wants to
provide goods and services to the government. The government’s goal
should be to make it easier to provide goods and services, thereby
reducing costs, not to make it more difficult to do so.
How about collapsing some of these “facets”?
Oftentimes, the information provided to FBO is simply incorrect.
Take the following notification I received recently. Apparently, someone
in the government thinks that a pallet rack pad is a piece of
Chances are if I provided pallet rack pads, I’d not be searching in classification code D.
* No context in search results
Since the SERP does not provide the context around which the search
terms appear, the only to determine if there is applicability is to
read the title and hope that the title gives appropriate contextual
clues. Oftentimes, the title of the post is insufficient to relate any
useful information. See the example below.
You’d never be able to guess from the title that this is a RFI for
information technology support services. You’d also never know from the
information available to the FBO system that it was for website
maintenance in a .NET 4.0 system.
It is clear from even a cursory examination that the FedBizOpps
search system was designed several years ago, and does not account for
the use cases of current users and that does not account for even the
most common edge cases. Because of the poor search user experience on
FedBizOpps, it is difficult for providers to find opportunities where
they can provide goods and services to the government, and the federal
government misses out on getting as broad of a pool of potential vendors
as possible because oftentimes the message misses the target.
FedBizOpps is long overdue for a radical overhaul and redesign. Whether it will or not is a doubtful question.
How else can FedBizOpps improve its search? Join the discussion and comment below!