Tools of Change: Jon Orwant

Jon Orwant is a highly confident man. Some might say (and a few certainly did to me) that he is one of the great egotists of our epoch. By his own admission, he is certainly not an amateur. But then when you’re the Engineering Manager for the world’s biggest search engine, and you’re white, and you’re rich, and you’re male, and you’re at a conference with an egregious gender divide in place, and the likes of Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow are there trying to throw a few jabs and you answer their questions without really answering their questions, well then you really don’t have a lot to lose, do you? Particularly when you’re talking about Google Book Search. Which is just so much better and making everybody so much money! Even in this economy. And isn’t cash what it’s really all about in the end?

There was a good deal of swagger at the panel titled “Google Book Search: Past, Present, and Future.” And I don’t believe the Scrooge parallels in the title were entirely unintentional. But it was my second favorite panel of the day.

“I’m happy to geek out about copyright,” announced Orwant at the onset. But everybody wanted to hear him talk about Google Book Search. Google has some seven million books indexed. It’s “a platform for searching, discover, reading, and buying.” (Fun fact: The word “buy” appears six times in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” — I know this thanks to Google Book Search — and it is always used, in all cases, in relation to buying items for the poor. But this may not have be the “buying” that Orwant or Google have in mind.) Google Book Search has a Partner Program, in which the rights holder wants the content searchable, with boxes of books and PDFs sent Google’s way for OCR magic. It also has a Library Project, in which 100 million books are checked out of libraries and scanned. Google, Orwant says, doesn’t charge for it. No money exchanges hands. Charity! Nevertheless, the “buying” participle still exists in that “platform” designation.

Thanks to a concept called blending, Google Book Search options remain in the top search results. An effort to direct traffic GBS’s way. For while Google is the patron of GBS, GBS must be kept profitable. You didn’t think they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart now, did you?

There are 1.5 million free books, all public domain titles, available on Google. But if you want to access them, well, you’ll have to go to Google. Or you’ll have to have Google generate results at your site. Because the Google team are specialists in latency. They can do things with milliseconds that you couldn’t work out in your dreams. As an experiment, Google recently unleashed Google Books Mobile, which means that you can nose search Google Book Search from your smartphone, assuming that Thomas Friedman isn’t hogging all the bandwidth on the island. Orwant was careful to point out that Google is not in the handset manufacturing or carrier business. But he anticipated, just as many of the seer-like speakers at Tools of Change did based on sketchy inside information, a “rapid evolution.” Nevertheless, because someone had cracked a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses, there remained the possibility that someone was using GBM for serious literary endeavors. Why? “I personally have no idea,” rejoined Orwant to his own question. This was an experiment to see what usage will be like in the next few years. Google wishes to dominate.

The revelation about 1.5 million free ebooks prompted Cory Doctorow to press Orwant on a question about why these couldn’t be released as a torrent. A sensible idea. But you see, Google needs to keep these books on their site. Because they’re constantly tinkering with the display results. Latency and other assorted topics of expertise, remember? And there is no evidence that GBS harms sales. Trust Orwant on that.

Tim O’Reilly tried to badger Orwant too. You see, O’Reilly used to have good webpage placement for many of his titles. But those days are gone, replaced by Google Book Search results above the O’Reilly pages. And that hardly seems fair. “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm,” responded Orwant. But wasn’t Orwant one of the guys who came up or oversaw the algorithm? Orwant may have only been following orders, but it did raise a very important point. If a publisher has a specific webpage for a book title, should they not have that webpage come up in the search results before a GBS page?

There’s some comfort in knowing that 99% of the books at GBS have been viewed at least once. Even the sleep-inducing textbooks. Which is really quite something. Which brings us to the future, which is based on the past, which does not involve thrown mugs. You see, Orwant was once the editor and publisher of a magazine. Subscription base: 12,000. (He said at the panel that he did not know what he was doing.) Orwant loitered in a bookstore and watched people picked up his magazine and would approach them for insights. (He said he did not know what he was doing.) He learned valuable lessons about pictures, the size of the title, and other layout factors. (He said he did not know what he was doing. But as we learned above, he’s no amateur.) So if Orwant did not know what he was doing, he certainly wanted to figure out these trends. Perhaps in telling us that he did not know what he was doing, he is actually alerting us to the possibility that his real interest was in tracking. And, lo and behold, now GBS is all about figuring out what people are reading next. It hopes to introduce more options to render these images as XML. Which means text-based pages and character recognition. Which means distributing content further and getting more GBS results. And why are the publishers being so irksome about the price point? They can’t possibly make a profit at $50 a pop, but they can at 50 cents a pop. If the information can’t be free, then it can certainly be brokered at a cheaper price thanks to Google technology. Of course, the price has to work for Google, not the publisher.

That snippet view you see with some titles? Orwant’s official position, pressed by Cory Doctorow, is that it’s fair use. But once the October 2008 settlement in Authors Guild v. Google is approved by the court, you’re going to see that snippet view jump to 20% of the book. But in the meantime, GBS’s dominance is all but confirmed. You’ll begin to see public access terminals in libraries. But there’s always consumer purchasing options. A guy named Adam Smith (no joke) is head of the product. Sure, we’ll reap some benefits of these developments, but it doesn’t feel entirely right that a private and cash-heavy corporation holds all the cards. Particularly one with the smarts to keep a savvy guy like Orwant on the payroll.