Why users like federated search (even though they shouldn’t)

‘Federated Search’ is a library term, it refers to search engines that search a variety of library databases (things that contain journal articles, conference papers and the like) and combine the results in some way to be presented to the user.

Federated searching is a somewhat fraught topic in libraries; many librarians don’t like federated searching and are hestitant to recommend it to library users.  This reluctance is not without good reason–federated search is inferior in many ways to using native database search interfaces, including problems with relevance ranking, the false appearance of comprehensiveness, and the inadequate de-duplication that many offer.  On the other side of this, federated search offers the holy grail of library searching: a single search box (well, almost–federated search usually doesn’t include the local catalogue, though sometimes it does, as in this example at UNSW).  The single search box is seen as being “like Google” in offering users a lot of different content from one search–and even has a slight edge over Google scholar in that search results will usually reflect more closely than Google Scholar which results a searcher can actually access.

Federated search has some issues that would normally be pretty big rpoblems from a user perspective too:

  • The relevance ranking doesn’t really work. Because federated search is pulling in material from a range of sources, each of which use different approaches to relevance ranking and different metrics to express a rank.  Any combination of these results is likely to produces flawed relevance ranking.  This means that often, the most relevant results will not be in the magical first couple of pages.
  • Federated search is very, very slow.  Again, because federated search is searching a number of remote databases and then applying some metric to combine results before these are presented to the user, federated search is very slow. Typically users are unhappy with slow response times, so this should be a real problem for users.

So, we know librarians are often hesitant about recommending federated search, and that users have every reason not to like it…and yet study after study shows that users do like and use federated search.  So why is federated search so popular?

  • One stop shopping: Federated search offers users a one-stop shop, and even though they know it isn’t as good, they will often use it anyway.
  • Time saving: Despite the long load time for search results, users know they will save themselves time (and likely frustration) by visiting only a single site.
  • Search syntax: Search syntax varies slightly from site to site, and federated search allows users to forgo learning the variationson syntax required by individual databases.  Given that we know boolean searching is hard (sorry, paywall), it is easy to surmise that learning less about it is considered a good thing by users.
  • Low user expectations: Users expect library systems to be slow and clunky, so their expectations of federated search are lower than they would be for other web-based services.

Users’ willingness to use a system we don’t expect them to like is an object lesson in how usability principles are not entirely universal: Occasionally users will tolerate unusable systems over more-usable ones because the end result is still a faster and easier user experience.

So, does users’ willingness to put up with the limitations of federated search mean we should stop striving for anything better? I don’t think so.  I think that as web technology improves, users will have less tolerance for slow and clunky systems.  We’ve already seen this at Swinburne with the library catalogue–while it hasn’t changed our users surveys show increasing levels of dissatisfaction as a result of user expectations that have been raised by their interactions with other systems.  I don’t believe that users are going to be willing to individually visit library databases in the future any more than they are now; even Google is meshing different kinds of data in its search results.  I believe there is real benefit to be had for librarians and library users alike in making headway in one-stop searching, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Primo Central and Summon (the next generation of federated search, where metadata is locally indexed making search faster and relevance ranking better) in action.  In the meantime though?  Users still like federated search, even though it is slow and awkward.

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2 Responses to “Why users like federated search (even though they shouldn’t)”


  1. 1 Vasanth Monday, December 28, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Hi

    I am vasanth
    Working as a librarian.
    I am confused with the term federated search.
    Is it the library search interface must provide access to all sorts(databases, web sites, local opac etc)
    Yale university library has search interface wherein one can select particular option (opac, library website etc) and search. Can I call that as federated search option.
    let me know
    vasanthrz@gmail.com

    • 2 danamckay Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm

      Hi Vasanth. ‘Federated Search’ refers to systems (usually purchased from external vendors, e.g. MetaLib by ExLibris) that accept search terms from users, then harvest search results from numerous databases (for example EBSCO, Gale, Wiley) and return the results in a single page. Your example is a search box where the user must pre-select a single search source, and as such is not a federated search.


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