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Books make their mark in search-engine family

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John Murphy finds out why Google is interested in books and the information they contain

A few years ago everyone knew what you meant when you were using the verb ‘to Google’. It meant using a popular indexing search engine to find something in the internet. Since the company launched onto the Stock Exchange so many new services have emerged from the company that the same verb can mean a whole load of other things from finding a map to downloading desktop software.

Google first announced its book service at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004, six years after Google was founded, but its history predates the search engine. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin were PhD students at Stanford University they got involved in a library cataloguing project. They then decided that the internet would be easier to index. The library project was, in effect, still going on when the search engine was launched and Google Book Search could be said to be the predecessor of the search engine – it just took a little longer to emerge.

Jason Hanley, strategic partnership development manager, said: ‘To fulfil our mission you have to go beyond the internet; there is so much information that does not have an intrinsic connection to the internet. Books are often more authoritative sources of information than websites.’

Google Book Search works with information from two sources: the Partner Programme and the Library Project. The Partner Programme allows publishers to promote their current catalogues by indexing the usual information about the book together with sample pages. There are also links to places where the book can be bought. Publishers taking part can also share revenue with Google for contextual advertising on their pages, giving them a small extra revenue stream.

The library programme works with major libraries that are digitising their catalogues. For some books this could just be basic bibliographic information but, increasingly, libraries and other institutions are digitising the whole contents of books that are out of copyright. Linking these sources together means a user can find books to do with a particular interest, find out how to buy them or where they can be read or borrowed from a library, if not downloaded in full.

To date, about 10,000 publishers have become involved and around one million current titles are indexed. Some 28 major libraries are supplying material. These include the Bavarian State Library, Cornell, Princeton and Harvard University Libraries and the Bodleian Library in the UK. The libraries supply an image and Google does an optical character recognition (OCR) scan of the book to index it.

Books in copyright have no download facility but public-domain work can be downloaded as a PDF. The only restriction is that they cannot be reproduced for commercial use.

As with many online services, the question is ‘how do you intend to make money out of this?’ Google has stated that it regards advertising as the basic business model. With Google Book Search, two advertisements can be put on a publisher page, but Hanley said these are optional. If a commercial publisher wants advertising then the revenue will be shared between the publisher and Google, but if the publisher does not want advertising – for example, if it is a government organisation or international NGO – it can decide not to.

‘We do not always launch a product with the idea of monetising it. We have the luxury of a business model that allows us to do things outside of the core business, which interest the people within the business,’ said Hanley. ‘We are putting up links to online retailers simply as a service. We will also provide links to local bookshops in the forms of maps.’

Courting controversy

Google Book Search has tried to respect copyright laws around the world and it believes that its service is totally compliant. Nonetheless, complaints have emerged regarding what is known as ‘orphan copyright’ where the ownership of the rights is not clear. When this kind of work is supplied from library partners, Google has a policy of just publishing snippets of the book, similar to the kind of snippet that is returned by a search-engine query. It believes that this would be covered by the ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright law.

Challengers such as the American Association of Publishers disagree, however. It has brought a lawsuit in the USA against Google, although a similar case in Germany was dropped last year when the court said it was unlikely to be successful. Such actions are unlikely to frighten Google away though. The latest features include ‘Places in the Book’, which displays a map of places mentioned in a book along with links to Google Earth. Hanley said that new ideas are emerging all the time and it is impossible to know where it could end.