Internet Outlook with Richard Wiggins | 62 | WebReference

Internet Outlook with Richard Wiggins | 62

Vol. 1 No. 6 September 5, 1997 home / experts / internet

But What About AltaVista and Friends?

Northern Light: The Future of Finding Journal Articles?

Thanks to the Web explosion, increasingly the masses expect the Internet to deliver answers on demand. You go to AltaVista (or Lycos or Infoseek or your favorite general search engine) and you type "microporous membrane" and you get 88 hits, and they all seem to be fairly relevant.

But increasingly people are learning that democracy in publishing, which is a very fine thing from a mass communications standpoint, will be the downfall of general search engines. Too often a search yields results that appear to be on point, but in fact don't provide useful information at all.

For instance, try doing a search on the term "QS9000", which refers to a training and certification process for industry to meet international quality standards. You get 2700 hits -- great, I've found good stuff! But as you crawl through the hit list, you find that most of the material doesn't define or explain QS9000. Instead, it's companies advertising their QS9000 training classes, or people in online forums asking questions about QS9000, or dead links -- a lot of noise, very little relevant signal.

Marrying High Quality Content with Web Delivery

So what's the problem, you say? If vendors are delivering their high-quality journal archives over the Net, doesn't that address the concern?

Well, no, because the vendors of these databases are used to making money on searches as well as content. They may charge an annual subscription or they may charge by the hour or by the search, but they make money on the process of searching itself. Yet consumers are used to searching AltaVista and its cousins for free.

The issue is, can for-pay searching compete in a world where AltaVista and the like offer free searching? Even though there's a lot of noise on the Web, many people eventually find something relevant using a general search engine, and rely on that as gospel. If you're looking for a recipe for chili, maybe whatever you find on Aunt Millie's Recipe Site is good enough. If you are an engineer designing a bridge or a doctor researching an illness, one hopes you know a little bit about the sources you use. I hope that engineers, doctors, and other professionals are looking at high-quality information, not just whatever they stumble on out of the mass of stuff that's on the Web.

Michigan State University's Online Full-Text Databases

A big part of my day job at Michigan State is trying to figure out how to organize a focused collection of Internet-based documents for a target audience of manufacturing firms. Our project, called NEM Online, concluded about a year ago that content vendors such as UMI and Lexis-Nexis should offer searching for free. In fact, we proposed that vendors should give away their metadata. The model was simple: let me search ABI Inform for free. Give me a list of articles that appear to be highly relevant, only from the best business journals. Charge me a nominal fee to read each article that I choose to actually read.

We made some progress in discussion with vendors, but this model is so different than the traditional view that, so far, we haven't convinced anyone to apply it. It appears that Northern Light has succeeded in convincing some content owners of the wisdom of empowering potential readers to search their content at no charge.

Comments are welcome

Produced by Richard Wiggins and

Created: September 5, 1997
Revised: September 10, 1997