(Note: This post has been updated to restore a link to the NIST search engine report/)

The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Where would Google, Bing and other search engines be today without federal support? Well, you might be surprised to learn that for all the genius attributed to their creators, the feds had a big role to play in today’s taken-for-granted global instantaneous search capability.

So concludes a new study out from RTI International.

It’s common knowledge that without research and development support from the Pentagon and the federal government, the Internet might not even exist today.

Much lesser known, however, is the role of the National Institute of Standards and Technology – or NIST – in the development of search and retrieval tools.

Brent Rowe, a senior economist at RTI and lead author of the new 137-page report, points out that NIST, has invested more than $29 million in search tool development and has shared that knowledge with Google among others.

The end result is hundreds of millions in benefits – and acknowledgment from the private sector that the NIST support has helped them.

“IR [information retrieval] tools are ubiquitous today, but in the early 1990s IR as a field was relatively immature with limited ongoing research,” Rowe wrote in the report, noting that DARPA –the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced research Products Agency, an Internet driver too – approached NIST about improving search and retrieval.

Donna Harman, a researcher at NIST, “was assisting the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with its TIPSTER IR research program; Harman saw an opportunity to radically improve IR research by developing a NIST program that would leverage TIPSTER’s accomplishments to provide new data and standard evaluation methodologies to IR researchers and create an objective competition among IR system creators,” Rowe added.

Harman also asked DARPA to let the information be shared with the public, and in 1992 NIST launched the annual “Text REtrieval Conference,” or TREC.

That trek into IR helped create the web world today, Rowe concluded.

“TREC played a significant role”

In 2008, a senior Google executive acknowledged the NIST role in helping Google, Rowe pointed out. But the benefits extend far beyond the global search dominator.

“Web search products, such as those developed by Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft, have improved significantly over the last 10 years, and the results of this study suggest that TREC played a significant role in this improvement,” Rowe wrote. “On average, IR researchers who responded to the survey estimated that end users of web search products would be able to fill an information need 215% faster in 2009 than in 1999 as a result of improvements in web search engine performance. In other words, information needs could be filled in approximately half the time with newer web search engines.

“Respondents, on average, also estimated that 32% of this improvement was enabled by TREC Program activities.”

What is the bottom line for Internet and web consumers? Less time waiting for more meaningful results.

“Under the counterfactual scenario that U.S. Internet users would have attempted to fill the same information needs using web search engines that did not experience any TREC-related improvement between 1999 and 2009, without TREC, U.S. Internet users would have spent up to 3.15 billion additional hours using web search engines between 1999 and 2009,” Rowe said.

Now that’s a nice return on investment.

Read the full report here.

Get the latest news alerts: Follow LTW at Twitter.