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.

See It on a Map

On the more experimental side is Google Fusion Tables. This application "fuses" databases with Google Earth, and provides powerful tools for displaying and understanding data--turning data into information, as folks used to say. For example, visualizing a database of the travel arrangements of Texas gubernatorial candidates lets you easily see which parts of the state were solidly "red," which were "blue," and which were in contention. This is another not-quite-ready product; the map rendering has many glitches, and it often loses navigational control. The potential is obvious, though, especially when you begin working with filtering and aggregation on a well-designed table.

Fun With Pictures

Another very early tool is Image Swirl, which attempts to group images by visual and categorical similarity, relying on a mix of textual metadata and image recognition. Beginning with a broad concept such as "apple," you can focus on fruits or computers, with each step bringing you images of greater similarity to one another. At the moment, the searchable database is (by Google standards) fairly small, and the algorithms that classify images sometimes give odd results. Then again, serendipitous discoveries are part of what makes the Web so much fun.

Like Photoshop but Less Confusing

The Picnik online photo editing tool hooks into many major sources of photos, such as Facebook and Flickr. It won't replace Photoshop anytime soon, but it isn't intended to--it's aimed at people who want to turn their family pictures into holiday cards by adding a snowflake border, for instance. Perhaps learning from the good folks at Zynga, Picnik reserves the most interesting or useful features for "Premium" account holders. Picnik also ties in to Picasa...and that brings us from the cloud to the desktop.

Who Needs Facebook Albums?

Picasa is Google's well-known photo and image management application. It scours your hard drive for pictures, including some you may have forgotten--or those you should have deleted--and helps you organize them, view them, and group them. It also tries to identify faces in the images and allows you to tag them, grouping together images it determines are of the same person. That feature can help you put together family albums, or find and delete every picture of a regrettable romantic entanglement. And Picasa can create Web albums that you can easily connect to Piknik.

Personal Google

What Picasa does for the pictures on your hard drive, Google Desktop does for everything. It's like having your own private Google. It integrates with Google proper when you search (though it claims Google won't see results from your local database), and you have the option to exclude certain folders or drives from indexing. Plug-ins are available to increase the types of files it can index and search.

The Future of Architecture?

Last on this list is Google SketchUp, an application for creating precise models of buildings, structures, and objects of all sorts. It's basically a CAD program, and what makes it "Googly" is that it allows you to share your preconstructed objects with the world, download other people's objects, and even include sections of Google Maps directly in your drawing. It's a useful way to show how a new office building will look in the city, for instance.

Go to the Labs

If you want more, Google Labs is constantly adding new apps and tools. Many of these projects will never make it out of the lab, but some will, and if you venture there you might get a chance to see what may be the killer app of tomorrow. It's a lot like a digital Willy Wonka factory, but with less of a chance that you'll be turned into a giant blueberry. If that happens, though, rest assured that you will most likely be able to google "cure for being a giant blueberry" and find a solution.


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