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OCLC and squeaky wheels

October 19, 2009

Had quite a shock today while teaching class. I was reenacting the “little big” search experiment I described in a post last week, and much to my surprise, had wildly different results this time around. If you search for this book on worldcat.org now, up it pops in first position. While it is gratifying to see OCLC react so quickly to feedback, I was curious whether this represented a change in their search algorithm, or rather just a quick fix for this one title to appease me.

Sadly, I suspect the latter. Doing some testing, I discovered that when you search for the term little or big, Crowley’s book now comes up in first position. Not sure how his work merits top billing for either of those terms, not when there are plenty of other books with two word titles where little or big is one of them, or one word titles that are even better matches. It is as if a database administrator got my feedback passed to them and said, fine, we’ll give you what you want and attached a high weight to this work using whatever mechanism they have for doing so. The underlying search algorithm is still a bit odd.

For example, searching for the word little brings up Crowley’s book in the first slot, the book Little Eagle in second position, but then items 3-10 are books written by someone named Little. So, two there by title keyword, eight by author. Furthermore, results 3-10 are all for German titles. Sure, I am sitting at a German IP address, but I selected English as the interface language, so why use an identifier over which I have little control rather than a deliberate user choice to rank my results? Incidentally, when I visit amazon.com from this IP address, it recognizes my IP address and adds a little note to the entry page (in German) encouraging me to visit amazon.de, but if I insist on searching at amazon.com, it returns results as if I were in the US. Amazon lets me choose how I want my results fed to me. I see no such option with worldcat.org, other than the language facet on the left, but I want my initial search to be spot on, not to have to tinker endlessly to find what I want. Librarians do that. Any usability test will reveal that an average user does not. We all know that.

Even when I log in to worldcat.org, I see no option to set my preferred locale for searching. And now that  I think about it, I think it is kind of weird to change the ranking based on IP address. I did, after all, enter an English language query, so why weight German books high because I am at a German IP address. What a mess.

At any rate, Little, Big is now at the top of the list because somehow it has now been given a high weight, not because any underlying problem has been fixed. Searching for similar short, pithy titles (Kerouac’s Big Sur, Wilder’s Our Town, etc.) shows that they still land buried beneath works that are less exact matches.

Then again, I have no idea what people are seeing who might be sitting at a French, American, Russian, or Japanese IP address. Changing the ranking algorithm based on IP without giving the user a clear warning that this is occurring nor the ability to shut it off is just not right. Frankly, it renders worldcat.org useless to me when I am sitting at a German computer. Doing neat things behind the scenes with queries (aka post-query processing) is something that Roy Tennant and others have been saying for years needs to be a priority in libraries. Worldcat.org has evidently taken up the challenge, but this is not a good nor consistent implementation. Where I am does not define who I am or what I want.

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4 Comments
  1. October 19, 2009 17:06

    Thanks Dale. I don’t know exactly what changes were made to the algorithm in response to your comment last week, but I hear you about location (IP)-based results being unhelpful in your particular situation. At the very least, we could possibly incorporate a notice so that users could understand why they’re seeing the results weighted the way they are.

  2. Dale permalink*
    October 19, 2009 17:17

    Thanks for the comment, Alice. A notice a la Amazon would be a good step, since it would allow me to reject any modifications based on my physical location. Ideally, it would be executed with a single click, too.

    I would encourage OCLC to give some thought to the question of how/why the WorldCat database is used beyond the borders of North America. I am aware that there are, of course, many libraries outside North America contributing records, but it remains a fairly anglo-americentric database. As such, it is not going to be the database of choice for a German user searching for German books, for example. There are German databases far more suited to that task. Given that, what general assumptions should the WorldCat software make behind the scenes when a search query comes from a non-North American IP?

    The name WorldCat is bold and promises a lot, but I have always thought it to be a little misleading, since it is not the best tool for finding books from many nations where English is not the dominant language.

  3. October 19, 2009 20:06

    Actually, OCLC has been working quite hard to include many national catalogues in WorldCat over the past 5-6 years or so. I do understand where your sentiment comes from–it was especially aspirational to call it “WorldCat” back when it was renamed from OLUC in 1997. But now, 12 years later, more than half of the items in WorldCat are for non-English materials.

    One of the goals for WorldCat is to create a comprehensive database for locating library materials, anywhere in the world. There will always be more specialized and country-specific databases that meet localized needs. But I encourage you to think in terms of “both/and,” instead of “either/or” on this subject…and OCLC will keep working to improve nonEnglish interfaces to make it easier for more people to access WorldCat as one of the many tools they might use for their research.

  4. Dale permalink*
    October 20, 2009 10:37

    Good point with the national catalogs, but speaking in particular from a German vantage point, including a national catalog, while a good step, does not necessarily achieve what one might think. Germany has a somewhat complicated history with national libraries, and there are what one could call pseudo national libraries such as the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin or the BSB in Munich. In general, however, national libraries are good at collecting and documenting materials generated by commercial publishers, but are not really research collections, and certainly not historical collections. To capture those materials in a database such as WorldCat, one would need to include other libraries. I know that many at OCLC are aware of this, of course, and that it is a matter of getting institutions to participate, etc.

    At any rate, while the name has become less aspirational and more realistic over time, I would encourage OCLC to give serious thought to why users outside of North America might use the database. The goal “to create a comprehensive database for locating library materials” is a noble goal, but really it is more of a marketing strategy for WorldCat Local than an altruistic or realistic approach. As a German librarian recently pointed out to me, OCLC is viewed through a very different lens in Europe than in the US, and a goal such as this ignores to some degree that libraries here in Germany and in other nations are doing their own OCLC-esque work to make such goals reality (and frankly, have something of a lead in some ways).

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