Am I the only person who wasnt knocked senseless by Googles announcement that it plans to put five major libraries online? To read the headlines, youd think Google was making an incredible amount of really useful information available for free. But as so often happens, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.
And while Google continues its love affair with the mostly uncritical media, the announcement really—to me, anyway—spotlights how much better Google has become at finding content to index than it is at providing useful search results.
As for the libraries deal: The books Google will be making available, at least in full text, arent the kind of reference works that you and I use everyday. Even the total number of books being indexed may be significantly less than has been widely reported.
The 15 million figure thats been quoted doesnt seem to account for duplicate holdings by the libraries. Of the 8 million books at Stanford and 7 million at the University of Michigan, how many duplicates do you suppose there are? I am not saying this is intentional overstatement on Googles part, but the widely quoted number seems inflated.
The only books that will be available full-text are those whose copyright has expired. Thats a boon for researchers who need historical references but doesnt add much to what the average Google customer already has available. Most of us need todays answers, not yesterdays.
For those books still under copyright, Ive read that Google will offer excerpts and then tell the user where the book is available in a public library and/or where it may be purchased. Nothing wrong with this, but you can bet Google will get a piece of every book sold.
It also seems likely that some of the copyrighted content will end up being made available on a coin-op basis, with users paying for online access to the material. There is nothing wrong with this, but it certainly would have muted some of the media cheerleading had it been understood that Google might be creating a huge paid library alongside its free offering.
Reminiscent of shovelware
This entire project reminds me of something we used to call “shovelware.” This is a term coined in the early days of the CD-ROM when publishers would take existing content and “shovel” large quantities of it onto disks that they then offered for sale. Sure there was a huge amount of content on the disks, but it usually was rendered useless by a poor user interface. And generally the content itself wasnt so hot to begin with.
Lets see how this adds up: Google is making a huge amount of material available, most of it not very timely or if it is timely not in full-text. And at the same time, Google is increasingly unable to produce high-quality, easy-to-use search results.
I wish that along with the libraries announcement that Google had demonstrated some great strides it had made in improving search results. Right now, Google seems closer to its goal of indexing the universe than to providing access to that cosmos.
My Google searches today are significantly less useful than the searches I made just a year ago. This is partially a reflection of the ever-increasing size of Googles collection, but it also shows how information providers have learned to spoof Googles robotic system.
The amount of commercial content that comes up as search results has dramatically increased. Im not talking about the paid listings, but unsponsored stuff that looks like a result but is actually just a sales pitch of some sort.
Google gives me less of what I am looking for every time I use it. And the useful results seem to be appearing farther and farther down the list. Id rather see Google concentrate on getting search right than trumpet how much is being added to its sea of information.
Some of us already feel swamped by Googles results. The companys first task should be throwing us a line, not building a bigger ocean.