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A Blunt Assessment of Search Discovery Tools

“Discovery” has become the new buzzword these days.  Greg Notess, searcher extraordinaire, told us what it is, and reviewed some of today’s discovery systems.

According to Greg, discovery is metasearch.  Typical content for discovery systems contains local content–library catalog records or local collections–as well as citation and abstract metadata from publisher partners or co-owned databases.

The idea of discovery sounds good–a single search box covering all of your library’s content.  Maybe and maybe not.

Main players include:

Public access to these systems varies–you may need to log in first, or you may need to log in only to see the full text.  Many large academic libraries have these systems, allow searching, and present citations and abstracts as well as terms to filter the search.  But results may vary depending on whether the access is coming from on or off the campus.

Discovery systems differ from federated search by building a unified index of all sources, not sending the query to the different databases, which makes the searches run faster.  There is also no issue with simultaneous searches.

Montana State University Website

Montana State University library experimented with WorldCat Local and implemented Summon (see above photo with Summon search box at top).

Here are some of their experiences:

WorldCat Local

  • Many records didn’t have OCLC numbers so did not show up in the database.
  • Some known items (mainly government documents) were not found.


  • The vendor promised a simple implementation, but loading one digital collection was slow.
  • Problems occurred in the details:  deleted items continued to appear; known item searches may not work.
  • Database name searches may require an exact match.
  • One experiment resulted in a 29% failure rate for a subject search.
  • Sometimes discovery tools search the full text, but not always, and we don’t know when they do.
  • Relevance is not good yet.


One Response to A Blunt Assessment of Search Discovery Tools

  1. Nicholas Canafax November 3, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Hello Don! I really liked your assessment of the federated search industry. I have made a similar internal assessment, and am pleased that we have come across many of the same things.

    I have to say, however, that you missed one other “main player”.

    We are Deep Web Technologies and we specialize in web-scale discovery, using federated search. I would like for you to take a look at our federated search product. Many of our clients, as well as third party organizations express praises about our single search box application. Unlike indexing, our application gives incremental results in real-time which solves the speed problem, as well as minimizes the risk of obtaining out-of-date material. We have publicly accessible products on our website that are powered by our technology. Our high-profile clients include Intel and Stanford

    Thank you for your time and I hope this information is useful.