Assessing the Functionality of Web-Based Versions of Traditional Search Engines

Article excerpt

Although a great deal of attention has been paid to the search features of Web search engines, far fewer evaluations exist for the features and functionality of traditional online databases that have migrated to the Web.

The professional literature on online database searching has concentrated on the formulation of effective search strategies and the design of intuitive and user-friendly interfaces, while academic studies have focused on end-user search behavior that influences the design of information retrieval systems. The popular computing press has almost totally ignored the online systems that librarians have used for the past two decades. As traditional online hosts increasingly prefer their customers use the Web, a system-by-system analysis of the wide array of commonly expected functionality is timely.

We originally chose seven systems -- DialogWeb, Factiva's Dow Jones Interactive (DJI) Publications Library, OCLC's FirstSearch Service, ProQuestWeb, WilsonWeb, Ovid, and SilverPlatter-for their excellence of design, quality of data included, and varied business models. LEXIS-NEXIS introduced its nexis.com shortly after we completed our assessment, so we went back and added it as an eighth system.

These systems are not homogenous; each one brings something a little different in terms of information architecture to the searching table. As well as providing search interfaces, WilsonWeb abstracts and indexes as a database producer, OCLC is a library consortia network that produces a union catalog and other proprietary databases, DialogWeb, DJI, LEXIS-- NEXIS, Ovid, and SilverPlatter are commercial database aggregators (serving very different markets).

Collectively, these companies and organizations serve the research needs of corporate, public, and academic libraries, and the financial sector. Although they are not an exhaustive sampling of resources for information centers, they are representative of traditional services on the Web. Other systems to consider include EBSCO Online, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, and the Gale Group. We hope this survey will provide a framework for information professionals to assess Web-based online databases for functionality, usefulness, and value for money.

EVALUATION CRITERIA

We first chose five major categories to assess Web-based online hosts -- Database Selection, Formulation and Reformulation of Searches, Help Mechanisms, Results Presentation and Organization, and Record Management. We then identified features under each category as either essential, desirable, or wanted for special needs. Issues of interface design and navigation were intentionally not included, as rating them would rely on subjective assessment. [Editor's note: The characterizing of features as essential, desirable, or wanted for special needs may be equally subjective, and ONLINE would love to hear from any readers who take issue with these designations.]

We didn't try to "peek under the hood" and make an educated evaluation of the search rules of each system. Finally, full-text retrieval from the abstracting and indexing database interfaces evaluated here was not accessed because to do so would have vastly expanded the scope of this survey, and could be better served through an additional study. (Diane HofFman's article in the January 2001 issue of ONLINE, "Think Links: Full-Text Linking Projects", is a good start.) Once we had the criteria in place, we turned to the database systems. How close did they come to being our ideal system?

FUNCTIONALITY CATEGORIES

Under Database selection, we identified two important features-database identification aids and ability to search more than one database simultaneously. Seasoned researchers and information professionals know their sources. Students and more occasional users may not, so database identification aids are extremely helpful in locating what they need. Database identification aids allow searchers to identify the database most likely to contain the information they need. …