A major redesign of the Internal Revenue Services public-facing Web site makes search and navigation less taxing for users.
The IRS Web site was launched in 1996, as the Digital Daily. At the time, the site was more of a communications vehicle than a business tool, said George Coffin, chief, public portal branch, Internet development services, Electronic Tax Administration, in Lanham, Md.
In 2002, the site was bulked up and renamed IRS.gov. Major changes at that time included the implementation of Vignette Corp.s Vignette CMS (content management system), as well as a new look and feel for the entire site.
The IRS has conducted ongoing usability tests to ensure that its site is meeting the needs of both taxpayers and tax practitioners. The organization is also a member of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent organization that benchmarks consumer experiences.
"Weve been doing usability tests and online surveys and focus groups since we brought IRS.gov online," said Susan Smoter, director of Internet development services, also in Lanham. "My office is charged with ensuring the ultimate success of the site. We achieve our business goals through self-service, rather than more expensive avenues, such as meeting with a representative or calling the agency."
In satisfaction surveys prior to the update of the site, which was launched last month, customers rated IRS.gov relatively low on its search capabilities and ease of navigation, Coffin said.
In response, the agency has worked to improve the flexibility and usefulness of the site. "We can make some changes to be more responsive and more flexible," Smoter said. "We can make the information we know customers are looking for available right there on the front page. [The] top-requested forms and publications … the ones we know people are looking for right now are on the front page, and thats driven by customer demand."
The sites search functionality has been improved with an upgrade to its Verity Inc. Ultraseek search engine, Coffin said.
After a five-month period during which the IRS developed criteria, searched for vendors and hosted a search solution "bake-off," Veritys updated system came out on top. One of the key reasons, said Smoter, was Ultraseeks flexibility.
"Basically, what we do with search, and with the entire Web site, is we manage the taxonomy and the metadata," she said. "Theres a lot of work that weve already invested in the site, to make sure that the content is properly tagged. We found that when we looked at these products ... Verity was the product that best took advantage of all of the work that weve already done. One of the other products we looked at would not have used any of the tagging that weve spent the last couple of years doing."
Smoter and Coffin declined to say what other products were evaluated.
One of the Ultraseek features IRS.gov will turn on soon is the ability to highlight search terms in returned results, a capability mandated by the E-Government Act of 2002.
From January through November, IRS.gov received more than 176 million visits and 1.2 billion page views, according to data supplied by the agency. The ability to support this level of traffic is a key criterion for every decision made about IRS.gov, including the search engine used on the site, said Coffin. "Everything that we do is to provide 100 percent reliability and availability at very high levels of performance at peak time."
Coffin said it has been estimated that there were 84 queries per second on the IRS.gov search engine during the peak income-tax-filing season last year. The organization wanted a search engine that could handle twice that to provide flexibility for growth.
IRS.gov is hosted on two complete mirror sites, with each capable of handling the full load if one is down or maintenance is being performed. IRS.gov also uses Akamai Technologies Inc.s caching service, so the site "is everywhere," said Smoter. IRS.gov is hosted on servers running Sun Microsystems Inc.s Solaris. For security reasons, Coffin declined to say which version of Solaris the site is running and on what processors the servers are based.
Death and Taxes
Given that the two givens in life are death and taxes, IRS.gov users represent a wide range of demographics. This weighed not only on the choice of a search solution, but on "everything on the site," said Smoter: "We do usability testing and outreach like crazy."
The changes made to the updated sites navigation are a result of these tests. For example, there used to be two different search areas, one for HTML Web pages and one for IRS forms and publications, said Smoter. Now, the two areas have been combined. Once changes have been made—some as simple as changing a color or making something bold—more testing is done to make sure that the changes improve results, she added.
Change is good, but when it comes to a site as public as IRS.gov, it takes careful consideration to decide how far to go. In the end, said Smoter, the site is more robust and user-friendly, but the look has not changed dramatically. "We worked very hard to make sure that it wasnt like users were coming to something brand-new and having a completely different experience," she said. "We didnt want to lose that momentum or throw people for a loop. The colors are different, and weve made better use of the real estate, but it feels like the site youve been using for years. And I think thats a great accomplishment."
Executive Editor Deb Donston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.