Searching for help

CUED's web-based help system began in 1994 as a place to store our existing DVI and Postscript documentation. The earliest snapshot of CUED's help system dates from 1997. Here's a comparison of the 1997 version with the 2010 version (click on the images for more detail)

1997 (traffic 33k pages/day)2010 (traffic 201k pages/day)

Apart from the house styling, you'll see that little has changed on the surface - it's still described as the "hypermedia help system"! Here I'd like to look at issues relating to searches in the intervening years.

1996 and all that

In 1996 I wrote a little review of the help system where I mentioned that

We had a help-search facility but I don't know what it was - Google hadn't really take off by then. Maybe we already used swish, an earlier version of swish-e a public-domain indexing facility. There wasn't a standard site-search button as part of the house-style. The University started using UltraSeek before 1999, but I don't know if it was around in 1996. Maybe we used AltaVista for site-searches.

Keyword searching wasn't the only option for users - we offered "task-based" and "subject-based" trees of links, and pages had at their foot a list of related pages so that users could browse around. In those days there were several sites (e.g. Yahoo) that maintained a hierarchy of links to pages so that people could browse as an alternative to word-searching when they wanted to find something out. Even in 1996 however, people preferred brute-force searches though their search terms were often more hopeful than precise.


Facilities and expectations changed in this period. The amount of material grew, as did the variety of types (PHP, movies and databases appeared). Our dependance in the help system as a front-line service grew too - in our introductory letter to new undergraduates we wrote "The department has an extensive help system ... which has answers to many questions people ask about the Engineering Department computer system. Please look at this first and if you cannot find an answer there consult the Department's Computer Operators"

The success of Google meant that more than ever, users word-searched for information rather than browsed through hierarchies. Google ranks pages in a way that satisfied most users. Customised site-specific searches can be set up using google, but there are difficulties using Google at CUED to look for local information

These problems apply to the University's UltraSeek robot too. Material that people can't search for is likely to remain invisible to most users. So we've been using swish-e for years to index local pages. It's free and customisable. It builds up an index by using http or by searching the file system. Currently it indexes using a file search. It doesn't search Word, PDF or even php files.

The growth in local material hasn't matched growth globally. Many of the documents we wrote in the early years have been superceded by documents elsewhere. Because of the increased performance of the internet there's not even a speed advantage to having local documentation.

2003 - The paper

By 2003 it was clear that university establishments might have special requirements when it comes to searching. The Search facilties for UK HE web sites paper (written by a Cambridge webmaster) dates back to 2003 and lists some useful alternatives.

Troubles that people searching our site have are that

2007 - The Consultants

A 2007 consultant's report about the University site noted that "Most of the [users'] complaints about the site fell into three areas:" the first-mentioned being "inadequate search facility: It was generally felt that an external google search yielded more appropriate and better presented results than the search function on the existing University website". The report went on to say that "As a minimum Google search should be implemented across site content .... Adoption of a University-wide meta-tagging is a prerequisite and a major editorial undertaking that should be done as part of the initial content rework". However, this recommendation seems not to have been adopted by the University

Added to Ultraseek's other troubles (domain-protected pages unobtainable; Raven and PIN protected pages unobtainable; ranking abilities are worse than Google's; trouble visiting files whose syntax is sub-optimal), this dis-recommendation implied that the University's facilities didn't provide a solution for us.

2009 - The CUED project

By 2009 everyone at CUED was using e-mail and the web. Many students were more than casual users - for example, over 50% of our students access Facebook at least daily. However, as in 1996, we are still encouraging (not very successfully) admin and teaching staff to maintain their own material.

In Oct 2009 a student began a re-evaluation of our help system. It was found that

Initially the following ideas for improved searching were suggested.

In the end a Wordpress-based option was tried. Hierarchies and lists to popular pages were replaced by tag clouds, and static pages replaced by RSS feeds where possible. This offers

This doesn't solve all the problems but should encourage more author and user activity, and the ease of page modification should mean that pages are corrected more quickly. User education will still be needed, but the bloggy nature of the new version should be more welcoming. In the meantime it's recommended that

Here's a comparison of the old and new word search facilities

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March 2010
Tim Love