Use of an Academic Library Web Site Search Engine

By Fagan, Jody Condit | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Use of an Academic Library Web Site Search Engine


Fagan, Jody Condit, Reference & User Services Quarterly


An academic library Web site's search engine logs were analyzed to discover how patrons used the site search. Results from this study were intended to improve the site search engine and the library's Web page organization and features. The findings showed that patrons did not understand the function of the search and tried to use it to find information of all kinds, not just library Web pages. Queries often resembled the content of questions at a reference desk but without dialog and the expertise of library staff. This study showed that although the site search itself was found to be effective for its intended purpose, patrons might need another feature--an online reference service similar in attitude to the site search but with a human answering the queries.

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To the Web-weary searcher, the input box may appear to be a window to the soul of the Internet. When searchers tire of pointing and clicking ad nauseam and passively receiving thousands of characters of information, the little input box invites them to take an active role and type a question.

In library terms, the input box serves as a reference desk online. It is obvious you will get library help at a library reference desk, but to what mysterious place will an input box take your search: an online catalog or a Web-based database, a Web site, or the entire Internet? Although this study analyzes a library Web site search engine, it seemed some users were not aware they were searching the library's Web site. They only knew that they were searching. Thus this study includes not only an analysis of our Web site search engine but also of some aspects of our patrons' information searching habits: when they searched, from where they searched, for what they were searching, and how confused they were about databases, catalogs, Web pages, and searching techniques. Their behavior illuminated surprising discoveries about our reference habits--most significantly, the number of patrons that were willing to ask questions of a search engine was almost double the number that came to a desk to ask.

Literature Search

Although articles about library Web site design are numerous, none were found about library site search engines or studies of how they are used. However, the idea of studying user searching behavior is far from new. Within that vast field the three most relevant topics are transaction log analysis (TLA), which was most commonly performed on online catalogs in the 1980s; Web server log analysis, which is the natural successor to TLA; and more recently, studies of Web search-engine use.

There is copious literature about TLA: for a comprehensive review of the topic, refer to Peters, Kurth, and Kaske's annotated bibliography, or the special TLA issue of Library Hi Tech. (1) This issue reviews the history and development of TLA, summaries of log systems, research methods, limitations, and the future of analysis. The relatively few fields and insufficient retrieval tools limit traditional transaction-log analysis. (2) System limitations included data size, complex programming, and spatial and temporal factors. Computer memory is cheaper now, and studying a Web-based system makes programming simpler and more feasible. User and search-process factors still apply; however, the most significant of these is the inability to identify individual users, and in some cases even broad groups of users. (3) On the Internet, the ability to record an IP address can reveal the user's location, and even affiliation. In our case, if a user is on a Southern Illinois University (SIU) IP address, they are a student, faculty, or staff member. When combined with a time and date stamp, the IP address also allows for easier identification of individual users. Another user and search-process factor is the inability to record users' online perceptions of their searches. Even on the Web, nothing is known about their information need and whether the results satisfy unless a survey or interview is performed. …

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