Google Tools for Better Searches

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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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