There are plenty of web search engines, but to most of us Google is web search. The company has so successfully redefined the search market that its name has become synonymous with searching.
Although most people use Google, few use it really effectively. Here’s a guide to making the most of Google.
Basic Google searches are about as simple as can be: Type in a series of keywords separated by spaces, and press Enter. Google automatically performs an AND query; that is, one that includes all your search terms. To include a specific phrase in a query, such as “antique roses”, use quotation marks.
Around this simple core, Google tucks a surprising number of special features into its standard search page. A click of the I’m Feeling Lucky button will take you to the single site Google feels best matches your search query. The Similar link following each result in the search list activates GoogleScout, which seeks out sites with comparable content.
As Google indexes each page it saves a snapshot of that page into its cache. If you try to access a site in Google’s results list and find it temporarily unavailable or if the page no longer exists on the web, click the Cache link. It’ll take you to the page snapshot and probably give you just what you need. Remember, though, that the cached page is not necessarily the latest version.
If you find your search turns up too many results and you can’t unearth exactly what you want in the first page or so, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the Search Within Results link. This produces a blank search page and search box. Anything you type in the search box will qualify your previous search. Say, for example, you search for “judi dench” and find the 570-odd thousand results a little overwhelming, especially as all you really want to know is the name of the movie she appeared in with Cleo Laine. Click the Search Within Results link, type “cleo laine” and hit Enter. You’ll find a much more manageable list. (Note, too, that Google ignores case in all searches.)
Google will also check your spelling and, if it thinks you got it wrong, offer an alternative spelling. Click the alternative spelling to perform a search based on it.
Google your way
You’ll often find what you’re after using Google’s basic searches and thus you may not feel the urge to go much further. Even so, at a minimum it’s worth setting up Google so it suits your needs. Click the Preferences link on Google’s main page to personalise Google.
Probably the most important setting is the Number of Results Google displays. This defaults to 10, which is fine if you have a slow Internet connection. If you have a high-speed link, though, it’s worth increasing this number to 30, 50 or 100 so you can quickly peruse as many results as possible.
If you want to filter out porn sites, adjust the Safe Search setting. Google normally filters out sexually explicit images. You can eliminate sexually explicit text as well by using strict filtering, or turn the filter off altogether.
You can also choose both the language used in Google’s interface and the language of pages you wish to search.
Finally, you can tell Google to open search results in a new window. This is particularly handy, as it eliminates having to navigate back and forth between the full results list and individual sites on that list.
Once you’ve adjusted the settings, click the Save Preferences button and Google will remember your settings for future sessions, provided you have cookies enabled in your browser.
A click of the Advanced Search link takes you to Google’s Advanced Search page. Here you can use fill-in boxes and a series of drop-down options to expand or limit your searches. For example, you can use the Domain box to restrict your search to a specific site or to exclude a site from the search results. Using the Page Specific search you can find all pages which link to a particular page.
You don’t need to visit the Advanced Search page to use these features. Most of them are accessible by using keywords in the main Google search box coupled with your search terms:
site: Restricts searches to the specified domain. For example:
“windows xp” site:microsoft.com
looks for items about Windows XP on Microsoft’s site.
link: Finds sites which link to the specified page. For example:
uncovers all pages which link to myhomepage.com.
filetype: Restricts searches to files of a specific type. As well as web pages, Google lets you search documents in over a dozen different formats including: Adobe Acrobat (PDF), Excel (xls), PowerPoint (ppt), Word (doc), Works (wks, wps, wdb), Lotus 1-2-3 (wk1, wk2, wk3, wk4, wk5, wki, wks, wku), MacWrite (mw), Microsoft Write (wri), Rich Text Format (rtf) and Text (ans, txt). So, to search for PowerPoint presentations on chemical hazards use:
“chemical hazards” filetype:ppt
You can also use + (plus) to ensure a term is included in the search (useful when small, common words—usually omitted by Google—are essential to the search). Similarly, using – (minus) will tell Google to exclude any results which contain a particular term. For example, if you’ve ever tried searching for an everyday term on the web which also happens to be a computing term, you’ll know how hard it is to turn up relevant results. Say, for example, you want to know how to fix a window in your house. A search for repairing windows will turn up thousands of computing sites offering to help you fix your Microsoft Windows installation. Try the following search instead:
-microsoft -computer –xp “repairing windows”
and you’ll get a much more useful set of results.
The Google search box is much more than a place to type keywords and phrases. Give this ‘search’ a try:
us dollars in australian dollars
Up pops the USD/AUD conversion rate. If you like, you can be far more specific:
7 pounds sterling in danish krone
Or how about this:
2.9 usd per gallon in aud per litre
The Currency Converter handles both international currency abbreviations (AUD, GBP, JPY) and common names for currencies (Australian dollar, pound sterling, British pound, Indian rupee). When only one country uses a particular name for a currency, such as Japanese yen or Thai baht, you can omit the country name and use the currency term by itself, although some smaller countries’ currencies are not recognized. You can also use “dollars” to indicate US dollars. The important thing when doing currency conversions is to use the “in” keyword between the terms in your expression.
Google’s search box is a calculator, too.Google calculator
Google is just as adept at handling other conversions. In fact, it has a surprisingly powerful calculator built right in. You can toss it equations with basic operators such as +, -, * and /. Or go a little fancier and find the remainder of a division using modulo (%):
- 99 modulo 4
9th root of 40353607
You can even use trig and log functions or work in octal, hex or binary by using the prefixes 0o, 0x and 0b respectively.
As with currency conversions, the calculator uses the “in” operator. All the following will work:
- 7901 yards in kilometres
- 2010 in roman numerals
- 44 kph in knots
- 5 troy ounces in lbs
- 0.0000002 speed of light in miles per century
Experiment with the calculator to explore its capabilities and check out Google’s Calculator help for more.
The Google search box has other tricks up its sleeve, including street maps, movie show times, local weather and Google Definitions:
define: back of bourke
Beyond the box
There’s a plethora of other search features to discover if you move beyond the initial Google search box. Searches for images and photos, news items and newsgroups are a click of a tab away from the Google home page. You can also search within the pages of books with Google Book Search. And using Google maps, you can track down local information such as store hours, movie show times and the weather.
More than search
Google’s not all search, too. The Google empire encompasses web-based email, photo management software, video (YouTube is owned by Google) and more. What all of these services and products have in common is strong search capabilities threaded throughout.
To use many of Google’s services, you’ll need a free Google account. If you already have a Gmail account, you have all that’s required; you can use your Gmail user ID and password to access other Google services. If you don’t yet have an account, sign up for one. You’ll need to provide a valid email address and select a password.
Once you have an account, sign in to gain access to all your Google services. While you’re signed in, you’ll see your user ID displayed in the top right of the Google home page, together with links to iGoogle and your account settings.
Photo management software might seem a strange product for Google to offer. At least, it might appear so if you haven’t had the experience of wading through thousands of digital snaps, all cryptically named and dumped willy nilly into your My Pictures folder. If you have had such an experience, then a tool for managing, sorting and tracking down photos seems a natural fit for a search company.
Picasa is one of Google’s real gems. Once installed, Picasa sits in the background keeping tabs on your My Pictures folder and any other folders you nominate. It adds images within those folders to the Picasa Library.
The Library provides two views of your photos: the Folders view displays folders on your computer that contain images or movies, sorted by date. If you delete, rename or change images in this view, the files and folders on your computer will be changed. Picasa also lets you create Albums, collections of photos which exist only within Picasa, and have no physical existence on your computer. You can assign the same photo to multiple albums; for example, you might place a photo of Uluru in an album called Landscapes and also in another album called Outback Trip 2010. Adding an image to an album merely creates a pointer to the original, so you won’t chew up disk space by creating albums. If you edit a photo in one album, changes will be saved to the original, physical photo file and will be reflected in every instance of the photo in your Picasa albums.
Picasa includes a useful array of simple editing tools. To use them, double-click any of the image thumbnails to zoom in on the selected image. The editing tools are arranged in three tabs on the left, labeled Basic Fixes, Tuning and Effects. You can safely experiment with all these tools, as an Undo option lets you reverse your changes and changes will not be saved to the original photo on disk until you return to the Library view and click the Save Changes button at the top of the album thumbnails.
Picasa is packed with features. Click the Timeline button to view your photos in a dynamic chronological sweep; click Slideshow to display a slideshow; open the Create menu to discover half a dozen ways of using your photos; and use the Web Album button at the bottom of the window to publish a selection of photos to the Web using Picasa Web Albums, another free Google offering. Google has also added face recognition to Picasa. The software recognises photos which contain faces and lets you identify the people in the photos. Once you’ve identified someone several times, Picasa starts identifying them automatically, giving you the option to confirm or reject the identification it makes.
Tip: Quick access
Looking for quick access to all of the Google services you use? Access them all through your account page.
While many of Google’s acquisitions extend the range of Google’s business, its in-house development has largely focused on fine-tuning its core search services. iGoogle is an example of this.
One of Google’s strengths has been the uncluttered design of its Internet search engine. While other companies have littered their search engines with all sorts of “features”, www.google.com has avoided such clutter, making it easy for users to focus on the search results. Still, Google wants to keep you on its sites, not wandering off to amuse or inform yourself at rival sites such as Yahoo! or Microsoft Live. So you can now opt in, as it were, to a more cluttered—or feature-oriented—Google experience, called iGoogle.
Tip: Maintain iGoogle performance
If you cram iGoogle with gadgets, it will load more slowly than plain, vanilla Google. To avoid this, create an iGoogle Home tab with no gadgets, then load your favorite gadgets into the other tabs.
iGoogle lets you tailor your Google search experience: add content, change the look, set up themed search environments, have a little fun. The attractive thing about iGoogle is that everything is optional: you can load your iGoogle to the gills, or keep things ultra minimalist.
You can switch between classic Google and iGoogle at any time by clicking the link in the top right of the Google page; Google will remember your current setting and stick to your chosen look.
The default iGoogle home page includes several “gadgets”, including news headlines, date and time, weather and some odds and ends. Each gadget sports three icons at the top right of its box: a settings icon, a minimize icon and a close icon. You can move a gadget by dragging it by its title bar.
The real fun starts when you sign in to your Google account and begin customising iGoogle. Use the close box to dump any content you don’t want, then use the Select Theme and Add Stuff links on the right of the page to create your very own iGoogle. If you like Google’s traditional minimalist look, you can maintain that look on the Home tab while adding all sorts of gadgets to other tabs. The Add A Tab link lets you do that; when you use it, keep the Automatically Add Stuff Based On The Tab Name option checked to populate your new tabs with relevant gadgets.
Tip: Drag between tabs
You can not only drag gadgets around the page in iGoogle, you can also move them from one tab to another by dragging the gadget onto the destination tab’s label.
While Picasa is a thing of beauty, Gmail is not. Google’s webmail offering has a very pedestrian interface and many people are put off by its lack of style and somewhat confusing design.
Despite being fashion challenged, Gmail’s worth persisting with for a number of reasons:
- It offers a huge amount of email storage (well over 6 gigabytes and growing each day) at no cost.
- It integrates neatly with other Google apps, including iGoogle.
- It works well with desktop email clients such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and Eudora, so you can pick up your mail either online or download it locally.
- And—no surprise—it has advanced search built right into it, so you’ll be able to dig out that old letter containing your grandmother’s recipe for lemon icebox pie, or unearth an entire train of emails discussing your upcoming trip to Europe.
Gmail automatically ‘threads’ your mail, so if you do a search for mail referring to “Fiji reservations”, you’ll find all relevant email, neatly divided into message-and-reply conversations.
To make managing your Gmail easier, take advantage of Labels. By labelling each email you receive, you create a virtual equivalent of Outlook’s folders. But unlike folders, you can tag messages with multiple labels, so they are instantly accessible from a variety of views. For instance, if you have the labels Family and Travel, you can see all messages tagged with both these labels using the search:
or you can find messages tagged with either Family or Travel with:
label:family OR label:travel
Tip: Viewing unlabelled email
The only way to view unlabeled email that you’ve archived is via the All Messages view, which can be overwhelming. A neat trick is to use a label search to display only unlabelled email. To do so, construct a search string consisting of all the labels you’ve defined, and precede each with a minus sign, to indicate you wish to exclude mail with that label. Here’s an example:
-label:family -label:travel –label:business
You can then use Select: All, More Actions: Apply Label -> New to categorize all your unlabeled email (use a catchall such as ‘Misc’).
Earth, like Picasa, is another of Google’s showstopper applications. Google Earth lets you view our globe from miles above its surface or zoom into scrutinize details at a couple of yards. It uses the same satellite imagery as Google Maps (http://maps.google.com), providing your choice of road map or terrain view.
The simplest way to use Google Earth is to type a destination into the Fly To box and press Enter. Zip from Narrandera in New South Wales to take a quick skim over the ruins in Pompeii to Beaufort Island in Antarctica. Not all locations feature high-resolution imagery, but Australia’s capital cities do and you can get a pretty good view of the rest of the country, too. You can use specific addresses for navigation or landmark names (Westminster Cathedral or Uluru, for example), and use the directions tab to find your way from one place to another.
The satellite imagery is just the start with Google Earth. The maps can be overlayed with all kinds of information, from “pushpins” you stick in the map yourself to 3D buildings created by fellow Google Earth users. You can download buildings, overlays and other enhancements in KML format from the Google Earth Community and the Google Earth Gallery.
Tip: Draw your own
If you have a yen to create your own 3D models to add to Google Earth, grab a copy of yet another Google freebie, SketchUp and start building.
Google Docs combines an online word processor, spreadsheet and presentations program. You can create, edit, share and publish your documents and access them from any computer with an Internet connection. You can also invite others to collaborate on your documents and view your presentations.The applications handle simultaneous editing by displaying a Discuss tab whenever more than one person is working on a document. They also save previous versions of a document, so you can roll back unwanted revisions.
Tip: Protect your privacy
If you value your privacy, don’t link to any of your documents from outside Google Docs. Doing so makes those documents public and visible in any search engine.
Although these online tools are compatible with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, they don’t support some advanced features such as macros. They do work with text, HTML, RTF, OpenOffice and CSV formats, and you can export documents to Adobe Reader (PDF).
Your Docs home page displays a list of folders on the left with documents listed on the right. You can easily apply filters to display subsets of your documents and, of course, there’s an integrated search box for digging out information. You can improve organisation by adding tags to your documents. You can then filter the document index by any of your tags. You can also star any document needing attention and view all starred documents.
Tip: Integrate your Google services
If you use multiple Google services, explore the integration features. For example, you can add a list of your most recently used Google Docs to iGoogle. Just click Add Stuff in iGoogle and search for the Google Docs gadget.