You have to love a company that can stand to be honest on its annual press day. If Sergy Brinâ€™s comment at Googleâ€™s Mountain View headquarters last week didnâ€™t generate knowing guffaws, it really should have. â€śWe probably abuse the word beta.â€ť Sadly, I wasnâ€™t there, so I canâ€™t tell you whether he said it with a straight face. But Iâ€™m pleased to report that the search engine giant released a number of new products and services that take it back to its core strength of search. And at least one of them even shows that Google is starting to â€śget itâ€ť when it comes to social search and the massive amounts of buzz surrounding Web 2.0.
Google representatives showed off four beta products to an eager press corps: Google Co-op, Google Desktop 4, Google Trends, and Google Notebook. The last of the four was so new that a working version was not available on the companyâ€™s website at the time of the conference. At the time of this writing, the link to Google Notebook (http://www.google.com/notebook) delivered a generic 404 Not Found page, but it might be live by the time this article is published.
If youâ€™re the kind of person who likes to take running notes while youâ€™re surfing the web or involved with a number of different tasks, Google Notebook might have what it takes to make your life easier. This is especially true if you see something and think â€śOh Aunt Marge would love to know about thisâ€ť or â€śJim was looking for something just like thatâ€ť or â€śThatâ€™s just what I need for that project I was going to work on next weekâ€ť orâ€¦you get the picture.
Google Notebook is a tool you use with your browser. It lets you clip text, images, and links from pages youâ€™re browsing, then save them to an online â€śnotebookâ€ť that you can access from any computer. You can also share the notebook with others. Matt Cutts reported on the demo in his blog, and noted that the public vs. private sections of the notebook were different colors, which should make it easy for users to tell them apart.
One nice part about Google Notebook is that you donâ€™t have to leave your browser to use it. Another nice part is that it can save images and similar information. Iâ€™ve used Notepad as a scratchpad for stuff Iâ€™ve found online, but of course Notepad wonâ€™t save images. And you canâ€™t just make Notepad public; youâ€™d have to email it to whoever you wanted to share it with. Googleâ€™s demonstration of Google Notebook showed how someone might shop for shoes online, save an image and information about a particular pair, write a note about the shoes, and send it to their friends. Thatâ€™s utterly cool; I can imagine an engaged couple setting up their own private â€śbridal registryâ€ť that way, for example.
Matt Cutts has been a hardcore hold out as far as sticking with the original version of Google Desktop, and even he admitted that the latest version of the software might be enough to push him into upgrading. The beta is available in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Brazilian Portuguese. But never mind the nice range of languages; Google Desktop 4 (http://desktop.google.com/) introduces something that some Yahoo users might find eerily familiar.
Theyâ€™re called gadgets. What they are is little applications that you can use to customize your desktop. One shows the weather; another one looks like a drop-down menu with news headlines; a third shows videos; another one delivers games. There are more than a hundred of these gadgets currently available, and with the Google Desktop Gadgets API, developers can make many more and share them with other users. To me this sounds an awful lot like the widgets that Yahoo made available after it bought Konfabulator. You can read my colleague Mike McEwanâ€™s article about the purchase here (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/Search-Engine-News/Yahoo-Assimilates-
Thatâ€™s not the only thing new with Google Desktop 4 of course. If you really like the gadgets and donâ€™t want to miss out on any chance to use them, well, Google Desktop can recommend new ones for you to use. It can also create a home page for you based on the topics you enjoy searching for regularly. Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, noted while showing off the product that â€śIt has figured out that Iâ€™m a movie buff and that I use eBay and that I travel a lot.â€ť It would be nice if the product lets you save more than one personalized home page, so that you can, for instance, call up one that organizes information you need for work and another one for home.
There are a lot of other new Google Desktop features, many of them tied to gadgets. The new features allow users to:
- Access their Google Gadget content and settings from other computers and protect it from computer crashes by saving it online.
- Add favorite gadgets from their personalized Google homepage right onto their desktops.
- Access other Google services from their desktop. For example, users can view upcoming birthdays with the orkut.com gadget, see what’s popular on Google Video, or access their Google Calendar directly on the desktop.
- Manually re-index their computers or remove deleted files from search results.
Network administrators that are particularly concerned about security will be glad to hear that Google Desktop 4 now offers an option for them to disable Search Across Computers on both the consumer and enterprise versions of the product at the network level. This is accomplished simply by blocking access to a specific URL.
The new product thatâ€™s most likely to cause a major stir among SEOs and advertisers, though, is Google Trends (http://www.google.com/trends). One observer described it as rather like being given the keys to Google Zeitgeist. Mayer explained that â€śFor the first time ever, Google is making it possible to sift through billions of search queries from around the world to see what people are thinking about.â€ť
So what exactly does it do? A user can type in a search term, or several search terms separated by commas. Hit â€śenter,â€ť and you get a page with several charts. The top chart shows how many searches were conducted for that particular term, and how frequently it was mentioned in the news, over a period of time. Drop-down menus let you adjust both the time period and the region of the world focused on, while if you use multiple terms they show up in different colors. Several clickable news items are highlighted to the right; letter-coded flags on the chart indicate when they were published, so you can match up certain spikes.
Thatâ€™s not all. Below the chart I just described is another one, with tabs for cities, regions, and languages. This is a bar graph that allows you to compare how frequently terms are searched for. So if youâ€™re comparing â€śboxersâ€ť vs. â€śbriefsâ€ť for example, and youâ€™re looking at cities, you can see that boxers are a lot more popular in Tampa, but not nearly so much more popular in Austin. Clicking on the â€śRegionsâ€ť tab compares the searches in various countries. The languages tab took a good bit longer to load, sad to say.
And one â€śbugâ€ť turned up â€“ well, I guess thatâ€™s why itâ€™s a beta. A search on boxers vs. briefs, one would think, would be focused on underwear. But, judging from the news stories turned up during this search, legal briefs were also drawn into the mix, as well as other kinds of briefs (news briefs, sports briefs, and so on). Even with that limitation, it should be very easy to see how any SEO or advertiser could make excellent use of this information. In particular, if you want to shift your advertising campaign to an area of the world where you have little knowledge or presence, this can give you some clues as to what kind of reception you will receive â€“ and where you need to apply your efforts.
But itâ€™s Google Co-op beta (http://www.google.com/coop) that should help convince the skeptics that Google really gets Web 2.0. â€śWeâ€™re going to take the Tom Sawyer view and see how our users paint the fence,â€ť commented Mayer. The new service is designed to let businesses, organizations, and individuals share their knowledge by labeling web pages that relate to their areas of expertise. Users can subscribe to another userâ€™s content, labels, and links; these then get added to the subscribing userâ€™s search results when they put in relevant queries. So a subscriber to labels and links from the Centers for Disease Control, for example, could expect to get some really in-depth content when he or she searched on, say, â€śrecent epidemics.â€ť
Or to take an example similar to one that Google itself used, a doctor could tag particular pages relating to his area of expertise. A patient could then subscribe to the doctorâ€™s information, allowing the two to become even closer collaborators in keeping the patient healthy. Reaching beyond this, if a doctor is too busy to take on more patients, or has a widespread reputation for being the best in his particular specialty, someone who is not a patient of his but suffering from an illness he is known to treat can subscribe to his links and still benefit from his expertise.
Google has already started working with partners to annotate web pages related to health and city guides. The search engine hopes that the broader online community will help build out new topic areas. Users that want to subscribe to content can do so by visiting http://www.google.com/directory. The new service is available on all English language Google domains including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The service sounds reminiscent of most of the other tagged search engines Iâ€™ve heard of and tried before. Iâ€™m particularly concerned with how Google plans to make sure that anyone who claims to be an expert in a particular area really is an expert in that area. But it will certainly be interesting to see what is built up from this beginning; Google has already signed on the Centers for Disease Control, the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente to provide health data. That sounds like a good start.