Higher Education Website Search: I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

image of people searching website content

A recent conversation with a veteran higher education web professional prompted this post-cum-questions.


In 2016 Google announced it would be ending sales of Google Site Search (GSS). Google followed its announcement by ending sales and renewals of GSS on 1 April 2017 ahead of a complete shut down on 1 April 2018. Google’s free, Custom Search Engine (CSE) will continue.

Many (most?) universities and colleges have implemented GSS or CSE to offer “on-site” search across their communities of websites. Those institutions are now reviewing and assessing their search service options.

The Real Issue

In the course of researching and building our website risk assessment and quality assurance service we’ve had to perform hundreds of higher education website searches. While we did not make contemporaneous notes, we can make some general observations about the ‘relevance’ of those results and the ‘quality’ of their presentation.

Here’s a screenshot of the results of a typical on-site search for “summer library hours”:

University of Portsmouth on-site search result for summer library hours query

And, below is Google’s result for the same query:

Google search result for summer library hours query at the University of Portsmouth

Our impression from our hundreds of searches is that Google Search – or the advanced search option restricting the domain – gives at-least-as-good-as and usually more relevant results than GSS or CSE searches. On-line research reveals that university and college IT groups have had concerns with vendor support, service outages and, even, difficulties in getting relevant results for their sites on ‘page one’ for both GSS and CSE.

The real issue is that GSS/CSE site-wide search services usually provide poorer results than regular Google searches. This observation appears to hold whether the search is for individuals, departments or research publications.

What is the Purpose of On-site Search?

Following Google’s announcement higher education institutions are examining how they provide on-site search and evaluating alternative technical and commercial solutions.

What may be missing from the deliberations is a re-examination of why on-site search exists in the first place. Website architects understand that visitors may need help finding relevant material on sites where the content has grown ‘organically’ and where the most germane content might be on any one of hundreds of sites across a community or ‘estate’ of websites.

Since GSS or CSE were first installed a combination of Google Analytics-informed re-designs and information architecture revisions have shortened the journey from landing page to relevant information. Perhaps the need for on-site search has diminished?

Moreover, unless you try very hard to prevent it, Google comprehensively indexes all of the sites comprising a higher education institution’s community of websites, for free.

In other words, deciding what action to take about the end of GSS might be better seen as a visitor/user experience issue than a technical replacement decision.

Two Questions to Answer Before Buying a GSS Replacement

If the principal reason for providing on-site search is to enhance the visitor experience, it may make sense to understand if visitors have already cracked GSS/CSE's shortcomings themselves.

If Google Analytics data shows that anything close to 50% of searches for site content already come from general Google searches and behaviour flow analysis shows visitors aren’t wandering aimlessly around your sites – perhaps you can just let visitors use the approach they already use to find relevant content? And, you don’t have to do anything extra to make this approach work.

Why not run a set of comparison tests of your own? Run typical visitor searches (Google Analytics/Search Console can provide the test data) against the current on-site search solution and see if the differences are so small that leaving it to Google will be just fine.


P.S. Apologies to the University of Portsmouth for the screenshot – it just happened to be a good example of what we’ve encountered. And, acknowledgement to U2 for the sub-title for this post.



Sign Up for Email Delivery:

We collect the following solely to email you new blog posts.

* indicates required

MailChimp stores your details. We do not share data with third parties.



Don’t have accurate and current information on all the websites you own? Not able to monitor and check each website’s content quality and risk status? Let’s talk about how we can help.


Blog photo image: unsplash.com / pexels.com