Federated Search Marketplace

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Federated Search

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00011228

Publication Date: 2110

Report Type: MARKET


Today’s students and other users of libraries expect to be able to find
information as easily as they would through an ordinary Web search. This
level of convenience is difficult to provide, however, because there are
so many dispersed, proprietary data services to which libraries provide
access. Federated search technologies enter the picture as a means to
enable library patrons to use a single interface or single query to easily
search multiple sources.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Federated search technology provides a single interface to search
multiple databases, returning an integrated search results list.

Faulkner Reports
Library Automation
Software Tutorial
Follett School Solutions Library Management Products
Benefits of RFID-Based Library Systems Tutorial
Digital Strategies for Libraries Tutorial

The technology is primarily used by libraries to let patrons search
across multiple subscription-based information services. Most
products let users personalize their results to some extent, such as
picking how they want results sorted (e.g., by source, by title), how many
results they want per page, and what level of detail they want displayed
for each result (e.g., title only, summary).

Due to the prevalence of Web searching, today’s users have high
expectations for search technology, but current federated search does not
always meet them. The results provided are in some cases not focused
enough, and they are sometimes returned too slowly. New developments, such
as the transition of many federated search products to a cloud service
model, could make the technology more like today’s consumer offerings,

The federated search market consists primarily of companies that focus on
services for libraries. But Google Scholar has become a popular method for
academic research, and it functions as a supplement to conventional
federated searching (and perhaps as a future alternative model).

Organizations that are considering purchasing a federated search product
or service should set realistic expectations. Not only does the technology
have limitations, but it sometimes requires extensive customization to
meet the specific needs of individual libraries. Some libraries may
be better served by having their federated search application hosted by a

Market Dynamics

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Today’s library patrons expect that search services will be as simple as
Google or Bing. Libraries subscribe to a range of subscription information
services, however, so searching through these resources has historically
been complex and time consuming. Federated search technology aims to
simplify this process by providing a single interface that can be used to
search multiple data sources. The results are presented in an integrated
list or in a list that is segmented according to the source of the result.

The technology is primarily used by libraries and other research centers
that subscribe to licensed databases, which are subscription-based
services that collect information on a particular topic (e.g., medical
information) or from a particular type of source (e.g., academic
journals). To perform this task, the technology translates a user’s
natural language or Boolean query into a command that a database’s native
search function understands. This translation occurs for each database
being searched. Federated search technology also has the ability to
search freely available sources such as the Web and online public access
catalogs (an online bibliography of a library’s catalog.)

University libraries in particular are feeling pressure to improve their
search interfaces. Many students are bypassing certain traditional
academic research sources in favor of easier-to-find but possibly less
reliable Web sources. Libraries have struggled to keep pace with the
perceived convenience of these services. For instance, the Z39.50 standard
was designed to provide unified searching across multiple resources.
Although it is still used, this standard cannot provide access to all of
the sources that today’s users require.

Federated search vendors have been adding features that make a user’s
experience more like interacting with a Web site. For instance, Ex Libris’
Primo lets users apply tags, ratings, and reviews of search items.

Market Leaders

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Auto-Graphics offers the integrated library system Verso that includes
the RESEARCHit federated search tool along with modules for library
functions such as catalog management (including digital collections) and “user experience” tools like user ratings and RSS feeds based
on search results. VERSO is compatible with mobile devices, so
library staff members can now access features like checkout and inventory
on tablets, and users can access a library’s catalog on their tablets or

The RESEARCHit federated management module, which is also available as a
standalone product, uses APIs or XML to enable libraries to perform one of
two key functions: to integrate third-party subscription services into a
unified search capability and to integrate the search capability into
other software applications. Other key features include the ability for
libraries to customize some aspects of search results and to define user
permissions at a granular level.

In addition to the traditional on-premises implementation, the company
now offers applications in a software as a service model. Users of this
service access the software via a Web browser, and Auto-Graphics handles
the management and maintenance of the library applications and the
hardware on which they reside. It also offers a hybrid model that includes
elements of both approaches.

Ex Libris

Ex Libris operates as “Ex Libris, a ProQuest Company,” after being
acquired by fellow search vendor ProQuest in 2015. Since then, its product
line-up has changed somewhat. Today, the company offers Aleph, a library
automation product, and SFX, which is for linking to electronic resources
and finding other versions of a specifically referenced text. The
Primo product supplements other library systems to help users organize and
manage search results. In addition, the company offers application hosting
services for its products. The company now offers cloud-based
services for libraries.

In 2018, Ex Libris acquired *Research, which focuses on search services
related to funding for research.The company also offers
the Voyager interface, which provides a single online access point for
library catalogs and other sources. And its campusM product is a mobile
platform through which students can access library and other

Ex Libris also offers the Summon Open Access Filter to limit search
results to sources that have Creative Commons or other open access
licenses, which is a growing trend in academia.


Follet’s Destiny Library Management System focuses on the K-12 market,
distinguishing it from most other products on the market, which are designed
mainly for universities. It offers single sign-on Web-based and mobile app
interfaces to subscription and free resources, including text-based and
multimedia files. (The interface and additional learning tools are oriented
toward a younger audience.)

The optional add-on Destiny Analytics enables librarians to perform
actions such as “[d]rill down and investigate how many books were lost by
school, title or subject” or “[i]llustrate and visualize how funding has
been spent by school, subject or student type.”

Follet also offers Virtual Campus, which is an online e-commerce system
that libraries can use to sell or rent course materials to students. The
service provides access to material from publishers, including print and
digital versions. Students can also return some materials through a
buy-back program, similar to a traditional college bookstore.


Innovative operates as “Innovative, a ProQuest Company,” after being
acquired by ProQuest in January 2020.

Innovative’s Polaris, which is built on the Microsoft SQL database,
integrates library content as well as other third-party information. It
includes utilities such as fine estimators and patron reading histories.
Polaris Leap is a Web client that can be used on desktops and tablets. Users
can access the search functionality from Facebook. Library administrators
can use the company’s SimplyReports service to analyze collections, budgets,
and the activities of users. The company’s Sierra ILS is a streamlined
newest integrated library system product that focuses on integration with
other library systems and includes a cloud version of its software that is
only available to Sierra users.Innovative also offers the MyLibrary! phone
app, which gives users mobile access to a library system. The company’s new
Discovery software provides what it calls a “context engine.” It presents
search results in a wheel shape, depicting relationships between pieces of

Muse Knowledge

Muse Knowledge (formerly MuseGlobal) has over the last several years
worked to accommodate trends such as social networking, and its federated
search products have been updated accordingly. The company markets
its products not only to academic libraries but also to corporations,
media companies, and government agencies. 

Its main product is Search, which offers federated searching of scholarly
journals, the Internet, subscription digital services, learning management
systems, and content management systems.

Muse Knowledge’s Hybrid software uses both federated functionality and
indexed searching, combining the results.


OCLC offers FirstSearch, which lets users sort, filter, and save search
results as well as customize their interfaces. Libraries can create
“virtual collections” to group resources by type for more focused
searching. Examples of such virtual collections include “cultural
networks,” which include resources within a given field from a variety of
sources, such as museums and specialty collections, and “enterprise
information portals,” which cover both internal resources on a network and
external resources from third parties.

In addition, the company’s portfolio includes products for library
management and the WorldCat library database. And WorldCat Discovery
software offers search results along with results from indexed
collections, and it provides integrated services like inter-library loans.

In 2020, OCLC announced that it was updating its services to allow for
more discovery of open access resources.2


ProQuest focuses on products designed to help users search electronic
serials and includes federated searching capabilities along with
electronic resource management. The company’s federated search offerings
include an online subscription service that can search full text and free
databases as well as a library’s own catalog. Libraries can customize the
interface for their particular needs.

The company’s key products are Summon and 360 Search. Both are offered
to academic, government, and corporate customers, enable searching of a
range of sources, and provide a single search box to access all of these
sources. But 360 Search is more of a truly federated service.

ProQuest has grown large and consolidated its position in the market in
part through buying competitors. In 2015, the company acquired the Ex
Libris Group, and in January 2020, it completed the acquisition of another
former competitor, Innovative. These moves have also helped the company to
offer a wider range of product and service types. For example, its Rialto
marketplace for library resources is based on Ex Libris software.

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The federated search market is populated mainly by specialty vendors
focused on software and services for libraries and other research-based
organizations. Large players in the software and services market have
shown little interest in providing federated search. Google has, however,
created a free, openly accessible search engine designed for academic
users. Google Scholar is, in effect, a test of a search approach much
different from most currently available federated search products and
services. Whereas most of the other products on the market enable users to
search data sources that a library has licensed, Google Scholar allows any
Web user to search through sources without charge. To access full-text
versions, however, users will typically need to log-in with their
university credentials. (Microsoft also offers a scholarly search engine,
Microsoft Academic.)

Google Scholar is commonly recommended as a supplement, rather than a
replacement, for academic research.3 But it has still changed
the marketplace. Traditional library search vendors have responded to
trends in Web search and e-commerce by making their products more like
commercial Web services. Instead of only providing search, for example,
some vendors offer portals that function like campus bookstores, providing
electronic and print copies of class reading material. And vendors have
created mobile apps to provide access to these services. But even with
these added features, one-size-fits-all search services may prove to have
limited effectiveness. The prospect of meeting the needs of all users may
simply be too difficult. An alternative, and potentially better, approach
is the use of multiple specialized search portals. An example of this
approach comes from the California Digital Library, a research effort
supported by the University of California, which is conducting some of the
most progressive research in federated search technology. Rather than
trying to create a single search interface for every user, it is
developing a series of portals, each with a different focus. These portals
aim to present a limited number of high quality results rather than
overwhelming users with a large number of results to parse.

Finally, the future of federated search technology may be determined in
part by corporate uses, not just by the academic community. For example,
Salesforce and Docurated (which has since been bought by Quark Software)
have partnered to add federated search functionality to the Salesforce

Strategic Planning Implications

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A federated search system should return results in a well-organized,
quickly graspable format. Two key ways that products attempt to do this
are by de-duping, which means removing duplicate results from the final
list, and by ranking results according to their relevancy. Although some
duplicates are likely inevitable, and relevancy rankings cannot perfectly
reflect a user’s judgment on what is important, these are important
features to evaluate. Various products perform these tasks with differing
levels of effectiveness, so soliciting feedback from organizations that
are currently using the products under evaluation and, if possible,
testing the products directly will aid in the selection process.

In order for a federated search tool to access a licensed database, it
must authenticate to it. Some products will fail to authenticate to
certain databases. Before purchase, an organization should ensure that the
tool can authenticate to all the services to which it subscribes. If
possible, the prospective buyer should also identify the services it will
subscribe to in the foreseeable future and ensure that the product under
evaluation can authenticate to them as well.

When evaluating the results that a search offering provides, quality
should be weighted much more heavily than quantity. Metrics that measure
search effectiveness by the number of hits have limited value. Instead,
the quality of results is much more important. Unfortunately, there are no
entirely objective measures of quality – quality can only be
measured by users performing a search and making judgments based on how
helpful the results are. Soliciting feedback from libraries that are
already using the product will provide this type of assessment.

“When considering federated search it is essential to start with the user
interface,” says information scientist Martin White. Offering advise about
choosing a search product, he recommends that librarians “ask [vendors] to
demo the user interfaces they have developed for other clients and take a
very hard look about how well these might meet the needs of your users
across the range of collections you have at present. If they don’t have any,
be clear about the development costs. Also ask about what happens when you
add a new application either internally or through the acquisition of a
business, and what the disaster recovery options are when one of the
individual applications goes down. You really want to avoid a complete

In many cases, federated search technology will require customization to
access all the information targets a library requires and to provide an
interface that is suitable for a particular library. The closer a product
is to meeting these goals out-of-the-box, the better, but customers should
expect to spend some time – perhaps a considerable amount of
it – customizing the system.

The primary end users of federated search technology are not professional
researchers, but ordinary students and library visitors. Therefore,
queries will typically be in natural language, and results may be better
when they are focused, with limited sifting required. Implementing several
themed portals on top of the same underlying technology might improve the
search experience for many users.

Ultimately, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of a
federated search product before using it extensively. Customers should
therefore be cautious about investing too heavily in a particular
technology. Any commitment to a certain vendor or product should include
an understanding of upgrade options to future versions. Vendors that are
aggressively improving their technology should be preferred over those
that are putting less effort into development. Many vendors offer their
software as a hosted service; this option may reduce a library’s
commitment to a single technology, providing more flexibility for the
future than would an in-house implementation.


1 “Ex Libris Acquires Research Research Ltd." (press
release). ProQuest. August 1, 2018.

2 “OCLC Supports Libraries, Researchers, Educators and
Students with Open Access Content Through WorldCat” (press release).
OCLC. October 2020.

3 “What Is the Difference Between
Google, Google Scholar, and Library Databases?” Brown University
Library. July 10, 2020.

4 David Roe. “Docurated Deepens Salesforce Partnership with
New Federated Search.” CMS Wire. July 31, 2017.

5 Martin White. “Federated Search: Great in Theory,
Complicated in Practice.” CMS Wire. April 10, 2019.

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About the Author

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Geoff Keston is the author of more than 250 articles
that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and
technology. He also works directly with clients to develop communications
strategies that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston
has worked as a project manager for a major technology consulting and
services company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a
Certified Novell Administrator.

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