Various book blogs have been pointing to the vnunet.com story, which says that Google Book Search is causing people to buy books. The story points to data from Hitwise, a research firm, which shows that 15.93% of Google Book Search UK users click through to book store sites from Google’s site, with Amazon UK being the most popular destination. The article, and a Hitwise blog post, imply that this data means that Google Books is, despite the fears of publishers to the contrary, helping to sell books. Of course we can’t really know if that’s true. What seems more likely is that people researching particular books will do so at Google Books and they will click through to the book store sites as they try to seek out more information – user reviews, for example – on the books that interest them. Occasionally, of course they may buy some books this way.
But the point, as I see it, isn’t that people are using Google Book Search to buy books, it’s that they’re using it like a library – after all, only 15.93% of users click through to book stores, and some small fraction of those go on to buy books. The additional data collected by Hitwise for the study seems to bear this out. Hitwise is capable of dividing users into dozens of thinly sliced demographic groups. Of all those groups, here are the three biggest users of Google Books UK, according to Hitwise:
- Low Income Elderly: Elderly people living in low rise council housing, often on low incomes.
- University Challenge: Undergraduate students living in halls of residence or close to universities.
- Sepia Memories. Very elderly people of independent means who have moved to modest apartments suitable for their needs.
Bearing in mind that the Hitwise data should be taken with a grain of salt, these groups are probably among the most heavy users of brick and mortar libraries. And while college students certainly fit the profile of pirated media swappers, the other two demographic groups do not. To me, this data confirms that in the minds of the casual user, Google Book Search is a research tool, an online variety of the library – not meant to replace libraries, mind you, but meant to fill in the gaps libraries’ current online offering, namely full text search – a fact that explains Google’s cozy relationship with a number of library systems, as opposed to its acrimonious relationship with a number of publishers.