ProQuest (www.proquest.com), a Cambridge Information Group company (www.cambridgeinformationgroup.com), has acquired WebFeat (www.webfeat.org), one of the pioneers of federated search technology and a current market leader. Federated search enables simultaneous searching of all an organization’s databases through a single interface. ProQuest plans to merge WebFeat with Serials Solutions (www.serialssolutions.com), its Seattle-based business unit and developer of e-resource access and management tools for libraries. The acquisition serves to reduce the number of key contenders in the federated search market, brings a big advantage to Serials Solutions in competing effectively, and definitely puts pressure on the competition.
WebFeat was founded by information industry veteran Todd Miller, who has some 22 years in the industry, including launching the InfoTrac CD back in 1986. WebFeat introduced its federated search technology in 1998. The private company (owned mostly by Miller with a number of early employees as shareholders) currently serves more than 16,500 libraries, conducting more than 172 million database searches annually. WebFeat recorded a record year in 2007, increasing its revenues 55% and providing access for 3,500 more libraries. Terms of the acquisition agreement were not disclosed.
Miller, who holds four patents in the field of federated search, will remain with WebFeat only briefly as a consultant. Miller stresses that he is ready to move on and is eager to begin the next chapter of his life, though he says he has no immediate plans. He says it just felt like the right time to find a new home for the company.
WebFeat employees will be aligned functionally within Serials Solutions’ current organizational structure. While WebFeat staff will become part of Serials Solutions, its customer support and all development activities will continue uninterrupted. Miller says that most of WebFeat’s approximately 30 employees work virtually from home offices.
"I’m proud to see WebFeat enter the next chapter of its history as part of a company that is committed to creating the tools that will keep libraries central to the research process," says Miller. "WebFeat and Serial[s] Solutions have an exceptional combination of strengths and I’m certain this merger will take federated search to the next level."
"With more and more e-resources in collections, librarians are looking hard at the tools that will deliver the greatest level of ‘discovery’ and federated search is one of the most important," says Serials Solutions general manager Jane Burke. "Merging Serials Solutions and WebFeat will combine the best of this technology and create a superior tool for access."
"WebFeat is an exceptional fit with Serials Solutions and within ProQuest as a whole," says Marty Kahn, ProQuest CEO. "It brings significant technological expertise that will be furthered enhanced when combined with Serials Solutions’ technology. Just as important is WebFeat’s commitment to delivery of superior service to libraries. It’s a perfect match with our organization."
Burke also stresses the complementary fit of the two companies’ products. As for strengths, she says that Serials Solutions’ 360 Search offers good results handling and de-duplication, stronger abilities to communicate with bibliographic citation managers, and a powerful API. It was also the first to provide results clustering (using Vivisimo’s technology). WebFeat’s search solutions offer an extensive library of translators, an excellent administrative console, good support for consortia, and good usage statistics. She says that both are hosted offerings that provide platform-based models designed to save libraries time and money. The two platforms will be combined and the new platform will debut in early 2009. The current search platforms will continue to be supported as this development proceeds. (A customer FAQ has been posted at www.serialssolutions.com/downloads/webfeat-faq.pdf.)
Burke also praises the WebFeat staff: "[T]hese are very talented people who understand this space very well. We’re very fortunate." And, she notes that federated search is harder than it looks and a number of companies have attempted it and abandoned the effort. "But," she states emphatically, "for academic libraries in particular, federated search is no longer a nicety, it’s a necessity. They buy too many databases. They can’t train end-users in using each interface. They need a federated search utility."
The acquisition is especially interesting, coming so soon after the recent ProQuest/RefWorks deal (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/wndReader.asp?ArticleId=40691). One industry observer says this shows just how serious ProQuest is about establishing strong market presence for all its divisions. (Serials Solutions was founded in 2000 and was purchased by ProQuest Information and Learning in July 2004.) ProQuest celebrated the first anniversary of the ProQuest Information and Learning/CSA merger on Feb. 9, 2008 (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=18853).
WebFeat currently has partnerships with a number of integrated library systems (ILS) vendors and content providers, including SirsiDynix, CARE Affiliates, Inmagic, TLC, LexisNexis, Gale, Elsevier, and others. Some of the arrangements insure that vendor databases are "WebFeat-friendly," while others, such as for EBSCO (a competitor to ProQuest), WebFeat provides its federated search capabilities. Burke says the established WebFeat partnerships will continue. "Serials Solutions is a neutral party regarding content—we have to be in order to provide our basic services. We will also be continuing the agreement that Web[F]eat made with Index Data for the OpenTranslators project."
ReactionsNews of the acquisition caused a stir in the blogosphere, though not as much as I’d expected. I sought the opinions of several people considered experts in the federated search sector.
Marshall Breeding, library technology analyst at Vanderbilt University and columnist for Computers in Libraries, offered this thoughtful assessment after talking with Burke: "[T]he acquisition of WebFeat by ProQuest represents another step in the assembly of a company that stands to be a formidable competitor as a provider of products and services dealing with electronic content. Though steering clear of the ILS part of the library automation business, ProQuest, through its Serials Solutions division, has set its sights on products related to electronic content which is seeing ever higher demand as libraries continually increase their investments in electronic content. Adding WebFeat to the mix gives Serials Solutions a huge advantage in the federated search business. The combined user base of Serials Solutions own 360 Search and the much larger set of customers using WebFeat’s products represents a very large portion of the overall market share. The acquisition of WebFeat also gives ProQuest ownership to a number of patents dealing with core federated search technologies."
Frank Cervone, assistant university librarian for information technology at Northwestern University, says he wasn’t surprised by the acquisition. "The library vendor marketplace is shrinking quite rapidly and this is just the latest example of consolidation. The upside of these consolidations is that, in many cases, stronger products are the eventual result. However, this consolidation has a downside as the library marketplace ultimately has even less choice. This wave after wave of industry consolidation is leading to the "cookie-cutterization" of library services, which is not in the best interest of libraries in the long term. I do expect that development, like other consolidation announcements before it, will spark additional interest in open source solutions as libraries work to create a more diverse software environment. Given the economics of library systems, open source is probably the only viable option if we want to have diversity in the software we use."
Cheryl LaGuardia, research librarian at Harvard University, commented in her E-Views blog for LibraryJournal.com that the acquisition was a "sign of the times." She wrote: "ProQuest seems to be demonstrating a sensible integrated business plan with its recent acquisition of Ref[W]orks, and now WebFeat, combined with their Serials Solutions’ tools. It’s as if…, as if they’ve been listening to what librarians and researchers want! Can the information centrifuge be slowing down? Can a harmonious research convergence be in the works?"
Sol Lederman, who manages the Federated Search Blog sponsored by competitor Deep Web Technologies (headed up by his brother Abe), had this to say on the acquisition: "First, I think prospective customers will be reluctant to buy WebFeat products for a time, at least until the dust settles. While there may be some hesitation to invest in Serials Solutions products right now, ProQuest being the acquiring company means that there will probably be less turmoil on the Serials Solution side. Second, I think other vendors of federated search, including the open source providers, will benefit from this period of unknown. And, third, with the competition between the low-cost offerings of both Serials Solutions and WebFeat vanished, I suspect that prices will rise overall in the industry, at least for a while."