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Google's free public search engine to replace GSA at the U

By Jesse Drake

The search box found in the upper right corner of the university’s main utah.edu site and vast majority of campus websites returns results when visitors type search queries.

The search box in the upper right corner of the university’s main utah.edu site and majority of campus websites returns the results of visitors' queries.

When Google announced that it would discontinue its enterprise website search product Google Search Appliance (GSA), the University of Utah needed to decide where to turn for this fundamental tool. 

GSA is, in effect, the search box in the upper right corner of the university’s main utah.edu site and vast majority of campus websites that returns results when visitors type search queries.

After embarking on a venture to find a suitable alternative, the university has decided to move forward with Google Custom Search Engine (GCSE) – the company's free, ad-based version of GSA. However, as a result of the university’s Google for Education agreement, results will be served ad-free.

"After an exhaustive investigation into alternatives, this was the most cost-effective choice," said Barb Iannucci, associate director of the Content Management & Usability team in UIT University Support Services (USS). "With 74 percent of the world's search engine market share in 2017, people have come to trust that Google's search results will find them what they are looking for on the web."

The university's contract with GSA ends in May 2018.

A casual observer might wonder, what’s the big deal? Search is search, right? Not exactly. A search engine that quickly returns relevant results is essential to website usability, and a key influencer of a user's experience. It can be the difference between website visitors leaving fulfilled or frustrated.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how good your website content is if people can't find it.

Barb Iannucci, University Support Services

Barb Iannucci, University Support Services

GCSE is the third iteration of enterprise search at the university since 2000. In 2013, GSA was selected to replace the Ultraseek product. When Google announced that it would sunset GSA, Iannucci formed and chaired a task force, reporting to the U's Enterprise Web Advisory Council (EWAC), to find a path forward. The investigation involved looking into eight vendors and two open-source solutions in addition to GSCE.

Iannucci presented the task force's findings at the November 2017 Strategic Information Technology Committee (SITC) meeting, after which SITC members voted to implement GCSE as a stop-gap measure until a final decision about true enterprise search could be made. In addition, Iannucci hosted a GSA-related UIT Talks event, and distributed a needs survey to the university community.

The move to GCSE is in line with what other universities are doing. According to Iannucci, recent data indicates that the University of Utah will join nine other PAC-12 schools switching to GCSE (two were undecided when the data was gathered), while in the Big 10 – which actually comprises 14 member institutions – 10 have already committed to GCSE.

Before migrating university websites over to GCSE, USS will develop the main search results page that will replace the current GSA search results page, and a template for local sites.

"Overall, it will be a big improvement. The main results page will look a lot more like a university-branded page, and search results pages can now be served locally from the same website that a search query was made, rather than pass visitors to an external search results page,” Iannucci said.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email Iannucci at barb.iannucci@utah.edu.

Last Updated: 3/27/19