In July 2003, ProQuest Information and Learning announced a major revision to the interface for its ProQuest online service, calling it PQ Next (see NewsBreak: http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16646). Since then, the company has been implementing quarterly releases of enhancements. Now, the company has announced its latest release to the ProQuest online information service—no longer referring to it as "Next" or listing a particular version number—which it says offers substantial new functions and enhancements. The new release introduces ProQuest Smart Search, a technology that taps into ProQuest's indexing to offer suggestions to users. The ProQuest service now also provides advanced browsing, enhanced linking, and enhanced e-mail capabilities.
Smart Search is a proprietary technology that has been in development for some time, according to John Law, director of product management for the ProQuest platform. He says that Smart Search will be welcomed by novice and sophisticated searchers alike. It uses ProQuest's indexing to analyze a user's search, mapping the terms to the controlled vocabulary (using term occurrence patterns and comparisons against previous search logs), and then offers suggestions for related topics and publications at the top of the results screen. For topics, Smart Search displays a range of hyperlinked index terms that make the search "smarter." Some suggest broader or related topics (like "see also" references); others are more precise ("see" references). The indexing vocabulary had been accessible to users before as a pop-up, but the user had to initiate this. Now, suggestions are offered to users upfront, providing easy, seamless access.
Law commented: "Smart Search engages our extensive controlled vocabulary, enabling users to navigate quickly to the most relevant articles. It's especially valuable for less-experienced researchers, users who are not savvy about the subject thesaurus or constructing Boolean queries. It also provides greater transparency of content in the databases being searched so more experienced researchers can refine their search strategy as they go."
The company ran dozens of rounds of user tests with a variety of library user groups, said Law. An alpha test involved a dozen institutions around the globe for 10 to 12 weeks. One of the test sites was the library at Oklahoma State University (OSU). According to Anne Prestamo, head of Digital Library Services, the testing "represented one of the most wide-ranging attempts by a database vendor to really find out from users what they are looking for and how." She added: "These days, reference librarians don't often get to see just what their users are doing." Prestamo and the other librarian, faculty, and student testers were very impressed at the ability to narrow a search easily and with the presentation of suggestions in a point-and-click interface.
While the OSU library works with a variety of vendors, Prestamo said the competition has definitely heated up, with each vendor working to implement desired features for users. "Vendors that focus on users' behaviors and are responsive will be the most successful," she commented. She also said that the ProQuest development team made changes continuously as they studied users' behaviors, and the process was the most rapid of those in which she had ever participated. She also appreciated the open and direct communication with ProQuest people who could really effect changes.
The Smart Search technology also powers pop-up tools that let users browse topics in most of the ProQuest databases. Users can browse subjects, companies, people, and geographic locations selecting terms to find relevant articles. New browsing capabilities also provide enhanced access to nonperiodical, e-reference, and reports content, such as the Snapshots Market Research Reports, Hoover's Company Profiles, and Oxford Analytica.
The most important e-mail improvement in the new ProQuest service is the ability to send multiple articles in a single e-mail. One ProQuest user called it "the answer to my prayers." Other e-mail enhancements include:
- Brief citations with links back to an article in ProQuest.
- Full text of articles in ASCII or PDF format.
- E-mail My Research Summary, a highly refined version of a marked list.
- E-mail formatted bibliographies in a choice of formats.
- E-mail translated articles, i.e., articles that the user selected for machine translation to Spanish or Portuguese, also a ProQuest feature.
- Citation information embedded in every PDF, both on screen and when e-mailed.
The latest July release also augments several changes launched in March:
- Automatic sizing for printing large articles in ProQuest Historical Newspapers with a single-click "Print" button option.
- Print Bibliography enhancements offer appropriate citation formatting for different publication types and citation styles.
- Custom interface profiles for Snapshots, Hoover's Company Information, and OxResearch, providing custom search fields and limiters when each is searched alone.
- A custom thesaurus has been added for the Diversity databases, providing easy access to the subject terms that relate to these products' content.
- A new Select Databases option allows users to select all cross-searchable databases with a single mouse click.
While the general Web search engines are busy adding more advanced features and reaching out to add hidden Web and scholarly content, the traditional services are working hard to improve the user experience, making it easier to get to the right information faster, and in a more streamlined, point-and-click environment. It will be interesting to watch as the two sides move closer together.