A few years ago I carried out periodic surveys of search engine usage on University Web sites. The surveys were carried out at about 6-monthly intervals from 1999-2003, with an additional (partial) survey, using data provided by Lucy Anscombe of Thames Valley University, being published in 2005.

The surveys provided an opportunity to monitor trends, which informed discussions within the community, on mailing lists such as web-support .

Search engine usage, 1999The data for the initial survey, carried in summer 1999, show that the open source ht://Dig software was the most popular. There was a diverse range of search engine software found, but also a high proportion of institutional Web sites which did not have a search engine.

Over the years ht://Dig grew in popularity, and there was a consolidation in the range of applications used.  At some point, however, the Google externally-hosted service began to be used.  This initially led to debate on the possible dangers of relying on a third party service for an institutional search engine, and the possible limitations of a proprietary application when open source search engine tools, such as ht://Dig, were available.. By 2003, however, it would appear that the community felt that the benefits provided by Google outweighed possible risks, with a Google search engine was the most widely deployed solution, as shown in the Table (although note that the Table will include uses of the Google Search Appliance, and not just the externally-hosted service).

Search Engine No.
Google 44
Other 24
ht://Dig 21
Inktomi / Verity Ultraseek 10
Not working / not found 5
Google search appliance 5
Thunderstone 2
Total 109

It would be interesting to explore the position today (and a community-led survey would overcome the resource costs of having to carry out this survey centrally). Of greater interest, though, might be exploring how search engines are being used. Are they being used to provide richer types of searching, browsing and other functions – are are they still simply a search box to be found near the top of a University’s home page?

What’s the situation at your institution?