A heart-stopping press release appeared on May 23 from Web directory service LookSmart (http://www.looksmart.com) announcing that the company had signed an exclusive agreement with Gale Group (http://www.gale.com), a leading full-text aggregator. According to the release, "The partnership will make business and premium magazine and periodical content, from a variety of publications ranging from Scientific American to Rolling Stone, available for free to users who search the LookSmart directory." The statement represents an interesting development in the evolving role of traditional information industry players within the Web world. However, information professionals may find the quantity of material actually delivered through the service to be, at least initially, a lot less than the press release leads one to believe.
Actually, when the service (http://www.findarticles.com) goes live at the end of June, it will offer access to articles published over the last 1 to 2 years from some 300 publications. A few of the publications—around 10, but among them Scientific American—will only have abstracts.
This service, however, does mark the first time that a traditional full-text aggregator has released its material through a site that uses ad revenues as the sole funding mechanism. LookSmart's hundreds of indexers—those not busy working on the over 1.8 million sites covered in an elaborate hierarchy of over 170,000 subject categories and some 90,000 topical nodes—will categorize the Gale content and target specific advertisements to complement the article content. In other words, as one representative told us, it wouldn't put an ad from Toyota next to a story panning a Toyota car. A LookSmart representative assured us, however, that the company doesn't follow the model of selling placement with search results to advertisers.
Gale representatives tell us that all the publishers of the 300 titles have agreed to participate and many look forward to the experience with great anticipation, particularly the new revenue figures. Each article retrieved will carry a link to the publisher's Web site and a link to Gale.
Titles were selected to match LookSmart's users' interests—broad but focused on serious interest. The journals chosen include subject coverage for entertainment, biography, business, computers, travel, automobiles, etc.
LookSmart serves as a primary content partner for over 400 Web sites. The articles collection will push through to sites run by distribution partners such as Excite@Home, AltaVista, Time Warner, Sony, BT, Road Runner, Prodigy, US West, NetZero, more than 370 Internet service providers, and Microsoft MSN. (This should be old-home week for MSN. A year ago, it discontinued an agreement with Gale Group that supplied the bulk of Magazine Database for release under the brand name Encarta Online, available for a very low monthly subscription rate.) LookSmart claims that its distribution network reaches 74 percent of Internet users in the U.S.—some 52 million users—according to Evan Thornley, chairman and CEO of LookSmart. LookSmart partners who want customized versions of the content will pay licensing fees.
Thornley describes the goal of "partnering with Gale to liberate hundreds of thousands of proprietary articles and make them free for all Web users…. The ability to distribute enriched magazine and periodical content to 52 million users in our distribution network and to monetize the valuable search traffic creates a large new pool of value to be shared with our partners and the owners of the original content. Business information is a multibillion-dollar market in the U.S. alone, and we are excited to bring a Web-native approach to disintermediating this industry. By adopting this approach to proprietary information, the traditional pay-per-play model is relegated to dinosaur status.''
Gale's staff members were somewhat concerned when we spoke with them about the confusion the claims of exclusive access in the press release might engender. However, they repeatedly stated how "thrilled" they were to work with LookSmart. One representative talked about visiting the LookSmart staff and finding the environment very familiar—indexers everywhere.
"We're delighted to partner with LookSmart. We're very impressed with their dedication to editorial integrity and vast distribution network," said Allen Paschal, CEO of the Gale Group. "We feel that LookSmart is wonderfully equipped to present our content to users in a relevant fashion and on a dramatic scale."
Searchers who use the LookSmart directory already probably recognize it as distinctively focused on serious research. A LookSmart representative told us that its goal was to create the best collection of quality content on the Web. In contrast with results from general Web search engines and even Yahoo!, the leading Web directory service, searching on LookSmart seems to retrieve few or no false drops. The company clearly has a commitment to "bull's-eye" searching. LookSmart's indexers peruse candidate URLs gathered by true Web search engines like FAST and Inktomi, then pick the best sites and categorize and annotate them.
Recently an article in Danny Sullivan's SearchEngineWatch indicated that LookSmart had begun testing a payment program for Web sites seeking entry into its directory. The program was tied to the order in which LookSmart would review the site-$49 for 8 weeks or less, $199 for a 48-hour-turnaround Express service. A LookSmart representative assured us that the program, initiated in February, was just a test and that no final decisions had been made. She also pointed out that LookSmart still had a "no-charge" option for sites seeking consideration. At no time, she maintained, would LookSmart do anything to impair or degrade the user experience or the quality of its database.
When the new service goes online, the LookSmart directory's searches will incorporate references to the articles. Clicking on a link will take one to the article on the findarticles.com site. Searchers who only want articles may go directly to the alternate site. Most items will receive subject searching, but the system will also allow advanced searching by journal title and author. Results will include ordering options for subscribing to the journals. The service will not offer document delivery for the handful of journals that only carry abstracts. LookSmart is working to add the ability to order single issues.
In the future, LookSmart and Gale plan to enhance the service by adding more titles, data sources, and proprietary reference materials. LookSmart hopes to keep expanding the scope of findarticles.com.
Clearly the first competitor one might expect this new alliance to have targeted would be Northern Light, which innovated the combined searching of Web sites and full-text journals. Northern Light still works on the business model of charging for the full text however. When I called Susan Stearns at Northern Light for comment, she stated that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." With 7,000 full-text titles in the company's system, she considered Northern Light not very threatened by this new development.
Still, advertiser-supported delivery of traditional full text does have its attractions for users everywhere.