The Best Search Idea Since Google
How Amazon can make money from books you already own.
Amazon.com's announcement this week of its new "search inside" feature—allowing full-text searches of over 120,000 books in its new digital archive—will probably turn out to be one of those transformative Web moments when a tool suddenly appears and six months later you can't imagine life without it. For logical reasons, Amazon seems to have designed "search inside" to help readers find text in books that they haven't bought yet. But there's just as much opportunity to apply "search inside" to books you already own.
Think about it this way: I have my thousand-book library sitting in front of me, not 2 feet from where I'm typing right now. But Jeff Bezos has something that I don't have: He's got searchable digital versions of that library or a significant portion of it. (From a very unscientific survey that I performed, it seems like Amazon has about 50 percent of my library included in the "search inside" archive, though that percentage is bound to increase over time.) We tend to think of search requests as generally taking the form of "find me something I've never seen before." But real-life search is often different: You're looking for something you have seen before, but you've somehow mislaid or only half-remembered. You search for your glasses or your car keys. Or, in the case of books, you search for that paragraph about the Russian revolution's impact on literacy rates that you read somewhere a few years ago. You know it's in a book somewhere on your shelf, you just can't remember which one.
"Search inside" could be the perfect solution to this common problem. Instead of staring at the bookshelves for an hour, pulling out volumes, and flipping randomly through the pages, you'd log onto Amazon and "search inside your library." Of course, you'd have to describe the contents of your library to Amazon, but unless your library is of Jeffersonian proportions, that's no more than an afternoon's work. (For some of us who buy almost exclusively from Amazon, you could get a jump-start by having Amazon automatically populate your "search inside" library with books you've already bought.) For the biblio-extroverts among us, Amazon could let you publish your library for the world to see, just as it allows users to create reading lists on various topics today.
Why would Amazon want to offer a service revolving around books that by definition you don't want to buy? For one, managing the library information would be trivial, given the existing scope of Amazon's database architecture. (Plus, the users would do all the data entry pro bono.) Using Amazon's search box for my own private needs, and not just shopping, makes me in the long run more dependent on Amazon (and perhaps more likely to ditch Google for Amazon down the line, as the latter's search offerings increase). Knowing something about my existing library gives Amazon even more information about my tastes for its recommendation engine. And I wouldn't object to Amazon including a list of titles not in my library that match my search request, thereby generating some new sales even when I'm browsing through old books.
A promising corollary effect of a "search inside your library" tool would be the creation of a new kind of personalized filter, this time run through other people's book collections. We all know people who are better collectors and curators than they are writers or thinkers: You wouldn't necessarily want to read an essay by them, but you'd love to spend a week browsing their library. By making Amazon libraries public, you could search through those libraries in addition to your own. You could always search the entire Amazon catalog, of course, but we all know how noisy open-ended searches can be. Most of the time, you're not just looking for information about Sylvia Plath; you're looking for a specific kind of information about Sylvia Plath. By organizing search around people and not just text strings, you can narrow those results dramatically.
Amazon could seed this by uploading "celebrity libraries" not unlike the "celebrity playlists" newly offered as part of Apple's iTunes music store. There might be hundreds of references to Russian literacy out there in the Amazon archive, but what I want are the references in David Remnick's library. Eventually, you might be able to do some artful Boolean cross-referencing: Find me all the references to Mendel that appear in both Richard Dawkins' and Francis Crick's libraries.
The only drawback I can imagine to this system is that the potential combinations are so tantalizing, and so fun to explore, that it's hard to imagine having time left for actually reading any of these books. But that's the price you pay for progress.