Getting Library Catalogue Searches Out There…

As a long time fan of custom search engine offerings, I keep wondering why Google doesn’t seem to have much active interest in this area? Google Custom Search updates are few and far between, and typically go unreported by the tech blogs. Perhaps more surprisingly, Custom Search Engines don’t appear to have much, if any, recognition in the Google Apps for Education suite, although I think they are available with a Google Apps for education ID?

One of the things I’ve been mulling over for years is the role that automatically created course related search engines might have to play as part of a course’s VLE offering. The search engine would offer search results either over a set of web domains linked to from the actual course materials, or simply boost results from those domains in the context of a “normal” set of search results. I’ve recently started thinking that we could also make use “promoted” results to highlight specific required or recommended readings when a particular topic is searched for (for example, Integrating Course Related Search and Bookmarking?).

During an informal “technical” meeting around three JISC funded reseource discovery projects at Cambridge yesterday (Comet, Jerome, SALDA; disclaimer: I didn’t work on any of them, but I was in the area over the weekend…), there were a few brief mentions of how various university libraries were opening up their catalogues to the search engine crawlers. So for example, if you do a site: limited search on the following paths:


you can get (partial?) search results, with a greater or lesser degree of success, from the Sussex, Lincoln, Huddersfield and Cambridge catalogues respectively.

In a Google custom search engine context, we can tunnel in a little deeper in an attempt to returns results limited to actual records:


I’ve added these to a new Catalogues tab on my UK HE library website CSE (about), so we can start to search over these catalogues using Google.

I’m not sure how useful or interesting this is at the moment, except to the library systems developers maybe, who can compare how informatively their library catalogue content is indexed and displayed in Google search results compared to other libraries… (so for example, I noticed that Google appears to be indexing the “related items” that Huddersfield publishes on a record page, meaning that if a search term appears in a related work, you might get a record that at first glance appears to have little to do with your search term, in effect providing a “reverse related work” search (that is, search on related works and return items that have the search term as the related work)).

Searching UK HE library catalogues via a Google CSE

But it’s a start… and with the addition of customised rankings, might provide a jumping off point for experimenting with novel ways of searching across UK HE catalogues using Google indexed content. (For example, a version of the CSE on the domain might boost the Cambridge results; within an institution, works related to a particular course through mention on a reading list might get a boost if a student on that course runs a search… and so on…

PS A couple of other things that may be worth pondering… could Google Apps for Education account holders be signed up to to Subscribed Links offering customised search results in the main Google domain relating to a particular course. (That is, define subscribed link profiles for a each course, and automatically add those subscriptions to an Apps for Edu user’s account based on the courses they’re taking?) Or I wonder if it would be possible to associate subscribed links to public access browsers in some way?

And how about finding some way of working with Google to open up “professional” search profiles, where for example students are provided with “read only” versions of the personalised search results of an expert in a particular area who has tuned, through personalisation, a search profile that is highly specialised in a particular subject area, e.g. as mentioned in Google Personal Custom Search Engines? (see also Could Librarians Be Influential Friends? And Who Owns Your Search Persona?).

If anyone out there is working on ways of using Google customised and personalised search as a way of delivering “improved” search results in an educational context, I’d love to hear more about what you’re getting up to…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

7 thoughts on “Getting Library Catalogue Searches Out There…”

  1. Interesting stuff. Ed Chamberlain (who was project manage for the COMET project Tony mentions) tweeted an example Google results page for Cambridge with a search for ‘Darwin’ limited to the Cambridge catalogue and asked ‘is this useful?’. I think if you are used to dealing with library search interfaces the initial impression of the Google results for library materials is that it lacks clarity of display and various options and information you expect to see. I find it difficult to shift my thinking from my usual expectations to a Google results screen for this type of material.

    Yesterday at the meeting I asked ‘what should your SEO strategy be for library catalogues’ – I was trying to think through how you would ensure that the relevant results floated to the top of the Google rankings. However, what strikes me – and particularly in light of the links between Huddersfield records you highlight above – is that if this (exposing library catalogues to Google) is going to be a successful strategy start thinking about the library catalogue as a website. With this in mind, some questions:

    What should a ‘book’ page look like? What are the important elements?
    What links should there be between pages – what is your navigation structure?
    What other types of pages should there be? (perhaps most obviously a page per Author – Amazon does this type of thing – it strikes me that this is absolutely fundamental if you want a search like ‘Darwin’ to give useful results about Charles Darwin)

    I don’t think this is a new or original thought, but we (libraries) still seem to struggle to do this – designing for the web, not just the web as a transportation mechanism. But Google is designed to index the web, not library catalogues and if we want to exploit it successfully we need to make moves in this direction (with perhaps more structured data via indicating that there is some likelihood of movement from the search engines in the direction of more structured data as well).

  2. @owen Is getting a reference to an Amazon search results page useful? I think part of the advantage of getting book search results appropriately into a search results listing may be useful as a reminder to a searcher that “other forms of content are available”.

    I think we probably need to distinguish between discovering content with the intention of immediately reading it or working with it (e.g. using the web as a quick reference work) and harvesting content/references with the intention of looking at it in detail later. The way catalogues reference books at the moment, it would fall into the latter camp (e.g. discover a book, then make it easy to reserve it, for example), although if we moved to previewable views using ebook access, or Google Books previews, that might change things (e.g. )

    When designing a catalogue page for a resource, I think we need to balance the content of the page insofar as it aids discovery through the search engines (the SEO component) along with making it useful or actionable. For example, providing a way to search within a work/preview it, download a copy, reserve or annotate a copy, find related recommendations, etc,

    In the cluttered jumble of thoughts in my post, one of the things that particular interests me *in general* is how we can use resource collections developed/recommended as the contentful part of a course to influence the search results as seen by a student on a course using Google to search for resources relevant to a course. (There’s probably also a debate to be had around the extent to which this is a Good Thing/Bad Thing, e.g. in respect of narrowing the resources that might be presented to a student by pushing suggested content).

    An idea I’ve been working on is how we can use search like interfaces as ways of recommending resources in a course or topic context, whilst still supporting open ended discovery. It might be that this is just too confusing to users in the same interface (e.g. they might either want the recommended resources, or they might want free form search); alternatively, it might lead to new ways of helping users develop their information skills both in terms of scanning results to identify which ones may be worth following up, as well as developing search strategy skills? (For example, Dave Pattern’s work on suggested search queries is interesting in this respect).

  3. @owen “However, what strikes me – and particularly in light of the links between Huddersfield records you highlight above – is that if this (exposing library catalogues to Google) is going to be a successful strategy start thinking about the library catalogue as a website.”

    So compare: getting results into Google Web Search, cf. getting results into Google Scholar (in latter case, I guess the idea is that ranking signals might be “availability” and “course relevance”, so that references recommended by a course team as well as references available in your local library get a boost?

    This is where the idea of custom search comes in – you can overlay ranking factors on wider Google search results. Hmm… thinks… what if Google did personalisation based on IP range as well as browser cookies, so that eg a university could develop “academic flavoured” persnalisations simply by the fact that academic types were doing academically motivated searches a lot of the time!

  4. PPS on the SEO thing and catalogue pages as Google indexed web pages: maybe Huddersfield does well on some searches (or maybe rank order on results just within the domain is affected) because of the internal linking between pages derived from the “people who borrowed this also borrowed that” linking structure?

    1. @chris Is there a list of UK HE library catalogue paths I wonder? I have paths for library websites (sort of) feeding the UK HE Library website facet, and elsewhere ( a list of paths into course catalogues/prospectuses. If there was such a list, it’d be easy enough to automatically generate the CSE definition file, and in circumstances maybe even detect catalogue type and provide further refinements based on that?

      Just by the by, I’ve noticed a spectacular lack of interest from the library sector about using Google CSEs across curated sets of domains. Any idea why this might be?!

      PS I added the Kent/LSE/Swan links to the CSE… PPS ah, hmm… seems I didn’t; either Google Chrome of CSE being a pile of crap and not letting me add new sites atm:-(

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