February 16, 2018

Google Directs Users to Library Ebooks from OverDrive

OverDrive is enabling Google to display library ebooks prominently in open web search results. Announced in a tweet last month by Google, and reported by media outlets including Slate, Fortune.com, and TheVerge, the new feature displays a “Borrow ebook” option highlighting the searched for title and linking to libraries within a user’s geolocated range.

On desktops, the feature appears within the Google Knowledge Graph display, below options to purchase an ebook through online retailers such as the Google Play store, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo.

On mobile devices, the borrow link appears as a more prominent option within the Graph display for some titles—adjacent to “overview” and “reviews” options. For others, such as recent bestsellers, the library option is placed below online retailers where users can purchase the ebook.

The new feature “raises awareness that ebooks are available from the library, [and] puts libraries on equal footing with other ways to get the book,” said David Burleigh, director of marketing and communication for OverDrive.

Google officials have not commented about the feature, other than the mid-September tweet, and Burleigh said that OverDrive could not disclose any information about how the feature works. However, the Knowledge Graph is known to draw data from sources including Wikidata, Wikipedia, IMDb, and many others, including structured data on the open web. It appears that OverDrive has enabled Google’s web crawlers to access basic metadata regarding the content that the company has licensed to its customers, and Google is using geolocation information from IP addresses and mobile devices to refine individual user results, similar to the way Google would refine searches for restaurants or events.

Circulation information does not appear to be a component of the feature—the links direct users to the library’s OverDrive page for the title, where they are invited to read a sample, or borrow or place a hold. OverDrive has provided a similar ebook discovery feature through Microsoft’s Bing search engine since 2014.

Sharing data with Google is part of OverDrive’s effort to engage new patrons and market libraries and library ebooks to non-users who may be unfamiliar with the resources that libraries now offer. For many users, OverDrive anticipates that the Google feature will offer “an introduction to the library, period,” Burleigh said. “That’s really the bottom line.”

Steve Potash, OverDrive President and CEO, said during his closing presentation at Digipalooza, the company’s biennial user group meeting in Cleveland, OH, that “half of America does not have a library card, and the majority of users who have library cards have never used them for [checking out] digital media. We are still on this other side of the chasm.”

In August, the company began pilot testing a new feature for its Libby e-reader app that will enable users to sign up for a library card using a smartphone or tablet, confirming residency without the need to visit a library branch. Although Burleigh could not confirm whether the Knowledge Graph discovery feature might ultimately be paired with remote library card signup, a scenario in which users discover ebook titles at their local library using Google and then sign up as new patrons and check out an ebook seems plausible.

Work in progress

The feature doesn’t work flawlessly. Movie adaptations with the same title as the book understandably muddle search results, but also appear to suppress the ebook purchasing or borrowing options in favor of movie streaming services, regardless of the movie’s popularity or critical reception. For example, a search for “Vampire Academy,” the bestselling YA series by Richelle Mead, surfaces a mix of results about the series and the 2014 box office bomb based on the series. But the Knowledge Graph display is filled exclusively with information about the movie, accompanied by links to stream the movie on iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, or other services. Ebook buying and borrowing suggestions are nowhere to be found.

In these cases, a “See results about” link beneath the Knowledge Graph display will direct users to results exclusively about the books, which will include the “Borrow ebook” list of nearby libraries. LJ received similar results with spot searches for Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice. Adding the word “book” or “novel” to a search string for any adapted title appears to resolve this issue.

Results also occasionally fail to surface. For example, an LJ search for Rushing Waters, Danielle Steel’s 2016 bestseller, correctly generated Knowledge Graph links to the relevant OverDrive pages of three different library systems near LJ’s New York office, despite top search results linking to a rainbow trout farm in Wisconsin. By contrast, a search for A Perfect Life, Steel’s 2014 bestseller, only generated working links enabling users to purchase the ebook version. Under “Borrow,” an additional search box appeared, asking users to check the title’s availability at libraries nearby by entering a zip code or city. Searches of multiple Manhattan zip codes, as well as “New York, NY” returned “no results found near you” despite the New York Public Library having multiple ebook copies of Steel’s A Perfect Life available through OverDrive, as well as multiple ebook copies of the 2016 Eileen Pollack novel with the same title.

Gary Price, editor of LJ’s infoDOCKET, also conducted multiple tests on the feature, and noted that this has the potential to cause confusion. People trust Google search results, and if the Knowledge Graph display is stating that a title is unavailable, a user’s search might end there, he said.

“It’s not always consistent,” Price said. “I’ve now seen books that will not trigger [the OverDrive ebook feature] one day but will the next.” LJ was able to reproduce this behavior as well, with a search for A Perfect Life repeated 24 hours later.

Similarly, Price added that Google’s results—for now—only include ebook content that a library has licensed from OverDrive. Being redirected to a library’s OverDrive page may indicate that a title is on a holds list, even if the library has additional licenses available through other services such as the bibliotheca cloudLibrary, Baker and Taylor Axis 360, Freading, hoopla, Odilo, etc. Unfortunately, mainstream press coverage also tended to imply that the Google feature was capturing all of the ebooks that local libraries have to offer.

“Instead of searching the San Francisco Public Library e-book app, clicking through on Google takes me straight to the library’s online checkout page so that I can download the book seamlessly from my original search. No flipping through different apps and tabs required,” an article in Mashable explained.

Still, the feature does seem likely to raise awareness of local library resources among the uninitiated. And given the enthusiastic press and social media coverage that the feature received following a simple, one-time tweet by Google, this could indicate a strong public interest in discovering library resources using open web searches.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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