All posts by Karen Blakeman

I have worked in the information profession for over twenty years and have been a freelance consultant since 1989. My company (RBA Information Services) provides training and consultancy on the use of the Internet, and on accessing and managing information resources. Prior to setting up RBA I worked at the Colindale Central Public Health Laboratory, and then spent ten years in the Pharmaceutical and Health Care industry before moving to the International management consultancy group Strategic Planning Associates. I edit and publish an electronic newsletter called Tales from the Terminal Room. Other publications include Search Strategies for the Internet. I am a Fellow of CILIP: The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, an active member of the UK eInformation Group (UKeiG) and a member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP)

Bing – don’t bother! has launched and I just cannot believe that Microsoft have made so much fuss over something that is no better than the existing The UK version is labelled as beta and the US one as “Preview” so is there more coming soon as is suggested by Microsoft/Bing in their blogs? I sincerely hope so because so far this “decision engine” does not live up to the hype.

Phil Bradley has already reviewed Bing and I agree entirely with everything he has said.  The home page is reminiscent of the old Ask home page that allowed you to “skin” the page with an image. I like the snow leopard that is on the UK version but if I should get bored with it, I can’t change it.

My test web searches came up with results that were mostly identical with those from For some of them, for example my search on car ownership UK, Bing puts a fact or a statistic at the top of the page. In this case it came up with 510 cars per 1000 people, a statistic apparently from the International Road Federation but 2004 data! The Advanced Search is as pathetic as ever, but you can use search commands such as ‘filetype: ‘ and ‘site:’ in the standard search box.

The image search is virtually the same as Live’s with minor changes to the layout.  The Shopping option takes UK users to (very confusing), News is as useless as before, and Maps takes you to Multimap. Much more interesting is the Google-type maps option at or but you cannot find that by following the menu options. You have to know and enter the URL directly into your browser.

At present, all Microsoft seem to have done is put a slightly different interface on top of Live and given it a different domain name, an impression further reinforced by the help files still being on I will continue to use as one of my favourite alternative search engines: it does sometimes come up with unique content and I like the image search. Bing has nothing that is significantly new or innovative. As Phil Bradley says, what a wasted opportunity. Google can rest easy.

PATLIB 2009 presentations

The presentations that I gave at PATLIB 2009 in Sofia, Bulgaria lastweek are now available at There are two: a 25 minute  presentation that was given as part of the main conference and the longer half day pre-conference workshop. As usual, many of the slides will probably not make sense without my commentary but you are welcome to email or Twitter DM me if you want more information.

There is also a two page “Getting started with Twitter” document. Yes, I know that there is a plethora of  how-to-twitter pages on the web but almost none of them answer the questions that I am asked on my workshops. The best and most succinct that I have found so far is the two page

Reading Evening Meeting, 2nd June – Business Resources at Slough Library

Organised by CILIP in the Thames Valley (formerly BBOD).

Venue: Great Expectations, 33 London St, Reading

Date & Time: Tuesday 2nd June 2009. 1800 for 1830 hrs

Business Resources at Slough Library

Lisa Hodgkins will provide details of the information resources available for business at the Slough Library. Slough Libraries continue to provide a high level of service in this area.

Followed by free refreshments and networking opportunities with colleagues.

An invitation is extended to anyone with a professional interest in the topic

Contact: Please contact Norman Briggs if you wish to attend.

Wolfram Alpha is out – hmmm…

After months of pre-launch hype Wolfram Alpha is now up and running for us all to try out. It has been labelled by some as a  potential Google killer but it has always called itself a “computational knowledge engine” or fact search engine:

“Wolfram Alpha is backed by Stephen Wolfram, the noted scientist and author behind the Mathematica computational software and the book, A New Kind Of Science. The service bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” which is a mouthful. I’d call it a “fact search engine” or perhaps an “answer search engine,” a term that’s been used in the past for services designed to provide you with direct answers, rather than point you at pages that in turn may hold those answers.”

From Impressive: The Wolfram Alpha “Fact Engine”

If you are interested in the background and aims of WolframAlpha the article in goes into more detail.

I am not going to go into any more background here, enlightening and informative though it is, because the average punter will not bother and will simply type in a query. This is where the trouble starts. You have to understand that WolframAlpha deals with data and statistics, but only certain types of data. If you are looking for market share data, forget it. My test search on gin vodka sales UK came up with what was to be the all too common:

“Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.”

Half a dozen searches later it found an answer for one of my test queries – world oil production. The answer was correct but horrendously out of date: an estimate for 2004. The same search in Google came up with figures for 2008 and estimates for 2009.

It managed to the find the population of the UK but when I asked it for the population of Caversham it decided that I really meant Faversham. Google wins again on this one.

This morning’s tweets #wolframalpha suggested that it is very good at comparing country data. It provided some very basic data when I looked at UK and France but adding a third (Germany) caused it to totally lose the plot. Some data was labelled with the country but for the rest I was left guessing.

As WolframAlpha has a scientific bias I tried it on Planck’s constant, which it got right (but then so does Google in big bold letters at the top of the results list). Spinach vitamin C was another winner, but trying to compare it with mango and broccoli was more of a challenge. If you type in spinach mango broccoli Vitamin C, WolframAlpha only looks for vitamin C in broccoli. You have to type in ‘spinach and mango and broccoli vitamin C’. It came up with a table for vitamin C levels for all three but there is only one nutritional facts table and it is not labelled.

I then decided to see if could come up with information on the origin of petroleum. Another fail as it tried to look for the origin of  the word petroleum.


How about zeolites then? No it asked me if I meant websites.


Next stop companies, which WolframAlpha suggests it can handle. It provided limited share price data on Royal Dutch Shell and even managed to compare it with BP and Tullow Oil. The information is rather spartan and you would be far better off going to Yahoo Finance or Google Finance for information on listed companies. WolframAlpha failed totally when I added in Heritage Oil. Was a fourth company too much? I did a separate search on Heritage Oil and it simply did not recognise the company.


Now, come on – Heritage Oil is on the London Stock exchange, which is where I thought WoframAlpha was getting its data (or so the labelling implied) but that may not be the case. When you look at the Source Information it says

“This list is intended as a guide to sources of further information. The inclusion of an item on this list does not necessarily mean that its content was used as the basis for any specific WolframAlpha result.

For me, this is a major issue. I need to know where the information has come from and a list of  possible sources is not good enough.

It is still very early days for WolframAlpha, so it may eventually live up to expectations. It has long way to go and there are major problems to address:

1. The types of query that it can handle are limited and this needs to be made more obvious to the average searcher

2. The way you phrase your search is important. For some of my test searches I had to try four or five variations before it came up with any results. The average searcher will give up after the first attempt and go back to Google.

3. Some of the information is seriously out of date.

4. Sources are not directly linked to the data. It is essential that one knows where the information has come from.

I shall go back on a regular basis to see how it is progressing but for the present I am sticking with my existing favourite  sources for serious research.

BBOD mashups presentation

My presentation on mashups, which I am giving at the BBOD evening meeting today (5th May 2009), is now available on Slideshare, authorSTREAM and Slideboom. Choose your favourite presentation site and download.

It consists mostly of screen shots so it probably won’t make much sense on its own. You’ll have to come to the meeting!

Jeeves returns but Ask still doesn’t cut the mustard

After a three year absence Jeeves is back at Ask, or at least the UK version. Jeeves was retired in March 2006 and Ask started doing some really interesting work on the interface, content and presentation of results in both their UK and US version. See for my previous postings about Ask. Over the last year, though, they have ditched just about every useful and innovative  feature. I have stopped recommending it as a Google alternative in my Advanced Search workshops and don’t even bother with the their blog and feeds search, which is still quite good. To get to the blog search you now have to carry out a general web search on the homepage and then on the results screen click on More and select blogs. It is below TV Listings and Recipes!

They have reintroduced the Questions and Answers section but to be honest Google gives results for searches formatted as questions that are as good as, if not better, than Ask’s. And as for the Question of the Day on the home page… I really do not want to know which celebrities are pregnant.

Ask claims that Jeeves is back by popular demand but, like Phil Bradley, it looks to me like a pathetic attempt to win back users.  I fear that they are doomed to failure unless they radically improve their search results.

Mashups – a free evening seminar from CILIP BBOD

I am giving a presentation on mashups at next Tuesday’s CILIP BBOD evening meeting.

Date: Tuesday 5th May 18.00 for 18.30 (postponed from February)

Presenter: Karen Blakeman

Venue: Great Expectations, 33 London Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 4PS

Please advise Norman Briggs, BBOD Events Co-Ordinator Tel: 0118 987 1115 or
or Chrissy Allott, BBOD Chair if you plan to attend

Seminar details

Mashups – tasty recipes for 2009

Mashups are not just for the remnants of your Christmas or Sunday dinner! A mashup is also a web application that combines data from more than one source into a single integrated tool, and you may be surprised at how commonplace they have become. Blogs, Yahoo Finance, Facebook, Geograph, and the latest UK police forces’ crime statistics all use mashups.

Karen Blakeman will look at examples from a variety of sectors and subject areas and show how easy it is to create your own. The issues of quality and ownership of data will also be addressed.

BBOD meetings are free and open to all with a professional interest in the topic.

Refreshments provided afterwards.

Twitterplan – UK local government mashup for planning applications

I discovered Twitterplan via a posting on Liz Azyan’s excellent blog – Twitterplan: The Newest Mashup in UK Local Government via her Twitterstream @liz_azyan .

Twitterplan is a new service that has been set up by Lichfield District Council with help from the City of Lincoln Council and Planning Alerts. It sends a Twitter direct message to you whenever a planning application is submitted in your area. Go to and follow the instructions on screen.


The service covers 324 local authorities at present and there is a list of participants on the Twitterplan web site. My own council – Reading Borough Council – are included, which surprised me. Reading BC do not seem to be that keen to embrace Web 2.0 technologies and their web site can be a nightmare to navigate. They may be in the list, I thought, but will they actually deliver? A few hours after I had signed up my first two DMs arrived!


I am impressed: click on the link and you are taken direct to the details on the authority’s web site. It beats having to carry out an advanced Google site search on the Reading BC web site and trawling through the local newspaper planning applications.