Ultimate Google toolbox: 20 tips, tricks, and hacks

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Google's search, mail, maps, and cloud services are practically de facto public utilities. Fire up your browser, and there Google is. But don't take Google for granted—there's much more to its core services than meets the eye.

With this toolbox of tips, usability tricks, and third-party services, you can rule the Google universe and bend it to your will. The following will help you keep your privacy, fix Google annoyances, and get the most out of automation (so you can waste your time doing other things online).

Search privately: Startpage (also known as Ixquick) is an alternative to Google's search page that lets you use Google's search engine but doesn't send Google your IP address or allow cookies to be placed on your computer. Startpage can also stop embarrassing ads based on previous searches from haunting you across the Web. If you want private results from multiple search engines, also try DuckDuckGo, which excludes Google results but has similar privacy-oriented features.

Block Google tracking beyond just search: The handy service Disconnect works across all websites you visit. Available as a browser extension, it disables tracking by parties such as Google, Facebook, and Digg.

Compared with the Do Not Track features currently built into browsers, Disconnect gives you more protection. Although Firefox, Internet Explorer (9 and 10), and Safari have Do Not Track privacy options that you can enable, website implementation of the feature is voluntary—which means there's no guarantee it will work for many sites. Disconnect, on the other hand, works on all sites no matter what.

Answer questions for lazy friends: The next time a relative or buddy emails a question that he or she could easily answer with a simple Google search, whip out Let Me Google That for You. Simply type the query in the box, and share the link from the text field underneath. Your friend will see how typing the query in Google can yield results without bothering you. It's a learning experience for the disconnected.

Start Chrome in Incognito mode every time you launch the browser: To start Chrome in its private-browsing Incognito mode, right-click the Chrome shortcut icon on your desktop, select Properties, and in the Target field add –incognito to the end of the program path. Make sure to put a space between the final quotation mark in the existing text string and the hyphen you insert, and you’re good to go. (See the screenshot for an example.)

Check multiple Google Mail accounts at once: Checker Plus for Gmail lets you monitor your inboxes from a single place, without even having a tab open. Once you install this Chrome extension, it automatically detects Google accounts to which you are signed in. From an icon next to the omnibar, you can then see new email messages at a glance across your accounts. Checker Plus includes sound notifications, and it can even run in the background when Chrome is closed, so you never miss incoming mail. You can read, delete, archive, or mark email as read; when you need to reply or to compose new messages, however, Checker Plus will open a new Gmail window.

Automatically save Gmail attachments to Google Drive: Thanks to the Mail to Drive service, which automatically copies attachments from your Gmail messages to Google Drive, you don’t have to store files locally and then upload them to your drive. Once you've installed it, you set up a special label that you assign to messages with attachments you want to copy to Google Drive. The app runs in the Google Apps Cloud automatically every 5 minutes (so you don’t need to have your browser open to Gmail) and copies the attachments to a designated folder. You also receive an email message when the transfer is done.

Tame inbox overload: Ever feel like you're drowning in an endless ocean of email messages? Email Game attempts to rescue you. It's basically an alternative interface for Gmail that shows you only one message at a time and challenges you to reply in a timely fashion. You get 5 seconds to decide what to do with each message, earning points for performing each task promptly. For example, if you choose to reply to a message, the interface gives you 3 minutes to do so, though you can add more time if necessary. At the end of the session, you get a tally of how many points you racked up while plowing through your inbox.

Get a bird’s-eye view of your inbox: Sign up with your Gmail credentials, and Gmail Meter sends you a report at the beginning of each month with your top senders and recipients, plus charts for the time of the day and week when you receive and send the most email.

Eliminate YouTube annoyances: Watching a YouTube video is getting harder by the day with all the commercial distractions surrounding each video. You can make YouTube less annoying, however, with the YouTube Options for Google Chrome browser extension, which allows you to tweak every aspect of YouTube. Through this extension you can hide ads and annotations, disable autoplay, and hide comments.

Make YouTube videos easier on the eye: Compatible with most browsers, the simple extension Turn Off the Lights dims everything on the webpage around the video. Whenever you see a little lamp icon on your toolbar, you can click it to make the surroundings go dark, turning YouTube into more of a lean-back-and-enjoy experience.

Move quickly through YouTube videos: Keyboard shortcuts can save you a number of mouse clicks. Press the J key to rewind the video a few seconds, or press L to fast-forward a few seconds into the video. You can also use the K key, as well as the spacebar, to pause and resume videos.

Next up: Download YouTube videos

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