Productivity software

Google Tools for Better Searches

Google is so well known for Web search that its name is now a verb, but the company does not limit itself to that one role. From robust and well-established applications such as Picasa to cutting-edge "Google Labs" products that may become next year's game changers (or next year's punchline), Google offers far more than just a search engine.

Some of the many tools and services that Google provides include different ways to search the Web, graphics tools (such as SketchUp), and experimental concepts (such as Image Swirl). All of these products draw on Google's extensive experience in sorting, searching, and cataloging information.

Search a Different Way

The standard Google interface is legendary for its spartan power, but that isn't the only way Google lets you find things. Older netizens (such as people who remember when we used the word netizen) recall hierarchical, category-based indexes of the Web, and Google provides such an index in the form of Google Directory. Like many such directories, it suffers from being slow to update and woefully incomplete, but I've found it useful for discovering things I might not have thought to search for directly.

Follow the Trends

Speaking of discovery, Google Trends not only shows you the top current searches but also allows you to see how popular a search term is over time, and where search requests are coming from. You can type in multiple search terms and compare them, too, so you can see when searches for "Lady Gaga" surged ahead of searches for "Madonna," for instance.

In the category of "great idea, not there yet," there's the still-in-beta Google News Timeline. The idea is to show news and blog articles related to a search in chronological order, so you can follow a news story or topic as it appeared and developed. Although it's a great concept, at the moment it includes only a small number of sources, and it treats dates mentioned in articles as the date of publication (so many articles written about the 9/11 attacks, for example, appear as if they were published on September 11, 2001). Those problems greatly undermine the idea of being able to see the development of a news story in context. But, hey, that's why News Timeline is in the lab, not in the wild.

Processing in the Cloud

Moving from the search engine to the cloud, we enter an interesting realm in which the lines between applications, messaging, and search start to blur. Google produces a variety of online applications that tap into its strengths in tying together people and data. One of its best-known projects is Google Docs, a direct stab at the heart of Microsoft. Google Docs includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, a form builder, and a presentation creator. Features-wise, all are very "lite" compared with Microsoft Office (or its open-source clones), and they have limited font choices and formatting options. However, you can access the documents anywhere you have Net access, and the apps offer an easy way to share data with friends, coworkers, or the world. You can also open documents to mass editing, and you'll find some interesting leveraging of Google's data--for example, the spreadsheet application allows you to enter formulas that will pull financial data for a given company directly into the sheet.

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