Category Archives: Google

Alexa Web Search Platform Debuts

I’m currently working on an article for D-Lib Magazine explaining in greater depth how some of my tools that use search engine APIs work (such as the Syllabus Finder and H-Bot). These APIs, such as the services from Google and Yahoo, allow somewhat more direct access to mammoth web databases than you can get through these companies’ more public web interfaces. I thought it would be helpful for the article to discuss some of the advantages and drawbacks of these services, and was just outlining one of my major disappointments with their programming interfaces—namely, that you can’t run sophisticated text analysis on their servers, but have to do post-processing on your own server once you get a set of results back—when it was announced that Alexa released its Web Search Platform. The AWSP allows you to do just what I’ve been wanting to do on an extremely large (4 billion web page) corpus: scan through it in the same way that employees at Yahoo and Google can do, using advanced algorithms and manipulating as large a set of results as you can handle, rather than mere dozens of relevant pages. Here’s what’s notable about AWSP for researchers and digital humanists.

  • Yahoo and Google hobble their APIs by only including a subset of their total web crawl. They seem leery of giving the entire 8 billion pages (in the case of the Google index) to developers. My calculation is that only about 1 in 5 pages in the main Google index makes it into their API index. AWSP provides access to the full crawl on their servers, plus the prior crawl and any crawl in progress. This means that AWSP probably provides the largest dataset researchers can presently access, about 3 times larger than Google or Yahoo (my rough guess from using their APIs is that those datasets are only about 1.5 billion pages, versus about 4 billion for AWSP). It seems ridiculous that this could make a difference (do I really need 250 terabytes of text rather than 75?), but when you’re searching for low-ranking documents like syllabi it could make a big difference. Moreover, with at least two versions of every webpage, it’s conceivable you could write a vertical search engine to compare differences across time on the web.
  • They seem to be using a similar setup to the Ning web application environment to allow nonprogrammers to quickly create a specialized search by cloning a similar search that someone else has already developed. No deep knowledge of a programming language needed (possibly…stay tuned).
  • You can download entire datasets, no matter how large, something that’s impossible on Yahoo and Google. So rather than doing my own crawl for 600,000 syllabi—which broke our relatively high-powered server—you can have AWSP do it for you and then grab the dataset.
  • You can also have AWSP host any search engine you create, which removes a lot of the hassle of setting up a search engine (database software, spider, scripting languages, etc.).
  • OK, now the big drawback. As economists say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. In the case of AWSP, their business model differs from the Google and Yahoo APIs. Google and Yahoo are trying to give developers just enough so that they create new and interesting applications that rely on but don’t compete directly with Google and Yahoo. AWSP charges (unlike Google and Yahoo) for use, though the charges seem modest for a digital humanities application. While a serious new search engine that would data-mine the entire web might cost in the thousands of dollars, my back of the envelope calculation is that it would cost less than $100 (that is, paid to Alexa, aside from the programming time) to reproduce the Syllabus Finder, plus about $100 per year to provide it to users on their server.

I’ll report more details and thoughts as I test the service further.

Clifford Lynch and Jonathan Band on Google Book Search

The topic for the November 2005 Washington DC Area Forum on Technology and the Humanities focused on “Massive Digitization Programs and Their Long-Term Implications: Google Print, the Open Content Alliance, and Related Developments.” The two speakers at the forum, Clifford Lynch and Jonathan Band, are among the most intelligent and thought-provoking commentators on the significance of Google’s Book Search project (formerly known as Google Print, with the Google Print Library Project being the company’s attempt to digitize millions of books at the University of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the New York Public Library). These are my notes from the forum, highlighting not the basics of the project, which have been covered well in the mainstream media, but angles and points that may interest the readers of this blog.

Clifford Lynch has been the Director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) since July 1997. CNI, jointly sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries and Educause, includes about 200 member organizations concerned with the use of information technology and networked information to enhance scholarship and intellectual productivity. Prior to joining CNI, Lynch spent 18 years at the University of California Office of the President, the last 10 as Director of Library Automation. Lynch, who holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley, is an adjunct professor at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems.

Jonathan Band is a Washington-based attorney who helps shape the laws governing intellectual property and the Internet through a combination of legislative and appellate advocacy. He has represented library and technology clients with respect to the drafting of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), database protection legislation, and other statutes relating to copyrights, spam, cybersecurity, and indecency. He received his BA from Harvard College and his JD from Yale Law School. He worked in the Washington, D.C. office of Morrison & Foerster for nearly 20 years before opening his own law firm earlier this year.

Clifford Lynch

  • one of things that have made conversion of back runs of journals easy is the concentration of copyright in the journal owners, rather than the writers of articles
  • contrast this with books, where copyrights are much more elusive
  • strange that the university presses of these same univs. in the google print library project were among the first complainers about the project
  • there’s a lot more to the availability of out of copyright material than copyright law—for instance, look at the policies of museums, which don’t let you take photographs of their out of copyright paintings
  • same thing will likely happen with google print
  • while there has been a lot of press about the dynamic action plan for european digitization, it is probably a plan w/o a budget
  • important to remember that there has been a string of visionary literature—e.g., H.G. Wells’s “worldbrain”—promoting making the world’s knowledge accessible to everyone—knowledge’s power to make people’s lives better—not a commercial view—this feeling was also there at the beginning of the Internet
  • legal justifications have been made for policy decisions that are really bad
  • large scale open access corpora are now showing great value, using data mining applications: see the work of the intelligence community, pharmaceutical industry—will the humanities follow with these large digitization projects
  • we are entering an era that will give new value to ontologies, gazetteers, etc., to aid in searching large corpora
  • if google loses this case, search engines might be outlawed [Lawrence Lessig makes this point on his blog too —DC]
  • because of insane copyright law like sonny bono act there might be a bifurcation of the world into the digitized world of pre-1923 and the copyrighted, gated post-1923 world

Jonathan Band

  • fair use is at base about economics and morality—thus the cases (authors, publishers) against google are interesting cases in a broad social sense, not just pure law
  • only 20% of the books being digitized are out of copyright (approx.)
  • for certain works, like a dictionary, where even a snippet would have an economic impact on the copyright holder, google will probably not make even a snippet available
  • copyright owners say copyright is opt-in, not opt-out (as Google is making it in their progam)—it seems dumb, but this is a big legal issue for these cases
  • owners are correct that copyright is normally an opt-in experience—the owner must be contacted first before you make a use of their work, except when it’s fair use—then you don’t need to ask
  • thus the case will really be about fair use
  • key precendent: kelly vs. arribasoft: image search, found in favor of the search engine; kelly was a cantankerous photographer of the West who posted his photos on his website but didn’t want them copied by arribasoft (2 years ago; ended in 9th circuit); court found that search engine was a transformative use and useful for the public, even though it’s commercial use; court couldn’t find any negative economic impact on the market for kelly’s work [this case is covered in chapter 7 of Digital History —DC]
  • google’s case compares very favorably with arribasoft
  • publishers have weaker case because they are now saying that putting something on the web means that you’re giving an implied license to copy (no implied license for books)—but they’ve argued before that copyright applies just as strongly on the web
  • bot exclusion headers (robots.txt)—respected by search enginesvbut that sounds like opt-out, not opt-in—so publishers also probably shouldn’t be pointing to that in their case
  • publishers are also pointing to the google program for publishers, in which publishers allow google to scan their books and then they share in revenues—publishers are saying that the google library program is undermining this market, where publishers license their material; transaction costs of setting up a similar program for library books would be enormous–indeed it can’t be done: google is probably spending $750 million to scan 30 mil. books (at $25/bk); it would probably cost $1000/bk if you had to clear rights for scanning; no one would ever be able to pay for clearing rights like this, so what google is doing is broad and shallow vs. deep but narrow, which is what you could do if you cleared rights—many of these other digitization projects (e.g., Microsoft) are only doing 100K books at most
  • if google doesn’t succeed at this project, no one else will be able to do it—so if we agree that this book search project is a useful thing, then as a social matter Google should be allowed to do it under fair use
  • what’s the cost to the authors other than a little loss of control?

Do APIs Have a Place in the Digital Humanities?

Since the 1960s, computer scientists have used application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide colleagues with robust, direct access to their databases and digital tools. Access via APIs is generally far more powerful than simple web-based access. APIs often include complex methods drawn from programming languages—precise ways of choosing materials to extract, methods to generate statistics, ways of searching, culling, and pulling together disparate data—that enable outside users to develop their own tools or information resources based on the work of others. In short, APIs hold great promise as a method for combining and manipulating various digital resources and tools in a free-form and potent way.

Unfortunately, even after four decades APIs remain much more common in the sciences and the commercial realm—for example, the APIs provided by search behemoths Google and Yahoo—than in the humanities. There are some obvious reasons for this disparity. By supplying an API, the owners of a resource or tool generally bear most of the cost (on their taxed servers, in technical support and staff time) while receiving little or no (immediate) benefit. Moreover, by essentially making an end-run around the common or “official” ways of accessing a tool or project (such as a web search form for a digital archive), an API may devalue the hard work and thoughtfulness put into the more public front end for a digital project. It is perhaps unsurprising that given these costs even Google and Yahoo, which have the financial strength and personnel to provide APIs for their search engines, continue to keep these programs hobbled—after all, programmers can use their APIs to create derivative search engines that compete directly with Google’s or Yahoo’s results pages, with none of the diverting (and profitable) text advertising.

So why should projects in the digital humanities provide APIs, especially given their often limited (or nonexistent) funding compared to a Google or Yahoo? The reason IBM conceived APIs in the first place, and still today the reason many computer scientists find APIs highly beneficial, is that unlike other forms of access they encourage the kind of energetic and creative grass-roots and third-party development that in the long run—after the initial costs borne by the API’s owner—maximize the value and utility of a digital resource or tool. Motivated by many different goals and employing many different methodologies, users of APIs often take digital resources or tools in directions completely unforeseen by their owners. APIs have provided fertile ground for thousands of developers to experiment with the tremendous indices and document caches maintained by Google and Yahoo. New resources based on these APIs appear weekly, some of them hinting at new methods for digital research, data visualization techniques, and novel ways to data-mine texts and synthesize knowledge.

Is it possible—and worthwhile—for digital humanities projects to provide such APIs for their resources and tools? Which resources or tools would be best suited for an API, and how will the creators of these projects sustain such an additional burden? And are there other forms of access or interoperability that have equal or greater benefits with fewer associated costs?