Googling for Software Development: What Developers Search For and What They Find

Reviewed by Kushankur Ghosh / 2021-11-18
Keywords: Data Science, Development Practices

Searching online serves as a base to solve problems and has become an inseparable part of our regular life. Developers in the software industry also rely on extracting relevant information from Google and other search engines to maximize their efficiency. A comprehensive illustration of the web-search queries from the perspective of software developers is provided in Hora2021a. By analyzing 1.3M search queries from developers, the authors found that:

  • Almost half of the queries (54.5%) from the developer’s end refer to programming languages and software technologies.
  • Queries are short and are mostly focused on searching APIs and for code examples that can be reused.
  • Over 80% of the queries are formed of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs; developers possibly believe that function words such as prepositions and conjunctions won’t affect the search results.
  • 60% of the queries have at least one other similar query.
  • Stack Overflow is the most popular source for software resources followed by YouTube and W3Schools.
  • The order of the search results are likely to change due to minor query change such as swapping the position of words, removing a word, or using synonyms.

Studies like this help deepen our understanding of the software developers's requirements, and also highlight the tremendous impact on development of popular search engines like Google whose algorithms are opaque and out of our control. Hora2021a also found that developers prefer short straightforward queries and ignore function words. The creators of packages and applications should take this into account when creating documentation or answering questions in online forums in order to help developers find answers more quickly and more accurately.

Hora2021a Andre Hora: "Googling for Software Development: What Developers Search For and What They Find". 2021 IEEE/ACM 18th International Conference on Mining Software Repositories (MSR), 2021, 10.1109/MSR52588.2021.00044.

Developers often search for software resources on the web. In practice, instead of going directly to websites (e.g., Stack Overflow), they rely on search engines (e.g., Google). Despite this being a common activity, we are not yet aware of what developers search from the perspective of popular software development websites and what search results are returned. With this knowledge, we can understand real-world queries, developers’ needs, and the query impact on the search results. In this paper, we provide an empirical study to understand what developers search on the web and what they find. We assess 1.3M queries to popular programming websites and we perform thousands of queries on Google to explore search results. We find that (i) developers’ queries typically start with keywords (e.g., Python, Android, etc.), are short (3 words), tend to omit functional words, and are similar among each other; (ii) minor changes to queries do not largely affect the Google search results, however, some cosmetic changes may have a non-negligible impact; and (iii) search results are dominated by Stack Overflow, but YouTube is also a relevant source nowadays. We conclude by presenting detailed implications for researchers and developers.