GOV.UK to examine Google and Microsoft tools in bid to ‘significantly improve’ search

Written by Sam Trendall on 16 November 2022 in News
News

GDS prepares for £900,000 project to replace existing ElasticSearch platform with ‘fully managed’ option 

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

The Government Digital Service is planning an overhaul of the systems that enable visitors to search content on GOV.UK in a bid to “significantly improve” user experience and reduce the need for maintenance work.

The search function on government’s website currently uses ElasticSearch software and a database hosted by GDS. The digital agency has indicated that it intends to replace these systems with a “fully managed search-engine services” – such as those offered by Google or Microsoft.

“Our goal is to significantly improve the quality of the GOV.UK site search experience for users by improving the relevancy of results. We would also like to reduce the long-term maintenance work required of the GOV.UK team,” GDS said, in a newly published commercial notice. “We would like to investigate and evaluate alternative search solutions… [and] if we can identify a measurably better solution for users, we want to implement it.”

Work to replace GOV.UK’s search infrastructure is due to begin in early early next year, with the initial phase of the project dedicated to identifying and evaluating products. Such assessments will be focus on “functional and non-functional requirements, based around user needs [and] include accessibility requirements… and progressive enhancement”.

GDS has indicated that these assessments should include a handful of the most common managed search tools, including the Google Programmable Search Engine, Microsoft’s Bing Custom Search API, AWS CloudSearch, Algolia, and Miso.


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Following their evaluation, the products deemed most suitable for use with GOV.UK will go through proof-of-concept exercises and a shortlist of recommended options will then be put forward to GDS decision-makers.

Once a new search tool has been chosen, the digital unit will begin a phased rollout across GOV.UK – the domain that hosts the vast majority websites of central government departments and agencies. This will then be followed by a period of “ongoing optimisation” of the new platform.

GDS is seeking to appoint a supplier to support the evaluation, implementation and optimisation phases – all of which are slated to conclude by the end of 2023. The chosen firm will be appointed to a nine-month contract worth about £900,000. Bids for the project are open until midnight on 28 November.

ElasticSearch was implemented as GOV.UK’s search engine in the months immediately following the website’s launch in 2012.

In 2020, GDS incrementally upgraded the platform used to support GOV.UK, moving from ElasticSearch version 2 to version 6, while also moving some services from government-owned infrastructure to an Amazon Web Services hosting environment. 

At the time, the tech agency indicated that a further upgrade to version 7 of ElasticSearch would likely be needed in due course, but said that “when that happens, we expect to tackle some big issues”. It now appears that it has chosen to address such issues by switching to a different product entirely.

Launched 12 years ago, ElasticSearch was first developed as an open-source platform but is now primarily offered – by its creator, Dutch-based firm Elastic – under a proprietary licence, supported by a stack that includes the Kibana dashboard tool and the Logstash data-processing platform.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

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