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White House hopes new website will help create jobs

The Obama administration is building a new online presence to empower job creators with the information -- and financing -- they need to reverse the nation's unemployment figures.

Business.USA.gov will be aimed at simplifying the ocean of economic-related information floating throughout the dot-gov domain, administration officials said Friday. With unemployment at 8.5 percent this election year, officials announced a government reorganization that would consolidate federal agencies that support business and trade.

"This consolidated agency will have one website, one telephone number and one mission," Jeff Zients, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, said during a call with reporters. Business.USA.gov is mostly empty right now and officials are in the process of standing up a call center at 800-FED-INFO.

The new site will lasso resources from imports and exports agencies, the Commerce Department's business divisions, and the Small Business Administration.

In response to a question from Nextgov, Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said that a major advantage Business.USA.gov will have over the current mishmash of sites is it can be personalized to pull up the most productive data for every visitor. Retired military officers, for example, could set preferences that would push them information relevant to veteran-owned businesses.

Site users will be asked for some basic information about their businesses, which the site will use to adapt the information they are presented with online, VanRoekel said. Veteran-owned small businesses will go through a very different set of screens than major corporations, for instance.

"You can go in and profile yourself and then you'll find services, resources, etc. based on what we call 'swim lanes,' " he said. "Those are different tracks that you may be interested in whether you're interested in loans or exporting a product . . . It breaks down all that complexity and it will pop up a result for you on a whole list of things that [in the past] it would have taken you all these websites and all this federal presence to get to."

A test version of these capabilities is expected to launch within a few weeks, VanRoekel said. Obama administration officials then will study the site's traffic to gauge what's working and what's not.

Already, e-communications vendor GovDelivery has begun pushing out information for people who register on the site for email and social media updates. According to data aggregated from more than half of federal agencies, GovDelivery Chief Executive Officer Scott Burns said the site is guaranteed to attract a high volume of visitors.

In 2011, business and employment topics combined accounted for a quarter of the outbound communication of GovDelivery's 400 government customers. Across agencies, four business-related topics spiked 450 percent or more in terms of public interest, including business data and statistics, business and economic blogs, businesses and nonprofits, and big business and corporations. Since July 2011, the number of visitors registering to receive updates on business-building topics at SBA.gov has grown about 60 percent on an annualized rate.

Officials with the Financial Services Roundtable, which lobbies for Wall Street firms, called Business.USA.gov a "fantastic idea" for large corporations and small businesses. Scott Talbott, a senior vice president at the organization, suggested the portal try breaking down the U.S. tax code into digestible pieces by offering searches based on ownership structure. People could enter their business's legal status -- LLC, for example -- and the site would display common tax issues facing that type of enterprise. "You obviously can't post the entire U.S. tax code," he said, but the results could "help them with filing deadlines, estimated payment rates."

Data on trade agreements and blockades would be useful for the financial industry, Talbott said. In the future, government officials may want to consider linking to online guidelines posted by states since that is where businesses are incorporated.

Industry group TechAmerica said its members would like to see data on trade regulations, loans, embassy roles and responsibilities, and federal services that assist exporters. "Much of this information is available on export.gov, but responsibilities for providing this info and helping companies to work on exports are divided among various agencies, including Commerce, SBA, the Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, etc." said Vicki Hadfield, the organization's senior vice president for global public policy. "It is often difficult for companies to figure out how to access this information and which agency and contact is the most applicable to their needs."

VanRoekel said officials will solicit feedback before launching a planned second iteration of the site.

The former Federal Communications Commission managing director has experience in remaking sites to suit users' tastes, having overhauled the geography of FCC.gov during his tenure. "When I showed up at the FCC, [the website] was organized by org chart so you had to know what each bureau and office did in order to navigate it," VanRoekel said. "There were 14,000 links one click away from the home page so you literally just had this quagmire of information and you couldn't find anything. Search didn't work because you had to know the acronyms to get it to work."

VanRoekel's team organized the site by tagging various parts of the website by subject area and then organizing them so that they'd come up at reasonable places, he said. They also made a rule: No acronyms other than FCC within two clicks of the home page.

This story was updated to clarify the extent of GovDelivery's research.

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