Google Book Search Improved(?)

According to the Google blog “Inside Google Book Search“, some changes have been made recently to Google Book Search, so I took this as my cue to go and visit to check these out. To say that I was disappointed is to put it mildly, and if you don’t have time to read my entire […]

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According to the Google blog “Inside Google Book Search“, some changes have been made recently to Google Book Search, so I took this as my cue to go and visit to check these out. To say that I was disappointed is to put it mildly, and if you don’t have time to read my entire posting I’ll summarize by stating that it’s another example of Google taking a great idea and working on it half-heartedly and trying to make developments without solving the basic problems.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we should start with the ‘developments’. According to the blog entry, they have added new starting points to help a book explorer kick off his journey.

There is a sampling of ‘interesting books’ based on Book Search’s algorithms. Of course, what is interesting to one person is going to be deadly dull for someone else, and the first selection made (this changes every time you load the page) included “The Growth of the Modern West Indies” and the “International Handbook of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.” Without wishing to be critical of either title, they’re not exactly interesting, at least not to me. I tried again, this time logging in, and was offered cookery books, Shakespeare, and economic titles. Now, perhaps I’m being overly critical, but these offerings are as interesting and useful as walking into a bookshop and choosing a bookshelf at random. If the titles had been perhaps linked into my search history or any of the other information Google keeps on me it might have been a bit different, but this is a simple waste of my time. This does not help me in my search for books in the slightest.

Other options that appear on the front page are “Classics,” “Highly Cited,” and “Random Subject.” Unfortunately, if these are chosen by an algorithm all the choices are essentially random since they’re not based on anything that is of interest to me and consequently are of little interest except for browsing. If I want to browse I’m more likely going to use a resource such as Library Thing in order to see what my friends are reading, since this might actually show me things that I’d like to read as well. However, to be fair, Google also does provide a number of other options on the left hand side of the screen, such as Science Fiction, Chemistry, and a number of random (there’s that word again) subjects. Another chance missed – why can’t I amend this for myself? However, science fiction is an interest of mine, so let’s take a look at the results. 4 classic works, another 3 by the same author, and several titles I’ve never heard of. This is not exactly going to rock my world. To get ahead of myself, Google knows what books I have in my library – how difficult is it to integrate the two functions to provide me with something useful – Amazon can do it, why can’t Google?

Let’s press on and see what other offerings we have available. Google is aware that you may be interested in particular aspects of a subject, so they have added query refinements from related subjects at the top or bottom of your book results page. Apparently these suggestions are designed to tell me some of the popular domains that match my search. It’s a useful idea, and I like to be able to narrow or broaden out my search options, which several other search engines offer as standard (though Google isn’t actually one of them, but that’s another story). However, in order for this to work properly, the query refinements do need to have some grounding in sanity. I ran a search for “Britain” and the refinements included “Middle East,” “Biochemistry,” and “Ability/Testing.” Clearly the Google engineers responsible for this option should spend some time reading through books in that last category. I tried again, with “Internet,” and this time for no apparent reason my refinements appeared at the bottom of the screen. No attempt at consistency then; no wonder the blog entry says “top or bottom,” since they don’t seem to have any idea how this works, either! Refined results for “Internet” include “American Literature” and “Biochemistry.” I think we can put this down as another good idea wasted.

The blog entry also implies, through an example given, that I might want to keep up to date with a particular subject – marathon training was the example given. This would be a good idea, if it actually worked properly. In order to keep up to date with a particular subject, I need to be able to limit my search to new books, or new additions to the Google database. However, when I do the ‘marathon training‘ search, I get a collection of 1,382 titles, presumably arranged by relevance. In order to get close to a list of new titles I need to use the Advanced Search Option and choose a publication date. It seems that I can only limit by year, and this still gives me over 300 titles. Once again, not in the slightest bit helpful. The blog entry ends by describing these “improvements” as “pretty cool,” which really does make me despair.

In an effort to find something positive to say I looked more generally at the product. A search for “internet” gives me 1,020,600 books, which is impressive – until I try and look at the results. Oddly this number soon drops to 278 books, and I can only see a total of 258. What happened to the other 20 books? Or, come to think of it, the other 1,020,342? Thinking this might just be a glitch, I tried again with “civil war.” The results were a total of 386,600 books, which is a creditable number except that when I try and look at these I’m stopped at 320 titles. The rest appear to be there, but Google won’t let me see them, for reasons best known only to itself. Surely, if you’re doing a book search it’s rather different than a search for web pages, and it’s perfectly possible that you’ll want to look through large numbers of books?

At this point I was about to give up, but then saw one final howler that I want to share with you. A search for “hastings d-day” returns a result for Max Hasting’s work “Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy,” which is the 1984 edition from Simon and Schuster and is correctly listed as “History.” However, a search for “subject:”Fiction” hastings” returns the same book (although it’s the 1993 edition this time, from Pan Macmillan), only this time it is listed as “Fiction.”

That for me sums up Google’s Book Search function – it’s an excellent idea which could be very useful, but it’s continually let down by sloppy execution, lack of attention to details, an emphasis on “pretty cool” features that are actually almost valueless, and with no apparent attempt to correct basic flaws in the system.

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Phil Bradley

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