New version of Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online version 5.0 went live last week. The new version includes a design overhaul and is much more usable than previous versions, in my opinion. Not only do we now have Ajax-based paging (no more tedious page-refresh), we’ve also adjusted the amount of content shown in both preview and full access mode so that you aren’t having to page anywhere near as often. (The original, far-too-limited amount of content shown on each page was driven by concerns from authors and other publishers about possible piracy. The net result, as is often the case with excessive fear-based security, was to sacrifice usablility. We now have enough experience under our belt to persuade doubters that it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the site as usable as possible. I think we’ve taken huge steps forward with this release, and I’d love your feedback about whether you agree.) As part of this family of fixes, we’ve also made substantial improvements to the Safari search capabilities, including searching of books that aren’t on your bookshelf and more satisfying and useful search results for non-subscribers.

Also as part of the new revision, we’ve added “Graphically Rich Books” including the Head First series, Peachpit’s Visual Quickstarts, and various web and graphic design books. These books were previously not available in Safari as it was difficult to present their content in the old HTML-only version.

A few other things I especially like in the new version:

  • We’ve done a better job of instrumenting the service with feedback loops from user activity: things like “Other Readers Also Read” and “Top Sellers in This Category.” This is all old-hat on sites like Amazon, but we’d not managed to work those angles anywhere near as hard as we should. (We still have a ways to go.) Another neat feature that’s been around for a while is what Safari called “Self Organizing Maps,” lists of sections from other books related to the page you’re already on.
  • Safari Suggest. As you type your search terms Safari will suggest, in real time, expressions from the most popular searches our users have entered. Again, we’re starting to eat our own dogfood regarding Web 2.0 and software that gets smarter the more people use it.
  • A new slider bar allows you to weight your search results towards popularity or our normal text-relevancy algorithm. To determine popularity, we use industry book sales and Safari usage data. This is definitely a labs kind of thing, but we wanted to test out two ideas: (1) Rael’s contention that sliders are the new dropdowns :-); and (2) whether our book trends data mart could help inform search. I’d be really interested in feedback about whether this slider proves at all useful or interesting. (I’m going to be doing a lot of playing with it myself.)
  • This isn’t new with Safari 5.0, but folks might be interested to know that Safari search results now include not just books but also articles from The O’Reilly Network and IBM DeveloperWorks. We’re trying to make Safari into a one-stop shop for searching on technology topics.

Overall, I think the new version is a huge step forward, and hope you agree. If you haven’t used Safari in a while, you should definitely give it a fresh look.

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