Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2007 Issue

Microsoft's Book Search Reflects Pitched Battle With Google

Google2

Google's book search results page is functional, yet not as appealing as Microsoft's.


The foundation for both companies' book searches is the clearly out-of-copyright books, for the most part, those published before 1923. Both have been accessing major institutional libraries to scan copies of antiquarian books in their libraries. Google, which has been at this longer, has scanned books at Harvard and the University of Michigan Libraries, among many others, Microsoft Cornell and the University of Toronto. Both have accessed collections at the University of California and New York Public. However, they diverge in Google's more aggressive, and controversial approach. Google has also been scanning more recent books, which may still be under copyright, and revealing "snippets" of the text (the full text is provided for out of copyright books). This has resulted in much publisher consternation. They will remove a book if the publisher objects, but it is up to the publisher to do so.

Microsoft, in another bizarre role reversal, is the kinder and gentler giant. They won't provide any text, not even "snippets," of copyrighted books without first securing the publisher's permission. Among the publishers with whom Microsoft has reached agreements are McGraw-Hill and Harvard University Press. However, with this restriction of pre-approval, Microsoft lags Google by a wide margin in listing copyrighted books.

However, remember that Google only provides a "snippet" of in-copyright material. For the most part, the "snippet" is useless if you are seeking information. At most, it tells you that there is a reference to your searched terms in the book, and perhaps a line or two of text. If you want to know more, or even whether the information in the book is of any use to you, you will need to track down the book. Google provides links to buying the book or finding a library with a copy, but even if this does lead to one, it is hardly convenient, especially to a generation expecting data to be available immediately at their fingertips. It is a new technology doorway that leads you to the old technology world. That is not a particularly satisfying experience.

The comparison between Google and Microsoft is very different if you choose to see only those books whose text is fully viewable. Microsoft's "100% viewable" link finds 49 matches, while Google's "Full View" link offers 40. It's a virtual tie (both sides, perhaps Microsoft a bit more, exaggerate the numbers as they have occasionally scanned multiple copies of the same book from different libraries). The result is if you are seeking text that is available right now on the internet (which effectively means material in older books), Microsoft's Live Book Search is comparable to Google's Book Search.

Google's matches come up on a page that looks remarkably like a standard Google results page. Microsoft's look nicer, listings and images attractively set to the left, a larger image and indication of number of references to the search term of each title you scroll over to the right. Clicking on a title with Google takes you directly to the page with the reference, along with links to find it in a library or buy the book at sites like Abe, Alibris and Amazon (though "matches" from the selling sites are generally for something else). Microsoft instead brings you to a large image of the title page, but with links to the side to the pages on which your search term appears. It is very nice.

Rare Book Monthly

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