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Magazines > Online > March/April 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 2 — March/April 2004
FEATURE
Amazon.com Opens the Books
By Michael A. Banks

Ask serious, long-time researchers to name the most valuable benefit of Web access and they'll cite the ability to search the content of books, periodicals, newsletters, and newspapers. Such access has eliminated untold hours of paging through hardcopies and greatly enhanced information gathering.

Of the categories of text publications made available online, books have lagged behind magazines and newspapers in full-text availability. While full-text encyclopedias were a common offering of pre-Web services such as DELPHI, CompuServe, and The Source, most offerings tended to be specialized. Dialog, LexisNexis, and similar information utilities offer directories and specialized reference works—sometimes in limited versions—but more general offerings largely elude the online researcher. Of those available, most full-text books are works in the public domain, as is the case with Project Gutenberg.

As a practical matter, one would not expect publishers to offer the full text of books online. In addition to the potential for eroding hardcopy sales, there is the matter of illegal copies, as well as copyright issues. Thus, to find out whether a book contains a reference to, or detailed information on, a specific topic, it is necessary to physically look through the book at a library or bookstore. The same is true for finding all books that cover a topic, considering the topic might be buried in a chapter of a book rather than being the main focus of the book.

REVEALING WHAT'S BETWEEN THE COVERS

So matters stood until October 23, 2003, when Amazon.com opened more than 120,000 contemporary books in its catalog to full-text searching. The site's "Search Inside the Book" feature lets shoppers search the complete content of books from some 200 cooperating publishers. Further, searchers can also view images of actual pages from books found with the "Search Inside" feature. (Full information can be found at
www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/
browse//10197021/ref=amb_center-3_30436/002-7220864-4479209
.)

The range of searchable books is broad. Included are novels, popular histories, technical works, academic publications, and even short story collections. The content is not limited to obscure titles; the books are a good representative sampling of the millions of books Amazon.com lists. Books with 2003 copyright dates are common, and well-known authors and series are included. The publishers range from big names such as Time-Warner and Random House to more modest and specialized houses. All of which translates into a research tool that is nothing less than stunning.

The database, which contains 33 million words, was integrated into Amazon.com's existing search system. The Amazon.com search engine is a powerful tool (powerful enough that major corporations have licensed it for use in intranets), but fairly simple to use. There are several ways to search books. For a broad search, you can use the search box at the top of most Amazon.com pages. Select "Books" in the drop-down menu and enter the keyword(s) or phrase and click the "Go" button.

The system accepts single or multiple keywords. Phrases must be enclosed in quotes, and can be combined ("Crosley Field" "World Series" can be entered in the search box, and each phrase will be treated as a keyword.) Keywords can be combined with phrases to narrow searches also ("Crosley Field" 1939).

Books with and without full-text searching show up in search results. This is because all book listings have keywords attached to them to facilitate noncontent searches. A full-text offering is distinguished by a "Search Inside" icon above the cover's thumbnail image.

Some results in listings are accompanied by an excerpt from the page containing the keywords or phrases used in the search, as in the Crosley example, and some aren't. Either way, clicking on the book's title provides a menu of excerpts of pages that contain the search keywords or phrases. Clicking on a link displays the image of the page in question. The format is the same as the "Look Inside" feature. If a page has an image, this is also displayed.

Once you've displayed a page, you can view the two pages preceding or following. This—and the fact that you cannot save page images to disk—are part of the copy protection system.

Another way to search is by viewing a book's listing, then scrolling down to the "Search Inside this Book" box. Use this method when you are searching for phrases. If you click on "See more references to..." in the excerpt that follows a book description in a results list, you will not always see all the occurrences of the phrase in that book.

The Power Search feature of Amazon's Advanced Search (accessible from the menu at the top of Amazon.com book pages) also searches the full text of books, using the "keywords:" feature. Single and multiple keywords, phrases, and phrase/keyword mixes can be used here, too.

Finally, a special "Search Inside" search box shows up periodically. As can be seen at the top-left of the screen, this tool lets you limit a search to new books, used books, or collectible books. Note that the "Look Inside" icon on the top of the front cover of the book is not the same. Look Inside shows you a few selected pages, usually including the table of contents, but is not searchable.

The system isn't foolproof. If you neglect to enclose your phrase in double quotation marks, Amazon will show you pages where any of your search terms appear, not solely those with the exact phrase. Even with the proper search syntax, you will sometimes find the page doesn't show the words as a phrase. Search for "Michael Banks," for example, and you can see pages with a sentence such as "Michael checked his bank account." NFAIS' Jill O'Neill, writing in the November 14, 2003, issue of NFAIS Enotes, reported that her search in Amazon on NFAIS resulted in irrelevant titles for at least a third of her results. For example, one hit was on parachuting—the reference was to Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).

SPURRING BOOK SALES

Publishers currently collaborating in this project will be adding more books, and Amazon.com reports inquiries from dozens more publishers. This is the result of an increase in sales brought about by the search tool. The company has tracked a 9 percent increase in sales of books included in the "Search Inside" database. This is no surprise, considering the fact that "Search Inside" shows shoppers many books that they would never have considered—or even known of—otherwise.

As a spur to sales—and perhaps to show publishers that "Search Inside" is bringing in qualified buyers—anyone who wants to view pages must register with Amazon.com and provide a valid credit or ATM card number, although Amazon assures customers they won't be charged just for viewing the page. The notion is to convert the idle browser to an impulse buyer. (You can search book content without registering, but you will not be able to view page images.)

Although Amazon.com doesn't refer to the fact, not everyone who uses "Search Inside" is going to buy a book—at least not immediately. Even with its limitations, for researchers, this new "selling tool" stands alone as a truly invaluable information resource.

 


Michael A. Banks [mynewbook@aol.com] is a freelance writer and longtime online researcher based in Oxford, Ohio.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.


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