Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 3 — March 2002
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• Internet Insights •
Northern Light Still Shines On
Although the public Web search was discontinued, there's still a lot going for it
by Péter Jacsó

The bad news about Northern Light (NL) shutting down the Web search engine component of its NLSearch services for the general public came straight out of the blue (see page 1 of the February issue or True, NL was no longer the largest Web-wide search engine as it was in early 1999, but when combined with its Special Collection search engine—which had articles from about 7,100 journals and other serial publications licensed from such well-known aggregators as Gale Group and ProQuest—NLSearch still offered the best search tool. Luckily, the news is not as bad as it first seemed. NLSearch and other NL services still offer plenty of useful features to the public. As for the Web search engine component, it was still accessible at the end of January, as I discovered serendipitously.

The Enlightened Era
David Seuss, the CEO of (and brains behind) NL, launched the service 6 years ago, and it immediately shook up the fairly stale information services industry. He was an outsider who had never worked in the information industry, yet he still had a better vision than many of those who should have been ex officio insiders—the then-incumbent CEOs and CIOs of the traditional online information services. Offering free search services and free abstracts from thousands of professional and scholarly journals, and charging only for the full text, was a scary proposition for most of the traditional online information services, especially the ones that didn't have their own proprietary content, such as DIALOG.

These services charged membership fees, online search fees, and display/print fees for some of the very same content that NL offered for free. The full-text output prices of all the traditional services were also significantly higher than those of NL, which in the early years charged $1 for articles that cost four times as much on the traditional online services.

Through its very capable software, NL masterfully integrated the ever-increasing number of journal articles in the Special Collection with the information harvested from the millions of free Web sites. Its innovative on-the-fly classification and the clustering of results into subject and genre folders received a patent, as well as many kudos and awards. I cheered it 4 years in a row in my annual "Cheers and Jeers" column for its various innovative services and pricing policies.

In spite of NL's obvious success and many awards, Seuss did not rest on his laurels. The company introduced a series of new services, such as, with a focus on information culled from government Web sites; a free current-awareness service; the GeoSearch service to find businesses by geographic area; the free Special Editions service, which gathered information on hot topics from the best Web sites and from some of the journals in the NL Special Collection; and the free news search engine based on such respected sources as Associated Press, Business Wire, Internet Wire, IPO Monitor, Reuters Online, Wireless Insider, TASS, and U.S. Newswire, to name a few.

The Stuffy Nose Syndrome
It's no wonder that by 1998 many of the traditional online information services found every opportunity to disparage NL. The perfect example of this is illustrated in the excerpts of the CEO panel at the Online World Fall '98 conference as reported by David Hoffman in the November 1998 issue of Information Today ( The CEOsof Dialog, LexisNexis, and Dow Jones (now Factiva) all giddily ganged up on Seuss. They belittled NL, essentially because they'd found in NL's collection a pamphlet called "You and Your Stuffy Nose," which the assistants of LexisNexis CEO Hans Gieskes had dug up. Little did they know that the very same source was under their noses in the LexisNexis collection. (By the way, the CEOs mistakenly referred to the title of the pamphlet as "You and Your Runny Nose," rather than the correct "You and Your Stuffy Nose.")

The three CEOs should not have had their noses in the air, however. This is a common health problem. The pamphlet had important facts for many who look for consumer health information on the subject. The publisher of this pamphlet is theAmerican Academy of Otolaryngology­Head and Neck Surgery ( and it is reproduced on several healthcare sites. Maybe the CEOs would not have looked down their noses at it if it had been called "Idiopathic Vasomotor Rhinitis." But even doctors call it stuffy nose, at least when they're off duty or they have the symptoms themselves.

Gieskes is no longer with LexisNexis; neither are Tim Andrews and Dan Wagner with Dow Jones and Dialog, respectively. At that session, the warning by Gale Group CEO Allen Paschal went unheeded. To him, something was as plain as the nose on his face. He said: "All right, this is getting really ugly, guys. I might just say that I'm thankful that all of you are probably retrieving Gale Group information through all your access and password accounts." He was right, and he's still the CEO of the increasingly more prominent Gale Group (for which I write a monthly Web column—but don't consider this brown-nosing before you read on).

At Online World '99, Seuss rubbed two CEOs' noses in the pamphlet, bringing downthe house. As reported in the February 2000issue of EContent, Marydee Ojala (the utterly competent moderator of both CEO panel sessions) wrote: "In a follow-up to last year's confrontation, Seuss brandished printouts of the semi-famous 'You and Your Stuffy Nose' pamphlet, ostentatiously autographing it for Andrews and noting he had one for Gieskes as well. (Seuss had printed the documents from Factiva and LexisNexis, respectively.) He pointedly remarked on its ultimate source—a Gale Group database."

Seuss and NL, as well as Gale Group, kept striving, while the same can't be said about LexisNexis, Dow Jones, and Dialog during this period. Dialog's popularity and financial performance plummeted during Wagner's reign.

What's Left?
Luckily, there are many goodies left in the free public version of NLSearch. For starters, you can still use the NL News Search, which provides the most efficient tools for news of the past 14 days for free. The time frame seems to be narrow, but anything older than that is not news but history. You may limit a news search by subject (for example, science, health, medicine, economy, and sports) and genre (such as economic data, press releases, and stock market reports). The results can be sorted by relevance or by date and time. The database is continuously updated.

The entire Special Editions collection has been kept intact. For example, the excellent "Publishing and the Web" section has free articles about the technical, economical, ethical, and legal aspects ofWeb publishing from TheNew York Times, Scientific American, the San Francisco Chronicle, Searcher, and Information Today, as well as links to the most relevant free Web sites (

The usgovsearch site ( also remains alive, serving free information collected from millions of pages of government Web sites that are indexed and organized by NL, and fee-based information from the NL Special Collection of journals. The NTIS option is displayed, but that database is not available here anymore. The usgovsearch service still has the best interface and advanced search template, which allow the user to limit the search to documents of one or more agencies. These are identified by a series of check-boxes and grouped by major branches of thegovernment (executive, judicial, legislative).usgovsearch also lists many of the independent agencies, such as the FCC, NASA, the U.S. Information Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

The entire NL Special Collection also remains active for public access. The full-text documents typically cost between $1 and $3 (a very good price), and bibliographic citations and abstracts are still free. There are thousands of top-quality scholarly and professional journals and serials in the NL Special Collection. From 2001 publications alone, a search on the topic of adolescent violence yielded 161 items from 30 sources. The journals in the first 20 results included the American Journal of Psychiatry, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, International Journal of Social Psychiatry, American Journal of Community Psychology, and Psychiatry.

To put things into perspective, in the clinically dead Mental Health Abstracts database, users will find no citations at all for any publications on any subject from 2001, and only five on this topic from 2000. All this at $70 per hour and $1.40 per abstract, and without a full-text option on DIALOG, the only online service that hosts it.

There's no charge for the search and for the good abstracts of scholarly journals at NLSearch. Moreover, the full text of the articles from these top-notch journals typically costs only $2.95 at NL. You can find similar excellent deals by using the NL Special Collection for searching the scholarly and professional journal literature in a variety of disciplines.

You may even make a better deal if instead of paying per item, you use Yahoo! Premium Document Service's 50-document subscription option, which was launched in mid-January and is based on the NL Special Collection (which Yahoo! has licensed). You can get up to 50 qualifying documents for a total of $4.95 per month, or only 10 cents per article. Based on comparative searches, I discuss the qualifying documents from 4,125 journals and the best strategies to get the most bang for the buck in my upcoming Savvy Searching column in Online Information Review (Vol. 26, No. 3).

You should also remember that some of the journals in the NL Special Collection are also available for free in full-text format in the service. That said, NLSearch—with its breadth of coverage and smart software features—still offers a very good deal.

There remains a Business Search service on the new NLSearch page that features a special template to facilitate focusedsearching by company name, research firm, specific business journals, and 40 industry sectors. Similarly, there is a special template for Investext searches to narrow them to investment-related documents prepared by brokerage firms, investment banks, and research firms in about 30 business fields. Although you'll no longer find the special query forms for Market Research and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Reports, they appear on the Business Search query form as check-box options for limiting the search. With these options the NLSearch service is still a prime resource for the discriminating searcher, but I have even better news for you.

I didn't mourn for long the loss of NLSearch's Web search engine component, which was integrated with the NL Special Collection. It featured—as did all NL services—the on-the-fly clustering of results into topical folders. I had a reason for joy. As I was preparing this piece, I clicked on my bookmark labeled NLResearch and was taken to There I could conduct a search using the combined Special Collection and World Wide Web option. (Mind the details: redirects you automatically to the site that was scaled down.)

The NLResearch site is a hidden bonus that has all the goodies that the NLSearch service had before the partial shutdown on January 16. It has the NL Web collection (although "only" up to December 20, 2001, with about 240 million Web resources), as well as the GeoSearch service to limit your search to a geographic area. It also has the special search sections and templates for most efficiently searching Market Research and EIU Reports.

I don't know for how long the NLResearch site will be kept online by Northern Light. Even if NL leaves it accessible, I don't think it will be updated. Still, I would suggest carpe diem. If NLResearch is shut down, consider the remaining NLSearch service with the glass-half-full attitude, and save a lot on your search expenses.

Péter Jacsó is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii's Department of Information and Computer Sciences. His e-mail address is

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