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Google's Gaggle of New Goodies

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Google has enhanced its already indispensable toolbar, and is offering an intriguing peek inside the kimono through Google Labs, a "technology playground" for ideas that aren't quite ready for prime time.

The Google Toolbar is a simple add-on to Internet Explorer that was initially created to let you to search Google while viewing any web page. Over time, the Toolbar has gained additional features, allowing you to search Google's non-web page catalogs, searching the site you're currently viewing, providing useful information about the site and many others. If you're not already a Toolbar user, I highly recommend that you try it out.

The three additions to the toolbar are simple, but powerful. They include:

  • Combined Search Button. This lets you search all Google services simultaneously, rather than selecting specific catalogs such as web pages, images, groups, news, or the directory. It does not appear to search the beta version of Google Catalogs.

  • Browser Control. This euphemistically named feature is actually a pop-up window killer. It works by clearing the JavaScript "onUnload" event after loading each page in your browser. This won't kill the most pernicious pop-ups, but it's a welcome feature -- one that should, but likely never will be built directly into Internet Explorer.

  • Navigation Controls. These are designed to help you quickly navigate the Google search results page, using intuitive Next and Previous buttons. They're simplified versions of the keyboard shortcuts described in more detail below.

Google has added seven new Google Toolbar interface languages including traditional and simplified Chinese, Catalan, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Romanian. With the addition of these languages, the Google Toolbar is now available in 20 interface languages.

If you're already a Google Toolbar user, the program will automatically update itself with the new features sometime in the near future. If you can't wait, simply uninstall your current version and then reinstall the new version of the Toolbar.

To access the new features, select "toolbar options" from the Toolbar menu, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click the "experimental features" link. Be careful: Once you click the "OK" button to enable these features, you'll return to the Toolbar options page. Do NOT click the "reset layout with advanced features" button, as this undoes the experimental features selection. Click OK instead.

Google Labs is a new effort to "enable Google to test its latest search technologies while collaborating with its loyal user community in an effort to build search services that are better suited to their needs," according to Google spokesperson Nate Tyler.

Google has a long history of previewing technology to a small fraction of users before launching "official" beta versions available to everybody. With Google Labs, many of these new features will be made available to anyone who wants to try them out.

According to the FAQ, "Google staffers with wild and crazy ideas post their prototypes on Google Labs and solicit feedback on how the technology could be used or improved. Google users with a desire to jump over the cutting edge are invited to check out any or all of the posted prototypes and send their comments directly to the Googlers who developed them."

The initial lineup at Google Labs includes:

  • Google Glossary. Unlike most glossaries, Google doesn't offer its own dictionary-like definitions of words (though it does provide links to look up your word at Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster). Rather, the Google Glossary uses "knowledge" of the web to show "related phrases," definitions extracted from actual web pages, and synonyms for each word.

  • Google Sets. This feature offers an inside peek at how Google groups keywords by concept. Enter three or more words and your results will show words that are "predicted" to be closely related. Enter "square," "circle," and "triangle," for example, and the set returns "rectangle," "star," "oval," "diamond" and so forth.

Why is this useful? One use would be to expand your own set of query terms when you're searching an unfamiliar subject. Another is simply to observe how Google performs internal "query expansion," a technique that allows it to extract at least a partial contextual framework from just a few keywords in a query.

  • Voice Search. Call Google's automated voice response system (650.318.0165), and after being prompted to say your search keywords, speak your query in normal language. After a few seconds, you'll hear "your results are ready." Click the link and you'll see a normal result list, with how the system interpreted your query in boldface letters.

This may seem like a silly way to search Google, but it'll likely be very handy for users who have a WAP enabled cell phone or handheld computer with integrated phone. At one point, Google was working with BMW to include a variation on this system in future versions of their cars.

One quirk with this demo: There is only one result page for all queries. If other users are searching at the same time as you, and you don't click the result link in time, you may see completely different results than you anticipated. In fact, this link allows you to be a virtual "search voyeur," observing the results (though not the actual queries) of other Google users.

  • Keyboard Shortcuts. These nifty new controls allow you to navigate Google results using computer keys. You activate the function by pressing any key, which displays a small graphic of three colorful balls next to the first result. Move the balls around the page with the U (up), J (down), H (left) or K (right) keys and press enter to view the result.

There are several shortcuts, including C (view cached page), S (view similar page) and others. Very useful if you don't like using a mouse, or are working on a laptop.

Each of the Google Labs features offers links for email feedback and a Google Groups discussion page where you can share your comments directly with the Google engineering team.

Tyler notes that Google lab projects may suddenly disappear at any time. A project might be removed if no one was interested enough to use it, it wasn't stable enough for users to try it out, or it was so wildly successful that heavy usage brought the server to its knees.

On the other hand, projects that "graduate" from Google labs may eventually be incorporated into the main Google search service, or at the very least, serve as the foundation for later projects.

Although the tools available through Google Labs will often attack some serious search challenges, the spirit of fun at Google is still alive and well, as is evident from this admonition from the Google Labs FAQ: "Please, remember to wear your safety goggles while using this site."

Google Toolbar
http://toolbar.google.com/

The Google Toolbar lets you search Google while viewing any web page. Requires Windows 9X or higher, and Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher.

Google Labs
http://labs.google.com/

Google labs showcases a few of the company's favorite ideas that aren't quite ready for prime time.

Google Glossary
http://labs1.google.com/glossary
Find definitions for words, phrases and acronyms.

Google Sets
http://labs1.google.com/sets
Automatically create sets of items from a few examples.

Google Voice Search
http://labs1.google.com/gvs.html
Search on Google by voice with a simple telephone call.

Google Keyboard Shortcuts
http://labs1.google.com/keys/
Navigate search results without using your mouse.

Google Labs: Frequently Asked Questions
http://labs.google.com/faq.html

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