March 31, 2008

Google's April Fools' Day Hoaxes Go International

Google has a long history of April Fools' Day hoaxes, but this year there's something different: many Google offices from outside of US have created their own tricks.

1. Google Japan added a special Universal Search result for Dajare, "a kind of comic Japanese wordplay, similar in spirit to an English pun relying on similarities in the pronunciation of words to create a simple joke".


2. Google China's blog describes a social search engine that would replace Google's algorithms. "We sort of search results purely from a human decision, [without] machine's intervention."


3. Google Australia announces gDay, a new feature of Google that lets you search today the web pages published tomorrow. "Google spiders crawl publicly available web information and our index of historic, cached web content. Using a mashup of numerous factors such as recurrence plots, fuzzy measure analysis, online betting odds and the weather forecast from the iGoogle weather gadget, we can create a sophisticated model of what the internet will look like 24 hours from now. We can use this technique to predict almost anything on the web – tomorrow's share price movements, sports results or news events. Plus, using language regression analysis, Google can even predict the actual wording of blogs and newspaper columns, 24 hours before they're written!"


4. Google Korea found a new technology for translating dialects that was integrated in Gmail and Google Talk.

But Google's US teams didn't lose their humor.

5. Google's main blog announces Virgle. "Virgin founder Richard Branson and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin will be leading hundreds of users on one of the grandest adventures in human history: Project Virgle, the first permanent human colony on Mars."


6. Google Docs has a new option: create a new airplane. For now, the only model available is the one below:



7. If Google Australia lets you see the future, Gmail gives you the option to change the past with Gmail Custom Time. "Just click Set custom time from the Compose view. Any email you send to the past appears in the proper chronological order in your recipient's inbox."


8. YouTube tries to rickroll everyone by linking all the featured videos from the homepage to Rick Astley's (in)famous song "Never Gonna Give You Up".

9. Google Book Search has a new feature: capturing a book's smell. "I'm pleased to let you know that we've made some headway with one type of volume we've struggled with in the past: books employing scratch-and-sniff technology. Using special equipment and tricky JavaScript, we're now able to capture some of the smells during the scanning process and then embed them in your web browser when you preview these titles in Google Book Search."


10. Google Calendar launches a wake up kit. "The wake up notification uses several progressively more annoying alerts to wake you up. First it will send an SMS message to your phone. If that fails, more coercive means will be used. The kit includes an industrial-sized bucket and is designed to be connected to your water main for automatic filling. In addition, a bed-flipping device is included for forceful removal from your sleeping quarters."

11. There's also a new "I'm Feeling Lucky" button that lets you automatically add events like "Date with Eric Cartman".



13. Google Talk goes green by launching a bot that translates conversations into the IM lingo. "In honor of Earth Day (3 weeks from today: April 22, 2008), on that day our Google Talk servers will start automatically sending your conversations using IM-speak instead of normal words. We know you'll all want to practice your IM-speak, so we're helping by introducing a new translation bot, en2im@bot.talk.google.com, which will translate your conversations into IM-speak, to help you get used to the new lingo." LOL!



14. orkut makes fun of its strange name and replaces it with "yogurt". In 2006, Loren Baker posted 10 reasons why Brazilians love orkut. Among them, "Orkut sounds like Yakult or iogurte (yogurt). Yakult is the Brazilian version of the popular Japanese Yakult yogurt drink. Everyone drinks it in Brazil when they're kids."


15. Blogger announces Google Weblogs, a service that lets you post content directly in Google's results. "We'll automatically extract the most relevant sentence from your post for the index page, along with any necessary ellipsis. We'll also put some words in bold!"


16. AdSense launched contextual ads for conversations. "You can begin displaying ads that are relevant to the topics you're discussing -- in an unobtrusive screen above your head. Anyone taking part in the conversation can hit the ad with their hand to immediately take advantage of the product or service being offered. With our new Teleportation Technology(TM), you'll be transported directly to the site where the service is available, or have the product appear instantaneously in your hands."

17. AdWords introduced FrankRank, a new way to rank ads. "AdWords rankings are now based on how well a particular ad goes with mashed potatoes and gravy... and quite frankly, how much I like the ad. Some people thought this connection between mashed potatoes and bids was confusing, but since it's really all about what I like, I figured we'd just name it after me," explained Frank the turkey, the new official mascot of Google AdWords.

18. Hopefully, there's no #18.

If I were to choose the best April Fools' Day 2008 hoax from Google, I'd go with Google Australia's gDay. I had a similar idea for this year: monitoring how web pages evolve and predicting how they look in the future, but I decided not to use it.

{ Thanks to everyone who sent tips. }

Offline Google Docs

{ Screenshot licensed as Creative Commons by TJ Blog. More screenshots. }


Google Docs will slowly roll out an option to view and edit documents offline using Google Gears. Unlike the Google Reader implementation, Google Gears will automatically detect when you're offline and will take care of constantly downloading the changes so that your documents are available locally.

When you are offline, you can access your documents by simply going to docs.google.com or by clicking on a desktop shortcut. The documents can be edited offline and Google will try to solve the conflicts if your collaborators edited the documents while you were offline. "In the case where your edits conflict with another collaborator's, you will see [a message]. If you'd like to keep your changes, you have the option of copying them into the document. Also, you can click Show differences to compare different revisions and revert to the one you want," explains Google.

Google Docs blog lists some potential use cases. "It's all pretty seamless: I don't have to remember to save my documents locally before packing my laptop for a trip. I don't have to remember to save my changes as soon as I get back online. And I don't have to switch applications based on network connectivity. With the extra peace of mind, I can more fully rely on this tool for my important documents."

Hopefully you're luckier than me and you see an "Offline" like at the top of Google Docs' homepage. If you get access to the offline Google Docs, share screenshots and opinions in the comments. Don't forget that when you are offline, your documents are available by simply visiting docs.google.com and without entering your Google password. For now, spreadsheets and presentations aren't accessible offline.



Update: Google Docs offline guide.

OpenGoogle



After launching OpenSocial and creating the Open Handset Alliance, Google prepares to launch a platform that opens its most valuable service: the web search engine. The project, dubbed as OpenGoogle, will allow anyone to create a search engine that uses Google's index, but has a custom ranking algorithm and a personalized interface. You'll be able to select from a list of approximately 100 ranking signals like: the page's self-importance, the number of original ideas, the IQs of their authors, the number of links from Wikipedia, and decide their importance. The search engine can also learn from users' feedback and self-adjust the ranking weights.

Google wants to extend the existing Custom Search engines and let its users create some of the best vertical search engines. Obviously, this is also a great way to find new ideas, but, more importantly, Google hopes to accelerate the development of the next generation of its search engine, which will have a different interface and a different ranking algorithm, depending on the query.

"A fresh approach to fostering innovation in search will help shape a new computing environment that will change the way people access information in the future. Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different search engines," said Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO.

Even if Google's ranking algorithms will still remain a mystery, we'll have access to a powerful platform similar to the one used by Google to deliver search results in less than a quarter of a second.

For some countries, there's also AlmostOpenGoogle, which uses a slightly modified version of Google's index that doesn't include sites blacklisted by the government.

Along with Yahoo, Google will create the OpenAnything Foundation, a non-profit organization that intends to develop new initiatives for making the world more open and less interested in companies with an inappropriate and illegal influence over the world.

I didn't manage to find the link for the new service, but http://www.google.com/open doesn't seem to be about openness.

{ Logo by Ruth Kedar. }

Google Still Doesn't Know Where to Place Related Searches

Google tries to place the related searches in a more prominent position, but it hasn't figured out what's the right place. Related searches are currently displayed at the bottom of the search results pages and include queries that narrow or expand your search.

Last year, Google added two experimental views that placed the related searches at the left and at the right of the page.




The two experiments have been removed from Google Labs and now Google tests another location: below the search box.


Some people also noticed that Google Suggest is tested as a default feature. In many cases, there are overlaps between the related searches and the suggestions, but Google Suggests hopes to improve your query before you perform a search.

Last year, Yahoo added a search assistent that combines autocomplete with related searches and only appears if you type some letters from a word and then stop for a couple of seconds. Even before Yahoo introduced Search Assist, the innovative Ask.com implemented an entire sidebar that makes it easy to find related names, concepts and other suggestions.

Improving queries by making them more precise is a major challenge for search engines, who often have to find answers for queries like [Vista], [guitar] or [car].

March 30, 2008

Optimize Google Desktop for Search


The latest version of Google Desktop no longer enables by default the desktop search engine probably because it uses too many resources. I thought this is a good opportunity to list some ways you could improve Google Desktop's performance, especially if you want to use it as a search engine and not as a widget engine.

When you install Google Desktop 5.5 for Windows, the enhanced search option is disabled and you should leave it that way for now. If you don't need the sidebar with gadgets, disable the option from Google Desktop's setup wizard.

Google Desktop will only index the shortcuts from the Start Menu, the entries from Control Panel. To enable the indexing of your files, right click on the system tray icon, select "Options" and click on the check box next to "Enable Enhanced Content Indexing". Some other relevant options:

* Disable the search types you don't find useful. "Web history" indexes all the web pages that you load in Internet Explorer and Firefox, so it uses a lot of disk space. If you use Outlook or other email clients and you don't want to index the email messages from your computer, disable the "email" options. Google Desktop can also search Microsoft Outlook's Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Journal, and Notes, so disable these search types if you're satisfied with Outlook's search options.

* Exclude folders from indexing. Since Google Desktop tries to index files from your entire hard disk, it's important to exclude the folders that don't contain useful files for a desktop search engine. Some examples:
C:\Program Files\ (don't exclude it if you use Google Desktop to launch apps)
C:\Windows\ (don't exclude it if you use Google Desktop to launch apps)
C:\ProgramData\ (in Vista)
D:\ (if D: is used for backup)

* Exclude file extensions from indexing. There's no option for this in the interface, but you can edit this Registry key and add other extensions you want to exclude. The default excluded extensions are: tmp, temp, moztmp, log, pst, ost, oab, nk2, dat, 000, pf, xml, obj, pdb, tlb, pcc, pch, exp, res, map, sconsign, msf. You can also disable other extensions that aren't associated with useful content: bak, chk, old, gid, prv, wbk, dll.

The Registry value can be found at:
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Google\Google Desktop\file_extensions_to_skip

* Disable the Google integration. By default, Google performs a desktop search every time you search the web and it displays some results from your computer in an OneBox, above the web search results. If you want faster Google searches, less computer resources used to search your desktop and less embarrassing moments when someone else temporarily uses your computer, you can disable the integration.

* More screen space. To disable the taskbar and show the search box by pressing Ctrl twice, select "None" for the "Display Mode". You can also disable the gadgets button if you don't use the sidebar.

* Disable Safe Browsing. Google downloads and automatically updates a database of URLs that are used for phishing or for distributing malware and shows you a warning when you visit one of these web pages. If you use other security software or your browser has anti-phishing protection, you can disable this option.

* Save preferences. Google Desktop will only index files when your computer is idle. "Assuming you leave your computer on, Google Desktop should need only a few days to create your initial index. This initial indexing process occurs only when your computer is idle, so you may want to leave your computer on for an evening or two after you install Google Desktop," explains Google's help center.

If you already have Google Desktop, excluding folders and file extensions will not remove entries from the index, so the best way to clean your index is to delete it and rebuild it. Close Google Desktop by selecting "Exit" from the system tray menu and delete this folder:

%APPDATA%\Google\Google Desktop\ (Windows XP)
or
%LOCALAPPDATA%\Google\Google Desktop\ (Windows Vista)

After reopening Google Desktop, choose "Re-index" from the system tray menu.

Not Your Ordinary Google Interface

Google's interface is available in 116 languages, but some of them are extinct, artificial or invented languages. You can set any language as default by going to the preferences page, but if you don't know how to go back to the original language, select "Google.com in English" from the homepage to reset the language to English or delete your Google cookie.

Extinct languages

The latin interface is monumental and it makes Google more trustworthy and knowledgeable.



Artificial languages

Google in Esperanto is very laconic and it even offers the option to restrict your search to web pages written in Esperanto.

The Interlingua interface uses an auxiliary languages that was created as a common denominator for Romanic languages. "With Interlingua an objective procedure is used to extract and standardize the most widespread word or words for a concept found in a set of control languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, with German and Russian as secondary references," explains Wikipedia.

Fictional languages

For Star Trek's fans, there's a Klingon Google. Klingon is an artificial language that has its own sounds, rules and words. "A small number of people, mostly dedicated Star Trek fans or language aficionados, can converse in Klingon. Its vocabulary, heavily centered on Star Trek or 'Klingon' concepts such as spacecraft or warfare, can sometimes make it cumbersome for everyday use — for instance, while there are words for transporter ionizer unit (jolvoy') or bridge (of a ship) (meH), there is currently no word for bridge (that you drive over). Nonetheless, mundane conversations are common among skilled speakers." Marc Okrand, who invented the language, explains more about its meaning in an interesting video.


Bork, Bork, Bork! is the language of Swedish Chef, a character from the Muppet Show. "Nearly all Swedish Chef sketches begin with him in a kitchen, waving some utensils while singing his signature song in a trademark mock Swedish — a semi-comprehensible gibberish which parodies the characteristic vowel sounds of Swedish. The song's lyrics vary slightly from one episode to the next, but always end with börk! börk! börk! as the Chef throws the utensils aside." You can find Swedish Chef sketches at YouTube and install a cool Firefox extension that translates the content of web pages to Bork.

Elmer Fudd is a cartoon character. "He has one of the more convoluted and disputed origins in the Warner Brothers cartoon pantheon (second only to Bugs Bunny himself). His aim is to shoot Bugs, but he usually ends up seriously injuring himself. His stock line is: Shhhhhhhh, be vewwwy, vewwwy quiet; I'm hunting wabbits, heheheheheheh, although it varies in certain cartoons." This Bugs Bunny episode shows Elmer Fudd trying to capture the "scwewy wabbit".


Language games

The Pig Latin language has its roots in Britain and was initially used by criminals as a simple way to encrypt their messages. The rules are simple: if the word starts with a consonant, it's placed at the end and is followed by ay; if the word starts with a vowel, way is appended to the word. For example, Web becomes Ebway.


Internet languages

Google's hacker interface was an obvious choice for a company with a culture that encourages hacking. According to Wikipedia, leet "is a written argot used primarily on the Internet, which uses various combinations of ASCII characters to replace Latinate letters. The term is derived from the word elite, and the usage it describes is a specialized form of symbolic writing." There's no unique way to translate words into leet, but some of the most popular rules are to replace letters with digits or other symbols that look similar (for example, g -> 6, o -> 0, l -> 7, e -> 3). A simple way to access Google's leet interface is to go to 600673.com.


Unfortunately, most of Google's recent services aren't available in any of these languages, so you'll only be able to see Google Search, Image Search and Google Directory. The Google in your language program, which allows anyone to translate the messages from Google's services, includes these languages, but the translations aren't live for Gmail, Google Video etc.

March 29, 2008

MapJack, a Better Google Street View

MapJack is an effort similar to Google's Street View to capture street-level imagery. The site only has imagery from San Francisco, Sausalito (US) and Chiang Mai (Thailand), but San Francisco's images are the most impressive. They look so good that you almost think you're there.

MapJack lets you fine tune the images by adjusting their brightness, sharpness and quality. For example, to make the picture clearer, increase the sharpness. The options are available by clicking on the blue star button.

The company has developed its own technology to gather imagery which also works in walking areas, not just on the streets. "We developed an array of proprietary electronics, hardware and software tools that enable us to capture an entire city's streets with relative ease and excellent image quality. We have a complete low-cost scalable system encompassing the entire work-flow process needed for Immersive Street-Side Imagery, from picture gathering to post-processing to assembling on a Website."

The words "low-cost" and "scalable" should sound familiar to Google, so MapJack seems like a good fit for an acquisition.





{ Thank you, Russell. }

The Black Google Homepage

Google's homepage is black for the users from United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and Denmark to promote Earth Hour, an event that encourages energy conservation. "On Saturday, March 29, 2008, Earth Hour invites people around the world to turn off their lights for one hour – from 8:00pm to 9:00pm in their local time zone. (...) Given our company's commitment to environmental awareness and energy efficiency, we strongly support the Earth Hour campaign, and have darkened our homepage today to help spread awareness of what we hope will be a highly successful global event," explains Google in a special page created for the event. Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, but this year many cities from all over the world joined the event.

The purpose of the black homepage is not to save energy, but to raise the awareness of the world's environmental problems. Most people will be surprised to see Google's homepage so radically different and will start to wonder if it's a good idea to imitate Google's blackout. Sometimes small actions make a difference, but in this case the key is elsewhere.



{ Thanks, Michael McGovern. }

March 28, 2008

Google's Asian Homepages

Google China is the third international Google site that has a new homepage, radically different from the simple homepage that became a part of Google's identity. Google China's homepage uses animations to display icons and small descriptions for Google services like: Image Search, Google News or Dao Hang.

The other two similar homepages are for Google Korea (launched on June 12, 2007) and Google Japan (launched on March 21, 2008). Google China Blog says that the three homepages were a part of bigger project meant to improve Google's interface and to adapt it to local cultures. For example, Chinese users found it difficult to navigate to other Google services, since they were listed on a different page, so Google decided to place the links more prominently on the homepage.

I liked the last paragraph from Google China's blog post (or its automatic translation, to be more exact):
The change in the Asian region in the entire Home Google is a major patron saint Google Home Marissa has given us the greatest help, and this was her first "replacement" Movement biggest supporters: "You can change as much as possible "of this so let us encourage the Google home page of this classic too bold move from the surgery. Google Home is not static, but, as she insisted to the interests of users, she is also due to the change and you change.


Google already provides an alternative to the "classic" homepage: iGoogle, but the default homepage hasn't changed too much over the years.

{ via Zorgloob }

From Search Results to Content Creation

This may come as a surprise to some webmasters, but Google doesn't have any obligation to send traffic to their sites. People can already learn a lot of useful information from the snippets and they will find even more information as search engines become smarter and learn how to anticipate users' needs. Surprisingly, the mission of a search engine is not to send its users to the best sources of information, but to provide the best possible answers. Since search engines are still far from their mission, they only answer trivial questions about weather, facts, word definitions, unit conversions, while for complex questions they guide you to other sites that could include helpful information.

Google is already experimenting with other ways to visualize information (on a map, in a timeline, highlighting dates or measurements), where search results are no longer important. What's important is the list of information extracted by Google and displayed in a clever format. This is also visible in Google's glossary search engine that displays definitions collected from the web or in Google's facts search engine which shows sources for a certain fact.

Google can also recognize a site's navigation links and place the most important links under the snippet (they're called sitelinks). This way, users don't have go to the homepage of a site just to a link that sends them to another part of the site: Google wants to send users directly where they wanted to go. This is the same reason why Google added site search boxes, causing some controversy. "Google is probably trying to get additional usage out of their product and monetize those page views," was the the explanation of James Spanfeller, chief executive of Forbes.com. Google actually wanted to send people to their intended destination.

Where webmasters see less pageviews, Google sees a more efficient way to serve its users. After all, if you're able to use the information available online to deliver a great answer, why not deliver it? Google's search results pages could become actual content, the simple facts collected from the web could be used to infer intelligent answers, while the snippets could include exactly the information we needed.

March 27, 2008

A Letter from Larry Page

Tech~Surf~Blog posts a letter from Larry Page included in Google's Annual Report for 2007. Some interesting excerpts with my emphasis:
Search is a really hard problem. To do a perfect job, you would need to understand all the world's information, and the precise meaning of every query. With all that understanding, you would then have to produce the perfect answer instantly. We are making significant progress, but remain a long way from perfection. We're so serious about improving search that more than a third of our people are working on it. (...)

Sometimes you don't get a good answer to a search because the information simply isn't available on the web. So we are working hard to encourage ecosystems that can generate more content from more authors and creators. For example, we recently announced an early version of a tool called "knol" to help people generate and organize more high-quality authored content. (...)

Advertising is even harder than search. Not only do you have to find the right ad for every situation, but you have to handle paying customers! We have developed very sophisticated advertising systems designed to benefit both users and advertisers. For users, we strive to produce relevant advertising as good as the main content or search results. For advertisers, we provide tools to target and tune their advertising and accurately measure the results of their spending. (...)

We are still keeping to our long-standing plan of devoting 70% of our resources to search and advertising. We debate where we should classify our Apps (Gmail, Docs, etc.) products, but they currently fall into the 20% of resources we devote to related businesses. We use the remaining 10% of our resources on areas that are farther afield but have huge potential, such as Android. We strongly believe that allocating modest resources to new areas is crucial to continuing to innovate. This 10% of our resources generates a tremendous amount of interest and press, precisely because these projects are different and new. Often, we find small teams of only a few people suddenly command huge attention worldwide. That's useful to keep in mind as you read about Google-the vast majority of our resources are working on our core businesses: search and advertising. (...)

We have made tremendous strides in our web applications. I am writing this using Google Docs. I don't have to worry that my computer hard drive might fail and lose my work, because it is automatically being saved into the Google network cloud. (...) We've started the next phase in productivity software. That phase is about working with everyone seamlessly and effortlessly. Our goal is fast, easy access to create or share from any computer in the world. No futzing with software required. Just open your browser. (...)

While almost all of our effort is focused on important improvements to core search and advertising, the small percentage left over is producing a lot of important innovation and even more notice from the world.

It's interesting to notice that Google is still mostly about search and ads, while the other efforts try to encourage creating more content that should improve the search results in the future. Larry Page says that "systems that facilitate high-quality content creation and editing are crucial for the Internet's continued growth", so this is one of the explanations why Google bought Blogger, YouTube or Writely.

{ via Feld Thoughts }

Google Street View Gets a New Update

Google Street View added imagery for 13 more US cities and for the Yosemite National Park. The new cities are: Albuquerque, Anchorage, Austin, Cleveland, Fairbanks, Little Rock, Madison, Nashville, Rockford, Richmond, Spokane, St. Petersburg, Tampa. The total number of places where Street View is available has increased to 48 and it's likely that Google will add imagery from outside of the US in the near future.


View Larger Map

Street View can now be added to any Google Maps mashup since the API supports it. "The API allows you to embed one or multiple panoramas in any location on a site and move, remove, hide and unhide them as necessary. Panoramas can also be easily integrated with the rest of the Google Maps API to allow synchronization between the map and the panorama viewer," explains James McGill, from the Maps API team. And instead of posting screenshots, you can embed the full panoramic views by clicking on "Link to this page" and copying the HTML code in your site.

Zemanta, Get Suggestions While Writing Articles

Zemanta is not as powerful as the imaginary Google Writer envisioned last year for April Fools Day. It's a tool that helps bloggers writer better articles by suggesting related content from the web. You need to install a Firefox extension and it automatically shows related images, blog posts and Wikipedia articles next to the post editor. The nice thing is that Zemanta dynamically adjusts the suggestions as you add more content, but the suggested links aren't always helpful, as you can see in the screenshot below:


Zemanta suggests that the algorithm for finding recommended content is complicated, but it seems to rely mostly on identifying concepts and proper nouns. "We analyze your post through our proprietary natural language processing and semantic algorithms, and statistically compare its context framework to our preindexed database of other content."

The tool should do a better job at detecting the important keywords from the text and should allow users to provide feedback for the suggested links. For now, it's a pretty cool way to find blog posts related to your articles, but I wouldn't be surprised if this will evolve into a clever blog editor.

YouTube Shows Stats for Your Videos

Now you can find some basic statistical data about the videos you've uploaded to YouTube. For each of your videos, you can view a chart that shows the number of daily views and the evolution of your videos' popularity. The stats can be restricted to a continent or to a country and you can also see the countries where your videos are more popular.

"How does this help you? Well, using these metrics, you can increase your videos' view counts and improve your popularity on the site. For instance, you might learn that your videos are most popular on Wednesdays, that you have a huge following in Spain, or that new videos that play off previous content become more popular more quickly," suggests YouTube's blog.

The analytics data is really basic and doesn't include a lot of interesting information like the sites that embed your videos, the most important sources of traffic, how many people view the full video or play it again etc.


To find your video stats, go to your YouTube account and click on "About this video".

March 26, 2008

Google to Add Language Translation in Gmail

ComputerWorld reports that Google intends to integrate its language translation service in Gmail and Google Talk. There are already bots that could facilitate an IM conversation with a person that speaks a language you don't know, but it would be much better to have the feature built in. Even if the translation is far from perfect and often incoherent, you'll understand the main ideas.

"What you need for real-time automated machine translation is large amounts of compute power, which we have, and large amounts of data, which we have. Imagine a system that can do on-the-fly translation of things like e-mail, documents and IM chat. That's a feature you can see on the horizon," said Google's Matt Glotzbach.

Apparently, Google is also developing tools for videoconferencing "to augment internal training programs and to serve as a hosted alternative to pricey videoconferencing software". Last year, Google acquired Marratech's video conferencing software.

In the past few years, Google started to preannounce features and services, but they were either released late or not released at all. We're still waiting for phone calls in Google Talk, tasks in Google Calendar, Gmail folders, Knol, Google Health.

Google Sets, the Search Engine for Lists


SEO by the Sea points to an interesting patent that describes how Google Sets works. Google Sets is one of the first services that were added to Google Labs and it's a cool way to find list of related terms. Google Sets is a tool that generates lists from a small number of examples by using the web as a big pool of data. You enter some items and Google Sets finds other items that tend to co-occur frequently with your examples. For example, you could enter Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and get a list of US presidential candidates.
One particular type of information often present on the web includes lists, such as lists of restaurants, lists of automobiles, lists of names, etc. Lists may be identified in a number of different ways. For example, a list may include an ordered list or unordered list. Special tags in a HyperText Markup Language (HTML) document identify the presence of ordered and unordered lists. An ordered list commences with an <OL> tag; whereas an unordered list commences with an <UL> tag. Each item in an ordered or unordered list is preceded by an <LI> tag.

Another type of list may include a definition list. A special tag in a HTML document identifies the presence of a definition list. A definition list commences with a <DL> tag. Each item in a definition list is preceded by a <DT> tag. Yet another type of list may include document headers. Special tags in a HTML document identifies headers using <H1> through <H6> tags. Other types of lists may be presented in yet other ways. For example, a list may be presented as items in a table or as items separated by commas or tabs.

After identifying lists on the web, Google generates a probabilistic model from the examples provided by users and classifies the lists according to the model. The items are assigned weights based on the classified lists and the weights are added to form a list based on the total weights.

Colored Folders in Google Docs

Google Docs lets you select a color for each of your folders, a feature that has been previously available in Gmail. The color will be used to represent a folder in the sidebar and in the document list, so you can easily spot related documents.



Another new feature, this time available only for documents and presentations, empowers you to change the owner of a document. Unlike simple collaborators, the owner of a document can delete it and can restrict the access to a document for some collaborators. This page explains the difference between viewers, collaborators and owner. To become a collaborator and transfer the ownership of some of your documents, select them from Google Docs homepage and choose More actions > Changer Owner.

Judging from the source code, Google Docs will include an option to add collaborators with limited rights - they won't be able to download a document, change its settings, share it or publish it. Creating user groups with custom permissions could be an even better idea.

Google Tests Video Ads Alongside Search Results

In February, we found out that Google intends to test video ads next to search results and now we can finally see some examples. Digital Inspiration spotted an AT&T ad targeted to the query [phone], but there's also an Intel ad when you search for [laptop]. Google uses plusboxes to show that there's a video ad that complements the text and labels them with messages like: "watch commercial", "watch demonstration", "watch testimonial".


The video ad is triggered only after you click on the message and it's a small 160x140 video that uses the Google Video player. The ads are very short (around 30 seconds) and they end by displaying a clickable URL to the landing page.


Google uses the same visual elements as for the search results and user are already used to previewing YouTube videos by clicking on the small plus sign bellow the snippets. Unlike the video search results, Google doesn't include thumbnails next to video ads, but this may change in the future. Overall, the video ads from Google's search results aren't annoying, they must be explicitly selected and they offer more details that couldn't be included in the short text ad.

March 25, 2008

Google Docs Gets a Menu

After updating the toolbar, Google Docs replaced the tabbed interface with a traditional menu. The File menu looks cleaner and integrates the revision history, the Edit includes some of the options that are missing from the toolbar (cut/copy/paste) and also the HTML code editor. It's amazing to see that Find & Replace is still in alpha and doesn't work as advertised. The Insert menu has the same features as the homonymous tab, Format replaces the Styles dropdown, while Tools lets you select the document's language, check the spelling and read stats about the document. The Table menu was previously available as a contextual menu for tables and there's a new Share drop-down that integrates the options to share a page, publish it on the web and preview it.


Google Docs includes all the menus from Microsoft Word 2003, except for View, Window and Help, but there's enough room to add more menus in the future. The team's blog explains the changes by invoking a user study, but the truth is that most people are used to Microsoft Office's classic interface:
A while ago, our Docs User Research team worked on a "card-sort" study in which we disconnected all features in the application from the places we had put them in the UI, and asked some people what the labels and icons meant to them, and how they would group the concepts they represented. One of the things we found was that names such as File, Edit, Format, and Tools resonated as "where you might look" for certain editing features. Check spelling? Seems to fit in a "Tools" group to many people. Find and replace? People generally look for that in an "Edit" group.

These updates are only for the word processing application, as Google Spreadsheets and Presently continue to use the old interface. Having a unified interface and a set of features that work consistently in all the three applications should be a priority for Google.

PicLens, Full-Screen Slideshows for Image Sites

PicLens is a browser add-on that detaches the images from a web page and lets you explore them in interesting ways. The add-on, which is available for Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, works for a small number of sites: image search engines and photo sharing sites, as it requires to understand the structure of a web page.

PicLens is a great way to visualize the results from Google Image Search as a never-ending list of thumbnails. Once you find an interesting photo, you can double-click on it and view it in full-screen. PicLens can also create slideshows from Google Image Search's results so you can enjoy Dali's paintings or Google's doodles.


For Picasa Web Albums, the slideshow doesn't include captions or file names, but it lets you navigate inside an album. The slideshow also works for Picasa Web's search results and it shows the images in full-screen.

Yahoo to Support OpenSocial

Yahoo seems to be all about openness lately (Open Search, support for OpenID), so the announcement that the company intends to support Google's OpenSocial initiative shouldn't surprise anyone. OpenSocial is an API for writing social applications that work across multiple sites and many social networks started to work on implementing it: MySpace, hi5, orkut. From Yahoo's blog:
Yahoo! has always been about helping users find and share information online, and we love giving our broad and loyal developer community the tools they need to keep innovating on this front. Their echo our passion for creating the best Web experience for our users.

In this same spirit, we announced today that we’ve joined forces with Google and MySpace to create the OpenSocial Foundation, and will also begin supporting the OpenSocial standard. Industry consortiums such as this often start slowly and evolve over time. So far, OpenSocial is rapidly growing and adapting, but still in the early stages. We feel that this is the right step at this stage in its evolution. It’s no longer a trial balloon — it’s for real. We are taking this opportunity to help ensure websites and developers feel confident using OpenSocial as the building blocks for their new social apps.

OpenSocial Foundation has a web site that uses the recently launched Google Sites. The foundation will make OpenSocial more neutral and closer to becoming a web standard. According to a press release, "the OpenSocial Foundation will be an independent non-profit entity with a formal intellectual property and governance framework; related assets will be assigned to the new organization by July 1, 2008. The foundation will provide transparency and operational guidelines around technology, documentation, intellectual property, and other issues related to the evolution of the OpenSocial platform."

Two weeks ago, MySpace launched a gallery for OpenSocial apps, hi5 will officially open its platform on March 31st, while orkut has delayed the launch. Hopefully, this is the first step from a bigger initiative of making social networks more open and less self-centered.

March 24, 2008

Search for iGoogle Themes

With more than 360 themes, iGoogle should have something for everyone. From Chinese floral designs to clean green, from raspberry cakes to an yellow Escher theme, from intricate patterns to Mr. Bison's quirky days, from pink flowers to dark summers, from Studio Ghibli to the Yellow Lab Puppy, users have created great themes.

Now you can actually find some beautiful themes using the new search box: for example, searching for [dynamic], you'll find themes that change throughout the day.


If you find a theme you really like, post its name in the comments.

{ Thank you, Cody Sherman. }

Expandable Google Search Box

If you entered long queries in a Google search box, you would notice that it's difficult to edit them because Google optimized the size of the box for short queries. Things have changed and now you can much bigger queries and Google will adjust the search box's size after you perform a search.

Google limits queries to 32 words, but most people don't need that many words. The average number of words in a Google query was 4 at the end of 2007.


Here's a comparison between Live Search, Yahoo Search and Google Search for the query [how do you distinguish between a 64 bit and a 32 bit operating system], one of the most popular queries that start with "how do you".

March 22, 2008

Custom Google Search

Google has been experimenting with letting users reorder and remove search results. This may seem strange if you think that Google cares a lot about algorithmically ranking search results. The new options allow you to promote some of the results at the top of the page, hide the results you think are not relevant and add new web pages that are missing from Google's results. These changes are saved in your Google account and only influence your results. For now, the users who see the experimental feature are randomly selected.


These new personalization options can be partly recreated using a custom search engine. You can build a custom search engine for the entire web, that should include all the sites from Google's index. Every time you find web pages or web sites that are not very useful, but have good rankings, you can edit the search engine and them to the exclusion list.


To promote search results, check this option in the custom search engine's settings: "Add my Subscribed Link to this Custom Search Engine". Then create subscribed links for some of the terms you search often. Alternatively, you could use Google Spreadsheets to define a list of subscribed links. The subscribed links are also included if you use Google's standard search engine, but they're displayed after the third search result.


The custom search engine lacks the user interface options from Google's experimental feature, but it's a pretty powerful way to customize your search experience.

Useful links:
Manage your custom search engines
Manage your subscribed links

{ The first screenshot is from Nimish. }

March 21, 2008

Useful Google Translate Addresses

Translate a web page:

http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=LANG1|LANG2&u=URL

Example: http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=it|en&u=http://www.corriere.it/ translates Corriere della Sera's homepage from Italian into English.


Translate a web page into English (the input language is detected automatically):

http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=en&u=URL

Example: http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=en&u=http://www.corriere.it/ translates Corriere della Sera's homepage from Italian into English, but without explicitly mentioning that the web page is written in Italian.


Use Google Translate as a proxy:

http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=LANG1|LANG2&u=URL

You basically want to read the page in its initial language, but loaded from Google's servers. LANG2 should be the code for your web page's language, while LANG1 can be any supported language so that LANG1|LANG2 is a valid language pair.

Example: http://www.google.com/translate_c?langpair=fr|en&u=http://craigslist.org shows Craigslist's home page using Google Translate as a way to bypass security restrictions.


Translate a text:

http://www.google.com/translate_t?langpair=LANG1|LANG2&text=TEXT

Example: http://www.google.com/translate_t?langpair=en|es&text=Hello, world! translates "Hello, world!" from English into Spanish.


Notes:

1. the language pairs are listed in this FAQ, while the language codes are included in this long list.

2. To disable Google Translate's annoying tooltips that show the original text, block this JavaScript file: http://209.85.135.104/translate_c.js, for example by adding a new rule in Adblock Plus for Firefox or by using Opera's content blocker.

Google's Design Guidelines

Jon Wiley, User Experience Designer for Google Apps, outlined some of the most important principles for designing interfaces at Google. In his presentation at the WritersUA conference, Jon listed the following guidelines:

1. Useful: focus on people - their lives, their work, their dreams.
2. Fast: every millisecond counts.
3. Simple: simplicity is powerful.
4. Engaging: engage beginners and attract experts.
5. Innovative: dare to be innovative.
6. Universal: design for the world.
7. Profitable: plan for today's and tomorrow's business.
8. Beautiful: delight the eye without distracting the mind.
9. Trustworthy: be worthy of people's trust.
10. Personable: add a human touch.

Let's see if Google's homepage respects these guidelines. It loads fast and it's pretty useful for those go to google.com. The design is very simple and has little distractions, so it's not intimidating. You don't need a manual to use Google search, but you can learn some tricks that may help you get better results. I'm not sure if Google's homepage is innovative, but many other sites copied its simplicity. Google's homepage is instantly recognizable, so it crossed the cultural barriers, even if Google had to adapt it in Korea and Japan. The profitability is a consequence of Google's focus on delivering useful ads that are contextually adequate: placing ads on the homepage would probably alienate the users. Google's homepage is spacious, elegant and has some sense of humor: "I'm feeling lucky" and the doodles add a human touch. As for trustworthiness, the straightforward design should reinforce users' perception that Google doesn't have a hidden agenda and tries to offer the best answers.



Related:
User experience at Google (video)

{ via Functioning Form }

Update: Google explains these design guidelines in a new page from its corporate site. "The Google User Experience team aims to create designs that are useful, fast, simple, engaging, innovative, universal, profitable, beautiful, trustworthy, and personable. Achieving a harmonious balance of these ten principles is a constant challenge. A product that gets the balance right is Googley – and will satisfy and delight people all over the world."

Google Analytics Benchmarks

Two weeks ago, Google Analytics added a new feature that lets you compare your site's traffic with average data for other similar sites. To make this feature possible, you need to enable data sharing with the benchmarking service. "Google will remove all identifiable information about your website, then combine that data with hundreds of other anonymous sites in comparable industries and report them in an aggregate form." There's also an option to enable data sharing with other Google services that will allow a better integration between Analytics, AdWords and other services.


The benchmarking data is now live and you can see it if you go to Visitors > Benchmarking (Beta). Google compares the following values for the last 30 days: visits, page views, pages/visit, bounce rate, average time on site and new visits. By default, your site is compared with other sites of similar size, but you can restrict the benchmark to general categories like: Internet, Travel, Shopping, Reference etc. Since the data is aggregated from the sites that agreed to participate in the program, it may not be representative. Google says it will add new categories once more sites will enable the data sharing option.

"When benchmarking is enabled, Google crawls the websites in the account then categorizes them by vertical and the amount of visits. The data is then made anonymous through aggregation. For sites of a similar size, a category of industry verticals can be chosen when there is a sufficient number of accounts in that category."


It's interesting to compare your site's traffic with these aggregate data as it will help you put things in perspective, but you shouldn't be disappointed if the comparison is not favorable. Each site is unique and has a different raison d'être.

March 20, 2008

Google's Broken Bookmarking Systems

Google hasn't yet launched a proper bookmarking system. Google Bookmarks was just a small extension of Search History and became more useful after the integration with Google Toolbar. Notebook lets you clip content from the web, but it's more useful for research and not for bookmarking web pages. Google Reader's shared items are limited to your subscriptions or to web sites that have feeds and they're not structured. The not-yet-officially-released Shared Stuff widget wants to unify the ways people share web pages and it's more like a meta social bookmarking service.

In this guest post, Michael Searcy expresses his frustration with Google's failed attempts to develop a service for bookmarking and sharing web pages.



Like most people I want Google to add a social aspect to "Google Bookmarks". The crazy part is they already have a disassembled version of a social bookmarks network. The parts are: Bookmarks, Reader, Notebook & Shared Stuff.

Share

Web Pages

Feeds

Tags

Contacts

Bookmark

Profile

Bookmarks

no

no

no

yes

no

yes

no

Reader

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

no

yes

SharedStuff

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

Notebook

yes

yes

yes

yes

no

yes

no



Bookmarks: it's great for across computer access but has no sharing, or interaction with other Google services.

Reader: It is awesome. It has changed my life! I find and share more stuff with it, than with normal browsing. You can "star" items that you want to lookup later for reference, but if you want to bookmark something you have to invoke some hackery (you can open the item outside of reader and bookmark it with a toolbar shortcut, or use a Greasemonkey script which doesn't work). Another limitation not shown in the chart is that you can't share anything you are not already subscribed to. Also on a shared reader page you don't get a summary view (for people with lots of posts), you can't search and you definitely cant slice it up by tags/labels.

Shared stuff: It's interesting because if you find something cool in Reader you can star it, then later when you get around to reading it again you can open it separate and bookmark it. Then if you open it from your bookmarks you can use the Email/Share toolbar item to Share it and it will Show a "star" saying its bookmarked. Other cool aspects are that you can Share through Google, share through other social networking services, email it to your low-tech friends, and you can even tag your items! You can do all that, but you can't bookmark with Google Bookmarks? You can use every bookmark service except Google. You're kidding me right? So now we can share bookmarked Items in a round about way, but we can't bookmark shared items!!!

Notebook: Its nice for a web notebook/clipboard with multiple headings or "notebooks" (which is repetitive but that's what they are called) and the sharing function is nice, if your into sharing notebook type content. Then they tried to incorporate bookmarks, but they imported them and called them "Unfiled Bookmarks", which means it's a bookmark and it's not associated with a "notebook". Which is extra weird if you "move" a bookmark to a notebook. Then you get your Markbooks confused with your Booknotes and ..... Wait. This is just madness. Its just 2 different classes of labels. But you can share "notebook" class labels but not "labels". So close.

Google Translate API

Google launched another AJAX API, this time for language detection and translation. The API works for the same language pairs that are available at Google Translate and lets you display the translation of a text inside your own page, without having to link to an external translation service.

The translation API could be used to automatically translate some content from a web page using the browser's preferred language, to create a Greasemonkey script that translates to English the posts written in other languages, to detect if a comment is written in English before posting it and for many other things.

Here's one example of use, where you can enter a text in one of the supported languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish), Google automatically detects the language and it shows the English translation. The sample text is from Le Monde.