Google eBooks


So Google has unveiled its eBook store, setting itself up to compete with Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and everyone else selling books. Google offers its editions through the browser and on a range of devices such as Android phones and the iPad. The reading experience on the browser on my laptop was OK: not great, but the text was legible enough, and would even switch to a two-page layout in a wide window. On the iPad, Google offers two choices: the browser, and a free app. The browser interface implements a swipe gesture for page turning, although there is no visible indication that it’s possible, nor any visual feedback until the page flips. The iPad app sports an animated page turning transition, but does not have a two-page mode.

The book store

The web site seems reasonably well-stocked with recent titles I recognized from book stores. As with other online book sellers, your purchases move from device-to-device, and I noticed that this one lets me read the same book on more than one device at the same time. This is almost like lending your book to someone, except that you have to give up access to your iGoogle account. But it would, in principle, make sharing books with your spouse practical.

There is a book preview option, that gives you access to some number of pages of a book without having to buy it. It worked well for a couple of technical books I looked at, but for a book on Genealogy, this was a bust: of the 25 page images to which it gave me access, only one contained the actual text of the book, and only two paragraphs at that. The rest of the pages were filled with an introduction, two prefaces, etc.

One glaring omission, in my opinion, from the service is the lack of access to my bookshelf collected through Google Books search. I have several books I had saved that I couldn’t read online for free, and would have liked to have the option to get them electronically through Google eBooks. Alas, there seems to be no way to open my bookshelf in the eBook reader.

Poor search

Another (admittedly minor) complaint is that the search box is too small: The bookstore allows browsing by metadata (classification, author, etc.) through fielded queries which so fill the small text box that it is hard to type anything else in there and see what you’re doing. Nor, in typical Google fashion, is there any good support for faceted browsing. Although I can pile any number of field:value pairs into the search box, that doesn’t make it a good interface.

In some cases, it gives me a choice between all books and only free ones; when I searched for “Neal Stephenson” it gave me a choice between books by him and books that mention him. Books contain much more metadata than that, but the interface provides no systematic means to discover what the fields might be or how to use that information in search. It turns out, for example, that you can combine two subject searches by including two subject: “xxx” fields in the same query to find books that are classified in both categories. But the only way to discover legitimate category values is by first finding a book with a given category, and copying the associated category label to paste it into the query. And all this in a 30 or so character text box. Putting an OR between the subject phrases doesn’t do anything. Not a particularly usable interface, in my opinion.

In short, you have a typical Google offering: high polish in some dimensions, functionality that competes with a bunch of established players, and big blind spots when it comes to search, Google’s core competency.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by edchi, Gene Golovchinsky. Gene Golovchinsky said: Posted "Google eBooks" […]

  2. I understand that Google is cautious about introducing faceted search to general web search. I even understand that challenge of providing facets for heterogeneous domains like general product search. But books are a domain that cry out for exploratory search in general, and faceted search in particular. Hopefully Google will recognize this need and address it–not only for books, but for digital content in general.

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