Beyond search: Google specialty services

The undisputed king of search is about much more than just keywords, text ads, and ten-per-page results

Even people who have never opened a Web browser in their life know about Google -- but the undisputed king of search is about much more than just keywords, text ads, and ten-per-page results.

Here's a look at some of the company's other services for Web users.

Alerts: Simply enter any search term you want to monitor, choose one of five categories (News, Blogs, Groups, Web, or Comprehensive), and set your inbox to receive alerts once a day, once a week, or "as-it-happens". I chose the last option for two different terms and received my first alerts about an hour later. You can easily save or delete specific alerts, as well as change their frequency or turn them off altogether.

Catalogs: View images of catalog pages scanned as part of the Google Base service, which lets people add their own information to Google's databases. Most of the catalogs are years old, and few big-name directories are present (five-year-old Hickory Farms and Crate and Barrel catalogs are typical). Many are from small, regional companies, heavy on boating and fishing items, specialty foods, and other niches. You can't order products online, either; instead you call the toll-free number displayed prominently to the left of the catalog pages. If only the information on the grainy, scanned pages were as easy to read. Fans of catalog shopping will likely be disappointed with the service's offerings.

Custom Search Engine: Create your own search engine in your area of expertise, or use the creations of others. If you roll your own engine, you can place it on your own site (even customize its appearance to match that of your site), or add it to Google's list of custom sites and invite others to suggest sites to include in your engine. I created a search engine about Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in just about 15 minutes.

Directory: This service lists sites of interest in various categories, A  la mid-1990s Yahoo, Northern Light, and Magellan. Directories seem particularly anachronistic on Google, since keyword searching has replaced such hierarchical lists of topics. However, Internet directories help people unfamiliar with a subject learn more about it without having to know which specific words to search for. In other words, if you're not sure what you're looking for, Web directories such as this one may help you find it.

Pack: With a single download you get a collection of free software that includes the Google Earth 3D geo-browser, the Picasa photo organizer, a screen-saver maker, the Mozilla Firefox browser with Google Toolbar, a six-month subscription to Symantec Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition, Google Talk, the RealPlayer media player, the Skype VoIP client, the Google Desktop utility for searching files on your PC and/or the Web, the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Personal antispyware program, Adobe Reader 7, Google Video Player, and GalleryPlayer HD Images, which includes ten free high-definition images you can use as desktop backgrounds or screen savers. One problem for me is that I already have several of those programs installed on my PC, and the others I don't need or want. Even when I buy a new system, I prefer to install only the applications I know I'll use. Also, PC World always advises that you load new programs one at a time to make correcting installation problems easy. If you download and install all of these programs at once and something goes wrong, you won't know where to begin to troubleshoot.

Specialized Searches: My favorite is U.S. Government Search , which lets you find information on federal government Web sites. Also offered are searches limited to Microsoft, Apple Macintosh, Linux, and BSD (Unix) sites. University Search allows you to search the sites of hundreds of colleges and universities.

Web Accelerator: Designed specifically for broadband users, this service employs special Google servers and caches that it creates on your own PC (separate from your browser's cache) to speed page loads. It doesn't claim to work with all Web sites or pages; but as you browse, the program's icon in your browser toolbar shows the amount of time the tool has saved you in download waits. Though Web Accelerator doesn't work with secured Web pages (those whose URLs begin with https:), some personal information may be included in the nonencrypted pages that it caches, so using it entails some increased security risk. You can turn the accelerator off by clicking its icon in the system tray and choosing the 'Stop Google Web Accelerator' option, or you can manually enter the URLs of sites you wish not to accelerate. Likewise, you can empty the tool's cache by clicking the 'Clear history' button on the program's Preferences screen. I didn't try to verify the accelerator's claims of faster browsing, and after using it for a couple of hours in both Firefox and IE, the program indicated that I had gained only about 20 seconds in each browser. Still, just because I didn't perceive a marked increase in my browsing speed doesn't mean the program fails to work as advertised. I'll keep using it to speed up my 1MB DSL connection until I find a reason not to.

My favorite of these Google freebies is the Custom Search Engine (even though Windows Live Search lets you do something similar by creating a custom search button). In particular, if you run a Web site or blog, you could increase its value to visitors by adding a search engine customized for the site's subject matter. I have high hopes for the Google Web Accelerator, although I haven't yet browsed enough with the tool loaded to know whether it makes a noticeable difference in my page-load speeds. And I imagine I'll find a use for the U.S. Government Search right around next April 15, if not sooner.

This story, "Beyond search: Google specialty services" was originally published by PCWorld .

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