Amazon.com Opens the Books
By Michael A. Banks
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
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 workssometimes in limited versionsbut
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
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
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. Thisand the fact
that you cannot save page images to diskare 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,
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 parachutingthe 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 consideredor even known ofotherwise.
As a spur to salesand perhaps to show publishers
that "Search Inside" is bringing in qualified buyersanyone
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
bookat least not immediately. Even with its limitations,
for researchers, this new "selling tool" stands alone
as a truly invaluable information resource.
Michael A. Banks [email@example.com] is
a freelance writer and longtime online researcher
based in Oxford, Ohio.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.