RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Have you explored all the wonders of Google?

April 2, 2007

I'm memorizing the faces of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. I might have to call them both "Your Imperial Majesties" one day. They're the founders of the globe-rattling company Google, and it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that they may eventually become the lords of all information. But they're nice guys, so they let the rest of us have a look at that information, too. It's mighty handy for those of us lusting for profits.

Google started life as a search engine for Web site pages, and that's still the bulk of its operations. Search engines have been around since before the Web started, but Page and Brin had an insight while working on their Ph.D.s at Stanford University in the 1990s: It's not about the search, but about the results of the search. Do a Web search for "yoga" and you'll get millions of possible results. Page and Brin realized that if they could devise a way to sort out those results so the most helpful sites would float to the top, much time and trouble would be spared the information-hungry masses. Google's search system does just that, using a complicated method that includes how many other people have linked to those pages. That's why, more times than not, the top results are good enough.

The search engine alone can be staggeringly helpful. You can Google (it's OK to use as a verb, although Google's lawyers might have apoplexy) a new job applicant, a competitor, customers or prospective business partners. Or yourself. Never neglect your own place in cyberspace.

But Google has a lot more to offer businessfolk. Click on the "more" link on the main page, and you find yourself in a garden of techno-delights, starting with Google maps. Google maps was the first mapping site to offer satellite shots of the Earth, along with the street maps. They're in such detail that if you zoom in close you can find parking areas around buildings before you make the drive.

There's a finance reports section on the Google products page, but if you already have one elsewhere you like, this one won't offer a lot that others don't. More interesting are the Google Docs and Spreadsheets. They have fewer features than Microsoft Word or Excel, but they have the advantage of being entirely online, so you can share them with clients or colleagues. And they're free.

Google has several more free services to promote collaboration. Years ago, Google bought Usenet, a place where likeminded people created forums where they could talk about everything from guitars to natural disasters. Google has improved on it, so you can now make forums for even small temporary projects. It's known as "Google Groups" now. Like Yahoo and Microsoft, Google offers an instant messenger that ties together your friends and associates, so you can see when they're online and you can chat quickly about immediate concerns that don't warrant a phone call. I've found instant messaging to be handy for questions like, "Where's the Jones presentation?" which I can type much faster than I can dial and wait for somebody to pick up. Google also has online calendars you can share with others.

Google just keeps adding things, some of them helpful, but others marginal. You can search patents. You can browse the Web by topic. You can search the text of books, at least the ones in the public domain or that the publishers have given permission to reproduce online. You can start up a blog, shop online and get news.

Google doesn't stay hovering in cyberspace, either. It has something called "Google Desktop" that applies a shrunken version of Google search to the swamp of files many of us collect over time on our hard drives. Google is in your cell phone, too. Install Google Maps in your cell phone and you can find pizza, lodging and customers all from that one tiny screen. Even without Google Maps, you can text-message Google to get local weather, currency conversion rates, translations, stock quotes and, of course, directions.

Perhaps my favorite functionality beyond Web searches is Google Alerts. An alert watches for a specific word or phrase to pop up on the Web in a site or blog, then e-mails you when it happens. You can set up as many as you want. Establish an alert for your company name, your name, your product lines and even technical words or phrases that might give you clues as to where your industry is moving.

Last on the tour is Google Labs, where Google gives glimpses of new services. In the future, Google will let you create Web pages, read maps of Mars, find a cab and plan a trip, among other things. Stay tuned. I might need more space next time.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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