Volume II, Issue 3 -- August, 2001
Book Reviews on the Internet
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II. InteractivityOne of the marvels of the Internet is its immediacy. Sites are, bar some technological glitches, always accessible. E-mail allows for instant user-reaction (though, as with land-bound correspondence, sites may not always be responsive). Message boards, guestbooks, and on-site chat rooms allow users to respond publicly and engage in a public dialogue with other users.
The Internet also allows sites to be more responsive to the needs and wants of users. Information about users is easier to garner (whether through weblogs, detailed user-registration information (though the validity of any such information must always be called into question), or other information users voluntarily provide). Sites can readily solicit mailing lists, in order to provide information to interested users about new additions or changes to a site or information of particular interest to particular users. Finally, it is also easier for users to submit material to a site.
Some of these features are available in more traditional media too. Letters to the editor are found in many magazines and newspapers, for example. Similarly, many newsstand publications accept other forms of user-contributed material. But the immediacy is not there.
It is extremely easy and cheap to add material to a site on the Internet, especially if that content is provided for free. As such, the Internet is ideal for an area such as book reviewing, where many opinions are likely to be be found (and many users want to voice and share those opinions). Content can be added quickly and painlessly. This is perhaps best exemplified by the "Customer Reviews" found at Amazon.com, but there are numerous variations on using such outside content.
Sites (or parts of sites) dedicated to book reviews have taken advantage, to varying degrees, of these many interactive possibilities -- with varying success. These are considered below:
E-mail is perhaps the most ubiquitous and popular of all Internet features. Communicating via e-mail has become widespread, and it is a quick and efficient way of reaching others.
Not surprisingly, almost all of the book review sites surveyed provide an e-mail address for users who want to contact the site. The lone exception was Allreaders.com, which offered a "feedback" form instead.
It should be noted that several sites did not provide their e-mail address on their main page (the page that opens when the link at the Yahoo directory is used). Several have separate pages where the contact information is provided, while in some cases users must actively hunt around to find the site e-mail address. Overall, however, book review sites all seem willing to allow users to contact them relatively easily.
It should be noted that numerous other large, popular sites (not devoted to book reviewing) have recently made it more difficult for users to contact them, hiding their contact information and e-mail addresses behind layers and layers of pages. Because of the prevalence of spam-mail -- and the often outrageous requests, demands, and comments that users make -- this is, in some ways understandable. So far, the book review sites have chosen to remain largely accessible -- though it will be interesting to see whether they remain so.
ii. Messageboards and Guestbooks
One third of the surveyed book review sites provided a means for users to make information immediately available on the site. Four of these had guestbooks, while twelve had messageboards -- the difference between the two often being minimal. These ranged from the enormous -- both CNN and Salon have a very large number of boards devoted to myriad topics, including a number that are literary-related -- to one guestbook that is only accessible to AOL-users.
Certainly messageboards and guestbooks can help get users more involved (and make them feel more involved), provide additional information on certain topics, and allow for a greater diversity of opinion to be made available. Unfortunately, messageboards and guestbooks apparently only appeal to a small number of users -- i.e. few users are willing to use them. Even large messageboards are often dominated by a small core number of users. Several of the messageboards and guestbooks surveyed had very few posts (often fewer than one a month), making them essentially of little or no value. The Poetry Previews board had no posts at all.
Apparently a site needs a large number of users to make messageboards and the like viable. This seems to hold true even for sites that are focussed on one specific topic (as Poetry Previews is), though genre review sites do seem to do better than more general review sites.
iii. Mailing Lists and Newsletters
A good way of keeping users apprised of changes to a site (to notify them about new book reviews, for example) -- or of merely periodically reminding users of the continued existence of a site -- is through the use of newsletters and mailing lists. Book review sites use both variations: a number of sites solicit users' e-mail addresses for the specific purpose of sending them a site-newsletter, while others merely ask whether users want to be on their mailing list, generally suggesting that they will then occasionally send information about and from the site.
Almost a third of all surveyed sites (14 of the 48) gave users the option of providing their e-mail addresses and promising to send some sort of information to those who did provide the information, generally at regular intervals.
This again seems a good way of taking advantage of some of the features of the Internet. It comes at a low cost to sites, since e-mailing (even on a very large scale) is extremely inexpensive. It is also a convenience to users: they can specify what information they would like (and can generally get themselves removed from any of these mailing lists much more easily than off a mailing list that uses the conventional mail).
Among the few downsides is the fact that many users find themselves inundated and overwhelmed by e-mail and thus often go through their e-mail quickly, without necessarily giving it their full attention -- as opposed to the attention they give a site when they actually seek it out and visit it. Overall, however, mailing lists and the like seem to benefit both users and sites, proving to be an efficient means of providing information about a site to interested users.
Note however the privacy issues that mailing lists raise:
iii.1. Privacy Issues
Providing any personal information online comes with certain risks. Merely providing an e-mail address is certainly one of the least riskiest, but note that such addresses can be of interest to marketeers, to whom they may be sold, or possibly other parties. It is therefore important that users are told what the information they provide will be used for -- and what it won't be used for.
It is particularly troublesome to note that of the 14 book review sites surveyed that were found to solicit users' e-mail addresses only three -- The New York Review of Books, Danny Yee's Book Reviews, and RebeccasReads.Com -- have privacy policies. Book review sites are basically information sites, and perhaps people therefore believe that they are more trustworthy than commercial sites. This is not an excuse for not making clear to users what information obtained from them might be used for. Many of these sites also have some commercial interests, and the temptation to sell information about users to unscrupulous marketeers may be too great for cash-poor sites to resist.
(For more about the issue, see for example the article Privacy Disclosure on News Sites Low at the Online Journalism Review.)
iv. User Submissions
Most review sites and publications do accept contributions from outsiders; after all, even high-end publications such as The New York Review of Books will consider unsolicited submissions. The Internet, however, makes submitting material much easier, and many book review sites have actively embraced this, relying partly -- or even wholly -- on reviews written by site-users. Amazon.com's "Customer Reviews" were one of the earliest (and most successful) examples, but several dedicated review sites have also built up their archives relying largely on outside reviews.
Sites such as Ed's Internet Book Review, have for example, very effectively solicited outside reviews. Some sites (including EIBR) also actively solicit multiple reviews of individual titles, again taking advantage of the fact that it is very inexpensive to post content on the Internet, especially when that content is provided for free.
Almost a third of the surveyed sites (15 of 48) at least suggest that users submit reviews, with several making it particularly easy for users to submit reviews (by just filling out a form, for example). (Numerous others occasionally accept outside material, but do not make it particularly easy for users to submit material -- and generally don't accept submissions via e-mail.)
There are several advantages to having user-submitted reviews. It gets users actively involved in a site. It helps shape a site to the interests (and opinions) of its users. It allows sites to get content inexpensively and easily. It allows sites to present a variety of opinions.
There are, however, also drawbacks. Allowing anyone to post anything can lead to a clutter of low-quality reviews. Certainly, some editorial oversight is required. It also appears that a limited number of users avail themselves of the opportunity to submit reviews, and so sites tend to be dominated by only a few user-voices, rather than a full range of opinions.
Nevertheless, this seems to be a useful use of the Internet, and one that surely will only grow in the future.
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III. ConnectivityAmong the most remarkable features of the World Wide Web is the ability to leap from page to page and site to site, moving via links from, say, a review of a book in a newspaper to the publisher's site to a bookstore in a few easy clicks.
This ability to link to other information, and thereby to provide users with additional content -- sources, opinions, and the like -- at virtually no additional cost seems one of the great benefits of the World Wide Web, one that, one might imagine, all would embrace.
Book reviews especially lend themselves to linking elsewhere. Aside from the obvious (linking to bookstores such as Amazon.com, where users can purchase the titles under review), there are numerous other links that would likely be of great interest to users, including publishers' publicity pages, excerpts from the book under review, other reviews, and links to other relevant information (including sites devoted to whatever the book is about, author sites, fan sites, etc.).
It seems an obvious approach to providing user-friendly book-information on the Internet. Oddly, it does not seem to be a very popular approach. (It should be noted that the complete review itself is obviously tailored largely to providing links -- i.e. this is a feature of the Internet which the complete review believes is particularly important and useful. This bias is obviously also reflected in this survey. Users may, in fact, be far more interested in other Internet-features, and might prefer fewer, rather than more links (as the design of many other sites would suggest).)
There are valid reasons for not providing links. Time may be better spent providing superior content. And users can always (well, often -- if they're lucky and patient) find the information they need via search engines. Certainly, onsite content is what makes a site most valuable: a site with a hundred reviews and no links is probably more useful than one with ten reviews and many links.
Arguably, search engines and directories can provide the additional information users might want: if they want to know more about the book or the author, to read other reviews, or find out more about the subject of the book they can hunt it down for themselves. So they can (and one hopes they do), but surely it is preferable if links to at least some additional information are conveniently provided.
Linking to outside sites is not entirely without cost. Aside from the effort involved in finding the relevant links two costs stand out: the fact that by clicking on a link users move on to another site, and the fact that links move, die, and become obsolete with alarming speed.
Sites do try to circumvent these problems. They hang on to users by using frames (an obnoxious solution), or by opening new windows for the linked sites (as occurs when any link on this page is clicked), leaving the original page open (though it is then often quickly lost underneath new pages). As to links leading to nowhere -- they are a continuing frustration, both for users and webmasters. One hopes the number of dead links doesn't get out of hand on a site, but the upkeep is a time-consuming (i.e. -wasting) exercise and many webmasters understandably want to have nothing to do with links for this reason.
Oddly, numerous sites also are link-unfriendly, in the sense that they make it difficult (and occasionally impossible) to link to specific pages -- a baffling though very effective way of keeping users from finding content. Sites using frames are the worst, but there are many link-unfriendly variations.
While certain links to external sites and pages are popular (notably to online booksellers), others are apparently decidedly less appealing to book review sites. Surprisingly, even on-site links (to other reviews of similar books, or other information) are relatively uncommon.
i.1 On-site Links: Other Reviews
Just over one in four (13 of 48) book review sites surveyed provided links in their reviews to other on-site reviews of similar titles, or other titles that might be of interest to users. These are links that manage to keep users on-site while also leading them to useful additional on-site content. (There is also no upkeep problem here, since the site-webmaster controls both the page being linked from and the page being linked to.) Nevertheless, such links are not particularly popular.
Possible reasons for not providing such links include the fact that there may not be enough (or appropriate) reviews to link to, or that providing the links seems more trouble than it is worth.
i.2 On-site Links: Other Information
Barely one-fifth (10 of 48) sites surveyed provided links in their reviews to other relevant on-site information. This is perhaps a bit more understandable, as a number of sites do not have any other relevant on-site information (generally because they truly only provide reviews)
ii.1 Offsite Links: Publicity
About a fifth (10 of 48) sites surveyed provided links to off-site publicity material, mainly publisher- and author-publicity pages. Although this is commercial material (and is thus generally of extremely limited value -- and essentially no objectivity) it at least offers users additional content about the books under review.
Publishers appear to have done a good job of making such material available on the Internet -- and enticing book review sites to link to it.
ii.2 Offsite Links: Other Reviews
Of the 48 sites surveyed only 2 (two !) provided links to offsite reviews to go along with their own reviews. One, of course, is the Complete Review; the other was Mostly Fiction. This is among the most surprising findings we made when conducting this survey. The reluctance of book review sites to make users aware of alternate points of view and other reviews of specific titles is even greater than expected -- far greater.
It must be noted that there are other book review sites on the Internet that do provide such links. Brothers Judd is a notable example of a site that provides extensive links, including to other reviews (as this site is not listed on the Yahoo directory it was not one of the 48 considered in this survey), and there are others as well. Generally, however, sites seem to avoid linking specifically to other reviews at almost all costs.
There are other sites that link to a variety of reviews of a specific title: numerous author-sites and fan-sites, for example, provide such links. Review sites, however, seem to avoid such links like the plague.
The reasons for this are not clear. Obviously, it does entail additional work to collect, present, and maintain such links. Possibly such links can also be seen as driving users away (to visit those other sites). Still, it is remarkable that reviews sites almost uniformly refuse to provide such links.
ii.3 Offsite Links: Other Information
Relatively few of the book review sites surveyed -- 7 out of 48 -- provided links to additional offsite information. In part this is because, beyond other reviews and publicity material, there often isn't that much additional information. In the case of non-fiction books there might be links to sites with information about the same subject matter, for example, but often there are few appropriate links. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy than considerably more book review sites did make the effort to provide such links than link to other offsite reviews.
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iii. General Links Pages
A fair number of the book review sites surveyed (21 of 48) did provide a separate page (or pages) of links to other sites. Most of these were lists of relevant links, often including links to other similar book review sites. (Indeed, the surveyed sites seemed much less reluctant to link to other sites than to specific reviews on those other sites.)
The quality of these links pages varies greatly, and a considerable number (the majority, in our opinion) are very poor. Many provide very few links. Several merely present an odd mix of sites that seem to have struck the site-editors' fancy and often have nothing to do with books or literature. Other lists are more useful, even if they only present relatively few links -- especially those links-lists where the links are annotated, rather than merely listed.
Comprehensive links pages, such as at the Complete Review, remain the exception.
iv. Links to Booksellers
The most popular offsite links were to booksellers -- generally Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Exactly half the surveyed sites (24) provided such links.
In a way it is refreshing to see that half the sites have chosen not to try to connect their reviews with commercial interests. They may not be taking advantage of one of the Internet's features, but it seems to be for quite admirable reasons.
Most of those that do link to a bookseller link to Amazon.com. One site (Huntress' Book Reviews) links to both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com -- making for consumer choice (but also, as far as we are aware, violating Barnes & Noble's operating agreement). Almost none link to both an American and a British retailer, and the Complete Review is the only one that provides links to Amazon.de (Germany) and Amazon.fr (France) for relevant titles (generally: for books originally written in those languages). None link to other foreign booksellers, such as Bol.com. Given the international audience that is so easily reached via the Internet, it is surprising that more sites do not take advantage of the possibility of better serving that audience.
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IV. AccessibilityAn essential feature of a useful book review site is accessibility: making it as easy as possible for users to find the reviews they are looking for. Most of the book review sites surveyed archive their reviews, so that any review that has been posted will always be available. Some small sites even have all their reviews always available on one single page .....
The Internet makes it relatively easy to archive material cheaply and have it always accessible. There are also a number of ways of making it accessible. The most popular are the use of on-site search capability, and the use of indices (arranging books alphabetically by title or author, for example).
i. Search Capability
Of the surveyed sites a considerable number (20 of 48) had some sort of on-site search capability. Generally this involves a search-box into which users can type what they are looking for, which will then yield a results page of best matches.
Generally, it is the larger sites that have search capability. The technology (and usefulness) varies greatly. Advanced search capability such as at The New York Review of Books or Salon is certainly extremely useful. Elsewhere results are a decidedly mixed bag.
Nevertheless, this is generally a very useful feature for users, allowing them to quickly determine whether or not a site has the information they require.
Almost all the sites -- 45 of the 48 -- have accessible archives. Some of these are very oversized and cumbersome to navigate, but at least the material is accessible. Multiple reviews on single pages and similar clutter make some of these archives less than ideal, but overall most sites are at least adequately organized so that intrepid users can find the information they seek.
Indices are very helpful in making it easier for users to find specific reviews, and the Internet allows site-designers to easily and cheaply offer a variety of indices. These are not a substitute for search-capability, but they are a useful complement to it -- and can often be more helpful, if a user is not entirely certain about spelling, a title, or an author's name, or if a user is not seeking a specific review but prefers to browse. Many of the sites surveyed provide a variety of indices, including (but not limited to) author, title, and subject matter.
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V. Privacy PoliciesPrivacy policies do little to shape the content of a site or make it easier or harder to use. Nevertheless, privacy should be a concern to all Internet users -- and all Internet sites, especially those that request any information from users, should have a page explaining their policy to users. (Whether or not they live up their policy -- and what recourse users have when they don't -- is another question .....) None of the sites surveyed require registration (i.e. the submission of personal information) in order for users to gain access to them, but many of them (most of the larger ones) do at least try to send "cookies" to users' computers when accessed. (Note that all these sites were accessible even when the cookies were not accepted -- and we again remind users that we strongly recommend users never to accept cookies -- and certainly not to do so from a site which does not explain why they use these obscene privacy-invading germs and what they do with the information they gather through them.)
While this has little to do with the quality of a site, it is something that users should bear in mind.
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VI. Other FeaturesA limited number of other features were also used by a number of sites. Among these were: interactive polls, the ability to "e-mail this review to a friend", and the ability to get a printer-friendly version of a page. Use of these features was very limited.
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