Google’s Infinite, Infinitely Imperfect Newsstand

By  |  Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 6:34 pm

newyorkmagWho says magazines are dead? Sure, ones printed on wood pulp are writhing in agony at the moment. But there are a couple of centuries’ worth of back issues that still make for fascinating–and sometimes important–reading. And among Google’s umpteen major initiatives is getting as many of them as possible online in searchable form. Today, the company announced that it’s working with a bunch of publishers to put more magazines online as part of Google Book Search, including biggies such as Ebony, New York, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science. (The new additions join magazines that are already in Book Search, such as Computerworld.) [UPDATE: In the comments, my friend Andrew Leal points out that the Computerworld archive isn’t part of Google Book Search–it’s part of Google News Archive, a separate service. That explains some but not all of my confusion below…]

It’s a fabulous idea, and as someone who isn’t ashamed to admit he’s a magazine junkie, I’m very excited by it. But I’m also very frustrated by the interface in its current state.

I wanted, for instance, for the mention of Computerworld above to link to the Computerworld archive on Book Search. But I have no idea how to find it. Weird as it sounds, searching Google Book Search for Computerworld doesn’t pull it up. I know it’s there. Somewhere.

(Aha! I found a link to Computerworld’s first issue in a blog–no thanks to Book Search.)

If you somehow figure out how to pull up a particular magazine on Book Search, you get an interface that’s in many ways terrific, with browsable thumbnails of covers and a readers that lets you pull up any issue for perusal. Here’s New York magazine, which I only found because Google’s blog post on the new magazines pointed to it. (The URL? The memorable



I still can’t tell, however, whether the “Search in this magazine” feature searches all issues of New York, or just the one that’s currently selected. (I think it’s the latter, but I’m not going to make any bets.)

Are there advanced features like keyword searches that might let you find a particular magazine or search all issues of it? Maybe. There’s an advanced search feature–but it’s not linked to from all pages in Book Search, and while it lets you restrict searches to magazines rather than books, this didn’t help me find stuff I was looking for. (When I restricted my search for Computerworld to magazines, it pulled up scads of issues of…sister publication CIO. Which mentions Computerworld in some boilerplate text.)

Part of the problem here is revealed by the very name of the service: What exactly are magazines doing in something called Google Book Search? (Side note: Book Search originally had the more appropriate name of Google Print.) They’re a different beast, and call for a different set of search tools. Book Search seems to be focused on letting you search across its entire archive of books, magazines, and other items; that’s a big part of the search challenge, but far from all of it.

Am I being too cranky about a wonderful, wildly ambitious initiative that’s an outstanding example of Google following its corporate mission? Probably, considering that I plan to spend plenty of quality time burrowing through its riches, starting tonight. It’s just that it would be so much more useful if finding stuff–specific magazines and articles within them–was a whole lot easier.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Andrew Leal Says:

    I haven’t had as much trouble as you, but I’ve used Google Books (and before that Print for ages, so I kind of know the drill. “Search in this Magazine” is indeed limited to the specific issue. However, just using the name of the magazine in quotes (“New York Magazine”) and a keyword (I tried Muppet, Wodehouse, James Thurber, Lion King and animation, among others) works well enough to bring up the relevant issues (and admittedly some books as well inbetween), which can then be searched in depth to see how much is being covered. I found it to be a cinch, and just did the same with Popular Mechanics. Sample result:

    The biggest obstacle right now is simply having no idea *which* magazines, outside of those on the front page or linked elsewhere, are included. A larger index of available magazines is necessary and should have been a given.

    As for Computerworld and its first issue, that’s not related to the Google Books magazine acquisitions anyway. It’s part of the Google News archive (since the first issue was deemed a newsletter, and it’s inclusion seems to predate the magazine development anyway). Which highlights perhaps part of the problem. On the one hand, as you note, books and magazines require different search tools. On the other hand, now you have Google Books, Google News, Google Image’s Life Archive… All need to be more user friendly, but it would also be nice if there was a way to search results in all four, and display the top five, so at least you know which archive has what you want.

  2. Tom Says:

    If you are searching for a list of available magazines you can find one on my latest Blogpost.