Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 10 • November 2000
• Database Review •
NEXIS Finally Goes Dot-Com
New service blends old-style depth with new-style ease 
by Mick O'Leary

NEXIS has gone dot-com! NEXIS has been Yahoo!-ed! It’s hard to imagine, but one of the online age’s creators is acting like a wet-behind-the-ears Internet start-up. What’s next? NEXIS instant messaging and free sign-up CDs?

This has actually been a long time coming. LEXIS-NEXIS’ first Web services appeared several years ago, and the company has been steadily moving more and more of its massive content onto the Web ever since. This is really not a choice but a necessity. The age of dial-up online services is over, and the great pillars of that era have to adapt or disappear.

The adaptation to the Web has to take two forms. First, traditional online services like NEXIS have to carry over their powerful and sophisticated search capabilities. This is one of their great added values over new, hastily conceived, half-baked dot-coms. Moreover, professional searchers, who still account for a significant customer group, insist upon it.

Second, NEXIS has to adapt to the Web, especially if it’s to attract new end-user customers. End-users are accustomed to Web conventions and expect them in any site they use. ( has done an excellent job in the first task, but the second needs some work.

End-Users First also represents a transformation from a professional-oriented to an end-user-oriented search service. LEXIS-NEXIS began with a complex, command-driven system that was accessible only to trained searchers. Over time, the company introduced various, simplified interfaces to appeal to end-users, culminating most recently in the Universe series of products (LEXIS-NEXIS Universe, Academic Universe, etc.). The Universe interface is highly effective at placing an intuitive overlay on the basic command system. With pull-down menus, formatted search screens, and relevance ranking, it allows end-users to search the vast LEXIS-NEXIS databases with ease and efficiency.

Nevertheless, searching—applying a structured query to a database—is not necessarily the information-seeking behavior that end-users prefer. Much of the success of Yahoo! and its imitators has been due to creating effective browsing systems. Browsing—looking over a classified list of subjects—can be more productive and satisfying than searching, especially for people who aren’t experienced in query formulation and database design. Browsing shows the interrelationship among topics, has great serendipity, works when you don’t know how to ask for what you want, and, if the classification system is intuitive, is fast and efficient.

Thus, the biggest change for is the creation of a browsable subject directory. It’s a new, non-command-based interface to NEXIS (and some LEXIS) content. By designing the directory to serve end-user needs and behaviors, it com-pletes a transformation from a professional service with end-user accommodations, to an end-user service with a professional searcher wing.

All NEXIS, Some LEXIS has the complete NEXIS content—one of the world’s great data collections—with thousands of full-text newspapers, journals, magazines, newsletters, news wires, broadcast transcripts, and other news sources. It’s the largest such database among proprietary online services and, as LEXIS-NEXIS points out, is much bigger than the Web itself.

The NEXIS content is complemented by information from elsewhere in LEXIS-NEXIS. Company profiles cover public and private U.S. and foreign businesses. Legal information comprises federal and state case and statutory law. Public records, including uniform commercial code (UCC) data and state corporate registrations, are available. Political, electoral, and legislative processes are covered thoroughly. also ventures beyond the borders of the proprietary LEXIS-NEXIS service, with a directory of Web sites. This is created by generating links from Web sites mentioned in NEXIS documents. These are incorporated into the subject directory.

Most customers won’t take this entire content. As with LEXIS-NEXIS service subscriptions, offers a wide range of content packages and pricing options in which customers can mix and match individual databases and collections. The pricing structure itself is the same as in LEXIS-NEXIS Universe, which replaces.

End-user searching of this mammoth and complex data mass requires an exceptionally well-designed interface, which delivers. In keeping with Web practice, it has a basic search option for nonexperts and a Power option for the more experienced. The basic search presents just a few options: “all words” (Boolean AND), “any words” (Boolean OR), or exact phrase, as well as a few basic content divisions, such as News, Web sites, or companies. The search automatically puts in a date range to limit retrieval, and allows results to display in date or relevance order.

This works quite well for a quick-and-dirty general search, but is unsuitable for anything specific. More complicated searches are handled by pre-formatted search forms that are adapted for several topics: news, companies, legislation, UCC filings, and dozens of others. Each search form has subject-related options, pull-down menus, and transparent programming, which enable end-users to construct quite sophisticated searches.

Two special search forms are designed for company and market data. The company form, previously released as Company Dossier, allows a complete scan of for information on companies, including operations, financials, news, etc. Thus it operates like a Web financial portal that aggregates data from a variety of Web sites. The difference is that Company Dossier pulls up much more information than the best financial portal, which highlights again the content difference between the Web and the biggest proprietary services. The Market search forms perform a similar function for financial-market data and news.

The Power search level gives expert LEXIS-NEXIS searchers access to the full set of system commands, with a search panel that accepts old-style, command-line queries. Power search also has pull-down menus and check boxes to speed up a few common search operations, including source selection, date ranging, and browsing the LEXIS-NEXIS SmartIndexing thesaurus.

Browsing’s search capabilities are very similar to those in the Universe series. The big news, instead, is its Subject Directory, which introduces browsing to NEXIS data. The directory uses a hierarchical subject classification, based on the LEXIS-NEXIS SmartIndexing thesaurus. (SmartIndexing is an automated process for assigning index terms to NEXIS documents based on computer-aided analysis of document content.) The classification has 28 broad categories, covering not only news and business topics, but also social issues, lifestyles, and sports. Each category has 1 or 2 dozen subcategories; in some large NEXIS subjects, such as finance and management, there is a third subcategory level.

Each category and subcategory has an associated set of links to NEXIS documents and Web sites. This is created on the fly by running a search using SmartIndexing index terms relating to the category or subcategory. Thus the link set is as up-to-the-minute as the latest document on the topic in the NEXIS database. The links are arranged by date, with anywhere from a few to several days of coverage. The number of links varies greatly from one category to another; there may be anywhere from a few dozen to over a thousand.

The SmartIndexing thesaurus, while excellent for assigning index terms to individual documents, is not ideally suited as a browsing classification structure. Browsing structures should be consistent. It’s a bit confusing not to have the same number of levels in each broad topic. Category breadth also varies, from extremely narrow, such as “persistent organic compounds,” to extremely broad, such as “fisheries.”

The other weakness is the excessively large number of items in each link set. Another point of a browsing structure is to break information into small, easily digestible pieces (which is one of Yahoo!’s accomplishments). Too often, the long link lists violate this principle. The lists also intermix news documents with Web sites. The two are used quite differently, so it would make sense to divide them into two separate lists. Finally, it would be helpful to have the option to re-sort the links by relevance order. This is provided elsewhere in, and would be particularly useful here.

Joining the Web offers individual and enterprise personalization. Individuals can set up a stock portfolio and a customized news service with e-mail alerts. Administrators in enterprise accounts have numerous customization options, including setting source collections and search interfaces for different departments.

The look and feel is excellent at presenting a lot of information in a clear and intuitive manner. Screen layouts are logical, and even full pages don’t appear cluttered or too busy (not having ads probably helps). Type-in panels, pull-down menus, and radio buttons are all used effectively. Navigation throughout the searching and browsing processes—except for the lengthy Subject Directory link sets—is quick and efficient.

Overall, is a smooth blend of old-style data depth and search power, with new-style Web design and user-friendliness. It brings to the Web NEXIS’ unparalleled data collections and, for use when needed, full-power command searching. It has enthusiastically adopted user-friendly Web conventions like browsing, basic/advanced search choice, formatted search screens, and personalization. It’s a big step in the union of LEXIS-NEXIS and the Web.

[Editor’s Note: For more on, see Paula J. Hane’s September 18, 2000 NewsBreak on page 1 of the October 2000 issue.]

Mick O’Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Maryland; a principal in The Data Brokers; and a columnist for Information Today. His e-mail address is

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