An unofficial blog that watches Google's attempts to move your operating system online since 2005. Not affiliated with Google.

Send your tips to

July 31, 2007

Upload Manager for File Sharing Websites

Fire Uploader is a Firefox extension that lets you upload files to the most popular image/video/document sharing sites from a single interface. Most sites only let you upload a file at a time, but in Fire Uploader you can just drag and drop all the files from a folder.

The extension supports YouTube, Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, Webshots,, Omnidrive, Facebook, but the author plans to add more sites.

For Picasa Web Albums, you can see the existing albums, create new albums, upload and download photos and delete some of them. While the option to upload photos is also available in Picasa, this extension lets you manage the online photos in an interface similar to a file manager or an FTP client. Note that all the albums created from the extension are public, but you can change that from Picasa Web Albums.

You can also upload multiple videos to YouTube, backup your Flickr photos, download only some of the files from Picasa Web album and manage multiple accounts for a single site. The interface is pretty rough and there aren't too many options you can configure, but if there are so many powerful download managers, why not have an universal uploader for all the sites that store files in the "clouds"? The meaningless power of a single channel to the "cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles"*.

* From "Det sjunde inseglet" (available for free at Google Video)

July 30, 2007

More Sorting Options in Google Docs

The start page of Google Docs (or Google's basic file manager) brought back the option to archive files, but changed its name: now you can hide the files from all of the views. This is especially useful if you store personal information or if you rarely need some files.

An even more useful option if you have many documents is sorting. Just click on a column's header and you can sort the files by name, collaborator's name, starred status or by date. If you click on the header again, the files will be sorted descending. Unfortunately, the sorting options aren't persistent and every time you open a folder or the main view, the files will be sorted by date (the default option).

Google Spreadsheets also added a sortbar, so you can quickly sort the data in a single column without going to the Sort tab. And if you select some numeric cells from a sheet, you'll see the results of the sum at the bottom of the window, similarly to the quick sum feature from Microsoft Excel. Click on the sum to get other simple results: the average, the minimum/maximum value and the number of selected values.

{ Thank you, Jonathan. }

Google Documents Can't Be Deleted Entirely

One of the main concerns people have about web applications is security. If I store my documents online, can anyone have access to them without my explicit approval? Can I store personal information securely?

Google Docs promises to protect the privacy and security of your content: "Rest assured that your documents and spreadsheets will remain private unless you publish them to the Web or invite collaborators and/or viewers. Once you're logged in, you can grant access to whomever you'd like. Until then, your documents and spreadsheets are private."

But Ralf Scharnetzki found that things are not that bright. Each image included in a document has its own public address, even if the document is private. What's more, if you delete the document and remove it from "recycle bin", the image is still available.

So Google Docs treats images as independent entities, separate from the documents. In fact, the documents from Google Docs are just HTML files that reference external images. In most word processing file formats, the images are a part of the document and can't be accessed if the document is password-protected.

Ralf raises an interesting problem: "How can we talk about privacy on the Web if we can NEVER be sure that our private content (like mails, draft mails, documents) will be ever finally deleted from any of the services out there today?" Of course deleting a document and all of its backups takes time, but it would be nice to know if it does happen.

Meebo Grows Faster Than Google Talk

According to a study released by Nielsen/NetRatings [PDF], Meebo is the instant messaging solution with the highest US growth in the last 10 months. Meebo, a web messenger that lets you connect to Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM, ICQ and Jabber/Google Talk, increased its US user base from 434,000 to almost 2 million. In the same period of time, Google Talk grew from 904,000 to 2,25 million users. It's unclear whether the study only included Google Talk's desktop client or it also considered the web interfaces from Gmail and iGoogle. The more powerful Skype has 2,6 million users in the US.

Meebo became popular because many schools and companies blocked access to instant messaging clients and their web versions were almost unusable. Of course, Meebo was also blocked, so it came up with an HTTPS version. Now even if Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others build online interfaces, people still prefer Meebo, the all-in-one messenger.

Free Access to Wall Street Journal and Other Subscription Sites

Subscription is not the best model for the online version of a newspaper or magazine: less people link to you or quote you, your audience is more restricted and you forget that not everyone affords to pay for your information.

If you don't have a Wall Street Journal subscription, you must have seen articles that look like this (most of them are fully indexed by search engines, so you can see them in the search results):

You're able to read a preview, but to see the full article, you need to pay $99 for an annual subscription. For recent articles, you can do a search on Google News and read the whole article from there: Google has a deal with Wall Street Journal so that all the articles can be read for free. It's called first click free: "The very first article view by a Google News user (identifiable by referrer) doesn't require subscription. While the first article can be seen without subscribing, all clicks on the article page are trapped. This means that if users click anywhere else on that page, they will be prompted to sign up."

But to read articles older than 30 days or to be able to actually browse WSJ's site, you need something else. Congoo Netpass is a free toolbar for Internet Explorer and Firefox that lets you read articles from many subscription sites, including Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Morningstar, Encyclopedia Britannica. You just have to create a free account and install a toolbar. Some of the sites are accessible directly, others only if you search from the Congoo toolbar, but the catch is that your access is limited to a number of views per month.

The Netpass uses patented technology and creates a free bridge which spans the divide between expensive information services and the mass of information available on the free Web. Millions of information seekers want access to subscription content but do not require a full subscription. These users just need access to view a few articles from many different subscription sources monthly. Congoo's technology unlocks hundreds of these subscription content sources without having a paid subscription so you get access when you need it.

Congoo also has a news site similar to Google News and has recently started to build a social network around news.

July 29, 2007

Google Indexing Many Web Pages in Real-Time

A year ago you had to wait days if not weeks to see your content indexed by Google. Now many web pages are indexed in 5-10 minutes. At least that's the case for many blog homepages, which are updated in almost real time. Here you can see the homepage of a PageRank 4 blog:

...and here's the proof that the blog post was created 11 minutes earlier (the result is from Google Blog Search):

Google could use the ping feature of the blog search engine to get notifications when a site is updated. This doesn't work for all the blogs, so there may still be a prioritization algorithm.

Update (less than half an hour later):

Google's Intranet Search Engine

Google Enterprise Blog shows a screenshot of MOMA Next, an experimental front-end for Google's intranet search. Google uses its own search appliance to index more than 100 million internal documents.

The familiar interface gives Google employees easy access to all kinds of data: contacts, shared bookmarks, refinements. Unfortunately, the design is kind of cluttered and the search takes a lot of time.

MOMA is the name of Google's intranet. An ex-Googler tells its story:

"MOMA was designed by and for engineers and for the first couple of years, its home page was devoid of any aesthetic enhancements that didn't serve to provide information essential to the operation of Google. It was dense and messy and full of numbers that were hard to parse for the uninitiated, but high in nutritional value for the data hungry. MOMA displayed latency times, popular search terms, traffic stats for Google-owned properties and, at the center of it all, a large graph with colored lines labeled with the names of Muppet characters. (...)

I came to take it for granted that any information I needed about Google could be found on the intranet, from the status of products in development to the number of employees at any point in the company's history. (...)

Google eventually clamped down on who had access the complete state of the business; ostensibly because such information needed to be restricted unless everyone was going to be registered as an insider and restricted from freely buying and selling the company's stock."

Here's another screenshot from a MOMA search for Googlers (credit: The Back Pack Zac Attak).

New Data in Google Trends

Google Trends has new data. The last update was in March, so Google should allocate more resources to this project and push new data more frequently.

Some trends: the number of searches for Google Maps grows faster than for Mapquest, the leader in online maps; Facebook has stirred a lot of interest lately, but the number of searches has barely surpassed orkut's searches; Google Reader grew a lot since last year's relaunch, while the interest for Bloglines is constant; YouTube generates more interest than Google. Can you find some interesting trends for this year?

July 28, 2007

Microsoft's Live Search Adds Face Detection

Microsoft's image search engine added a new operator that lets you restrict the results to faces and portraits. You just need to append filter:face or filter:portrait to your query (for example, [larry page filter:portrait]). The search engine uses face detection algorithms that try to see if an image contains human faces, so you shouldn't expect to only find pictures of a certain Larry Page because that would imply face recognition.

Google added a similar option in May: you can find it in the advanced search interface. Unlike Windows Live Search, Google is a little bit smarter and finds pages that contain the exact name. The first result from Microsoft's search engine shows Larry Ellison from Oracle, the third one shows Larry Lloyd (an English football player) and only the sixth image shows Google's Larry Page.

Google makes mistakes too by including a photo of Marrisa Mayer as the second result for [Larry Page]. The reason? They both appeared in the same phrase: "Biz Week profiles Google hottie Marissa Mayer but doesn't mention that she's rumored to be Larry Page's girlfriend" (hottie links to Marissa Mayer's photo).

Overall, you may find Microsoft's image search engine more interesting because it includes infinite scrolling so you don't have to click on "next", a list of related people which is fairly accurate, a sidebar for image results so you don't have to go back to the results page and a scratchpad that lets you collect interesting images. Unfortunately, Microsoft's index is much smaller than Google's and the relevancy is often lower.

Another search engine that offers face filtering is Exalead. Even if the results aren't great, you'll love the advanced options: regular expressions, defining the width or the height of an image (you can find all the images related to words that start with summer, have 800 pixels width and less than 600 pixels height).

It's interesting to see image search engines becoming smarter and starting to actually analyze images and not just the filenames and the text that surrounds them. Google's acquisition of Neven Vision and the effort to label all the images from the web are also steps in this direction.

Is Google Checkout Confusing?

The Banking Unwired blog writes that Google Checkout's problem is that people have to overcome many barriers before using the service. And to do that they need to be really determined to use Google Checkout.
The benefits to users are many, including a central place to manage all your online purchases, added protection from someone fraudulently using your credit card, and limiting the chance for commercial spam. While this objective remains a noble one, its current incarnation of creating a parallel and optional path for users means a disjointed experience. The benefits of Google Checkout are only truly realized with an all or nothing approach. But getting there might be difficult given the customer experience kinks it has to overcome.
The author finds it strange that you should follow the Google Checkout badge, which may not always be very visible. Most people will choose the default checkout option because it may appear more convenient. They'll also ask questions like: "Who would I call for customer service issues? Where can I track my order or shipping? If I have a payment question or want a refund, where do I go?"
While the many benefits of Google Checkout outweigh its issues, the challenge of Google Checkout is one of adoption, data integration, branding, and how to provide a seamless customer experience. Having it as an optional add-on checkout option, however, raises the interesting prospect of increasing the confusion quotient, which was the original impetus for the need for Google Checkout.
So Google's main challenges would be to increase Google Checkout's awareness and to make the checkout experience better once you decided you want to use Google Checkout (a plug-in or a Google Toolbar option could help). Google is already heavily promoting Checkout in its shopping search engine.

July 27, 2007

View the Original Articles Inside Google Reader

If you subscribe to search results, partial feeds, link blogs or other peculiar feeds, you'll probably find it annoying to open the actual page in a new tab. For Google Reader users that also have Firefox and the Greasemonkey extension, there's a script that lets you open the original source in an iframe inside Google Reader. You can either press Shift+V, click on the title of the post or click on the Preview button from the bottom. To open the page in a new tab, press V or middle-click on the title.

This might also come in handy if you want to read the comments or send your feedback.

The original version of this script only works in the "list view" and automatically replaces each feed item with the original posts, but this solution is suboptimal. The updated script works in both views and lets you choose the posts you want to expand inline. Maybe a better idea would be to detect partial feeds or to enter a list of feeds that should be automatically opened.

July 26, 2007

Larry Page Wanted Foxit Reader in the Google Pack

Google Pack is a collection of free applications from Google and other third-parties that removes the hassle of installing and updating software. Google said it didn't receive money for including applications in the Pack and only chose apps that meet "Google's high software standards and are considered best in their class", but it's hard to explain some choices like Real Player, Norton Antivirus or even Adobe Reader when you could easily find better free software.

PDFzone reports that Larry Page, Google's co-founder, wanted to include Foxit Reader, a lightweight PDF reader. "[Marissa] Mayer said in an interview (...) that Page lobbied hard for several months to make Foxit Reader an element of Google Pack, the company's basic utilities download that enables PC users to quickly load new machines with the software they need to use Google services. Eventually, Google signed a deal with Adobe to make Reader the PDF viewer in Google Pack, despite Page's concerns about its load time before it went live in 2006."

Marissa Mayer explains that Google introduced the option to view PDF search results as HTML because Adobe's PDF reader was pretty big and slow. Foxit Reader's setup file has 1.67 MB, while the latest version of Adobe Reader has 22.3 MB (and more "bells and whistles").

{ via Mashable }

Google Maps Shows Popular Searches

If you do a search for a US location in Google Maps, you'll find a list of popular queries associated with that location. For Mountain View, Google Maps lists: Stanford University, Microsoft, HP, a hotel and an amphitheater, but there's no sign of Google.

This could help you explore a city using the wisdom of the crowds: the most popular hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions. It would be nice if Google clusters the searches and shows you an automatically-generated guide of a city.

July 25, 2007

The Absurd Phone Call

Zachary found the reason why Google decided to discontinue click-to-call in Google Maps and sent this illustrative dialog.

Prankster goes to Google Maps and searches for Bob's Pizza. Then he clicks Click-to-Call and enters 987-654-3210.

Owner of 987-654-3210 [John] (picks up ringing phone): Hello? This is John.
Bob's Pizza: Hello, thank you for choosing your local Bob's Pizza, now offering free delivery. Would you like to place an order?
John: Um... excuse me?
Bob's Pizza (louder and clearer): Would you like to place an order for a pizza?
John: Er... who is this? I think you um ... have the wrong number ...
Bob's Pizza: You called Bob's Pizza. This is Bob's Pizza.
John: What... when did I call... huh... [mutters on]
Bob's Pizza: Sir, you called us not long ago. Please don't try to trick me and say that I called you. I have better things to do.
John: No really, you called me. My phone rang, and I heard your voice! You called me!
Bob's Pizza: You called me!
John: You called me!
Bob's Pizza: You called me!
John: You called me!
[call goes on for several minutes in a similar fashion]
Bob's Pizza
[angrily]: That's it, this is a total waste of time. [curses several times] I've had enough of you! Goodbye! [hangs up violently]
John: No! Wait! Really! [hears dial tone]
John [to self]
: Oh no... what is wrong with me... I don't drink... I must have gone mad! I need HELP!!! [runs out of house and checks self into rehab]

Gmail Improves Document Preview

If you use Gmail's "view as HTML" option to read attachments, you've noticed that the document doesn't include images, the formatting is sometimes different and long documents are clipped.

But there are good news. Gmail improved the conversion to HTML for Microsoft Office documents and the images are no longer ignored. You can also read the entire documents, without having problems with unexpected truncations. I tested this with a 3 MB document that included seven graphs and it was converted almost flawlessly.

I wonder why it took so long to improve the conversion and why other file types continue to be handled rather poorly.

{ Thank you, Azwandi.}

Google's Magic Box

Google continues to promote the "Ultimate Search for Bourne" competition in the US and other countries by displaying a blue box labeled "Google Promotion". When the promotional box was first added, Google didn't label it at all. Google also mentioned it's not an ad: "The Bourne Ultimatum promotion is not an ad, but one of the many tests we run to provide users with opportunities to access Google products."

The competition is a partnership between Google and Universal Pictures to promote Bourne Ultimatum using Google's products.

According to Los Angeles Times, it was Google that had the idea to promote the movie. "[Douglas] Merrill said that Universal, the studio behind the Bourne movies, didn't hire Google to do this. Instead, the promotion was Google's initiative. Why? Because the basic Google business model is monetizing searches and other online activities, so the more things people have to find and do online, the more money Google can make."

Using this logic, you could argue that Google should start to promote all kinds of sites just to keep users online for a longer time. But I thought Google's aim was to send people away as fast as possible to the right destination.

"The win for Google is more content gets created, and we believe the tools we build offer easy ways to do that. Ultimately our goal is to have everyone who has content build cool interactive tools to engage their users. We don't want to be in the middle. We want to build the tools to allow content owners and creators to do it themselves," said Google's Douglas Merrill.

So this is not a promotion for "Bourne Ultimatum", it's just a sample of what you can do using Google tools. It's an ad for Google's tools disguised as a catchy competition. The blue box is just a link to an entry from the virtual gallery of sites that use Google tools to "build cool interactive tools to engage their users".

"With Google tools at your fingertips, you're well equipped for the mission," says the blue box. The message here is that Google's tools are powerful and you could use them to present your own content. And if a lot of sites use Google services, Google can continue sending people away: they'll continue to be connected to The Platform.

July 24, 2007

What You Need to Know to Get Better Search Results

In an interesting presentation titled "Searching for the mind of the searcher" [PDF], Daniel M. Russell from Google explains the problem of understanding the intent behind a user's search queries and how important is this task to measure user satisfaction.

Mr. Russell thinks there are four important "skills" that help you get better search results:

* know the search engine - how it works, its limitations, the advanced options

* use good search strategies - know when you need to use a more general or a more specific query, look at the search results critically and refine your query accordingly

* domain knowledge - you should know the terminology of a domain (it's hard to get information about a computer problem if you don't know the right terms)

* information mapping - categorize data, know if a site is authoritative, find the perfect query by combining the right keywords (a reverse dictionary might help)

While most of this knowledge is necessary only for information queries, it would be nice if Google had a query builder that guided you towards the perfect query. Of course, Google does it more subtly using related searches, spelling corrections or by automatically expanding some of your keywords.

Google Tests a New Homepage in Asia

PC World reports that Google tests new homepages in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Google sends the user to an iGoogle page preloaded with gadgets that highlight many Google tools, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google News, Google Translate. To include a lot of content in a limited space, Google used the compound gadget.

Google justified the move by saying it "takes advantage of faster broadband speeds in those markets", but the real reason might be that the simple Google homepage doesn't work well there. "We think [the new design] will be more appropriate for the local cultures, and their context, and their broadband connections, which, for example in Korea, are extraordinarily fast," said Sergey Brin.

It's not the first change that reflects Google's intention to gain more market share in countries where it's not the leader in search: China, Russia, Korea. Google expanded its local presence in China by building custom services, launched a Q&A service in Russia and a new homepage in Korea.

Will these small compromises erode Google's philosophy? Will we still see the classic Google homepage in 5 years?

Google's experimental homepage for Hong Kong

July 23, 2007

Google AJAX Search for the iPhone

Google built a search interface optimized for iPhone that uses the AJAX Search API and it's available at The interface has all the limitations of the API (for example, you can only see the first 8 results), but it's more usable on a phone.

Mark Lucovsky's team has also added image search to the API, which now includes support for web search, custom search engines, image search, Google News, blog search, book search, Google Maps and video search. Until now, the AJAX Search API was mostly used to build widgets for blogs and personalized homepages and didn't successfully replace the discontinued SOAP API.

Update: A Google spokesperson asked me to clarify that "this is a developer demo, not a new Google service". Google only wanted to show how easily developers can use Google search in their iPhone apps.

July 22, 2007

SearchCrystal - Visual Meta Search

SearchCrystal is an interesting way to visualize results from different search engines. The results common to more search engines are placed closer to the center of circle and have special icons that indicate the search engines. You can use this visualization to compare search engines, to find the rankings of a site or just to discover less common web pages.

SearchCrystal also lets you view image results, videos, news and blog posts from the most popular specialized search engines, but the overlaps are less frequent here. Unlike most meta-search engines, SearchCrystal lets you view all the top results in a single page and you can also embed it as a widget in your blog. Unfortunately, the site is pretty slow, so I preferred to include a screenshot instead.

Search Engines and Favoritism

While most search engines say they return unbiased results, it's interesting to compare how well the services of a company perform in the search engine of the same company and other competing search engines. I chose the top three search engines: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's Windows Live Search and 10 general queries directly related to products or services developed by all the three companies.

It's interesting to notice that Google ranked its own sites as #1 in 7 cases out of 10 and Yahoo in 6 cases out of 10. Microsoft's services have poor rankings in most search engines, including Windows Live Search. A single Google service was the top result in Yahoo Search (Google News) and only one Yahoo service was #1 in Google Search (Yahoo Mail). You'll also find surprising that for "desktop search", each company placed its own desktop search software as the top result. But then again, this is just an empirical test and everything might just be a coincidence.

The tables show the ranking for each product (for example, the second row from the next table shows how well performed Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail in Google Search for the query "mail"). You can use a site like to compare the results in the same window.

Google Search 2
Yahoo Search 8
Windows Live Search 2

Google Search 3
Yahoo Search 15
Windows Live Search 3

Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 3
Windows Live Search 1

Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 2
Windows Live Search 26

Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 3
Windows Live Search 3

Desktop search
Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 3
Windows Live Search 4

Image search
Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 2
Windows Live Search 1

Video search
Google Search
Yahoo Search 5
Windows Live Search 3

News search
Google Search 1
Yahoo Search 1
Windows Live Search 1

Google Search 8
Yahoo Search 2
Windows Live Search 3

* no web page in the top 30 results

Google Buys ImageAmerica to Improve Google Earth's Imagery

Google bought ImageAmerica, a company that produces high-resolution imagery using some interesting technologies. "In 1998, ImageAmerica set out to change dated industry methodology by developing a unique, digital panoramic imaging technology. Shortly thereafter, ImageAmerica fielded the world's first commercial high-resolution digital camera system based on this technology. Today, the patented DDP-2 camera remains the world resolution leader with more than twice the resolution of its nearest competitor. This high-resolution capability and proprietary ImageAmerica processing software are the keys to quick and efficient delivery of large imagery datasets."

ImageAmerica offered Google and other companies high-resolution imagery of the New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina so people could identify the affected areas. "700 square miles of high-quality six-inch digital aerial imagery of New Orleans and the surrounding area were captured and fully orthorectified and mosaicked in a 24 hour period," according to a press release.
ImageAmerica is in the business of providing updated and new digital orthoimagery* for use in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Customers generally include city, county, state and federal government entities along with commercial enterprises.

Our digital ortho technologies provide a unique combination of benefits including wide area coverage, high resolution, National Map Accuracy Standard (NMAS) accuracy, quick delivery and low cost.

Our Beech Starship aircraft provides the perfect platform for the DDP-2 (Direct Digital Panoramic) system. Able to fly high, fast and with great stability, the aircraft allows us to optimize the camera system capability. (...)

Using ImageAmerica products, customers with existing GIS can now afford to obtain annual highly accurate updates to their ortho base maps.

Even if Google says we won't see the effects of this acquisition immediately, Google Maps/Google Earth's imagery should update faster and have a better quality.

*According to this site, "a digital ortho is an aerial photograph that has been processed to correct for scale variations and image displacement resulting from relief or terrain variations and camera tilt such that positions of objects appearing on the image are represented in their true position (coordinate)."

{ Most of the quotes are from Exalead's cache of ImageAmerica's website. }

July 21, 2007

A Faster Way to Invite Contacts to Multiple Google Docs

If you have to frequently invite the same collaborators for your documents and spreadsheets, you'll find the process tedious. Fortunately, you can create groups and add all the contacts from a group in only 4 clicks.

You can create a group by going to the Contacts section of Gmail or using this rather new contact picker (screenshots 1-3). Search for the contacts you want to add and click on their name. There's also an "Add All" button that lets you add the contacts displayed in the current view. When you're done, click on "Save as group", type a name for the group and close the window. Groups can only be edited and removed from the standard Gmail interface.

The next time when you need to invite the collaborators, click on the "Choose from contacts" link from the Share tab, select your group from the list and "Add All" (screenshots 4-6).

Google Docs Integrates with Google Calendar

The most important feature of Google Docs is collaboration, but it's not very easy to manage the list of collaborators or to use it for other documents and outside Google Docs. One small feature that will help if you have a lot of collaborators is the possibility to create a Google Calendar event that invites everyone working on a document.

This only works for shared documents and lets you create events that includes all the collaborators and invited viewers as guests. The invitation also contains a link to the document and the collaborators don't have to use Google Calendar. "Anyone with an email address can receive invitations from Google Calendar. When your guest receives an invitation email and clicks on one of the attendance options, he'll be taken to the event page where he can check other guests' attendance status and he can leave comments."

It's easier than manually copy-pasting email addresses and Google Calendar keeps track of those who accepted the invitation, so you don't have to. "This feature is great for those of us who enjoy Google Docs & Spreadsheets as a collaborative resource for collaborative events -- think of all the times a document becomes a meeting -- scheduling a get-together to review a proposal, sending an agenda in advance, or just keeping score for your Wednesday night backgammon club," suggests a Google Docs guide.

July 20, 2007

Google Discontinues Click-to-Call and Related Links

Two small but useful Google services are no longer available. Click-to-call, the Google Maps feature that allowed you to call a business for free in the US, was removed. "This feature was a long-running experiment, and in the end it was decided to discontinue it. There are however lots of other features we're adding to maps in the hope of making it even more useful," says a Googler who recommends trying GOOG-411, an automated voice-based mobile search engine. You can also try Microsoft's local search engine, which continues to include a click-to-call feature.

Haochi Chen was reminded of that strange day from October 2006 when Google's Official Blog was hacked and somebody posted that "Google has decided not to continue with Google Click-to-call project". Apparently, he was right.

Another discontinued service is Related Links, that showed links to news, videos and searches related to the content of a page in a small box which looked similar to an AdSense unit. Many people were disappointed that they don't earn money for adding it to their sites and the links weren't very relevant, a problem that is also noticeable in the similar feature available in Gmail and Google Groups. A Google representative told Google Blogoscoped that "through our evaluation of the Labs product, we identified the most compelling functionalities of Related Links and integrated them into new and improved products, like the AJAX Search API and AdSense Link Units". Unfortunately, the most compelling functionality was to display dynamic content from the web that complements and enhances a page, but you don't get this using AdSense Link Units (ads) or AJAX Search API (you need to manually define the queries). Some alternatives for Related Links: Sphere widget, Findory's API.

One of the nine rules for innovation shared by Google's Marissa Mayer was "don't kill projects, morph them". Hopefully, they'll morph into something better.

Users Report Gaining Access to Random Google Accounts

There are many problems with Google's services lately. After Google Groups had some temporary glitches, some people report that Google switches them to random accounts.

Jvy Loh writes on his blog about the incidents:

"It started off when I was using gg docs and after closing 1 of my docs, I was returned to my 'doc home', however, someone else's email was reflected at the top instead of mine. It disappeared soon after before I could catch what was going on. (...) Lately, the google problem came up again. Nearly everytime I boot up my computer, and login to google toolbar or gmail, I began to notice that when I went further to click on other google services, e.g. gg reader, very often I went into someone else's reader. Not just their email id replacing mine at the top, it was literally someone's reader. I could read their feeds and so on. (...) The MOST SERIOUS thing so far is that you can accidentally made changes to other user's account while you think you are modifying your own. I realized that when I was making changes/adding items, like adding a bookmark, adding a feed into my reader, and adding notes to my notebook, adding gg gadgets to my igoogle, rearranging my igoogle layout, the changes all went to the other party, not mine, and hey this is scary!"

He also mentions that the users seem "to be originating from the same city, which is Singapore, and I suspect some of them are students, by browsing through the gg reader feeds presented to me, and supposingly 'my bookmarks'. (...) Not only did it appear in Singapore, those users seem to be from the same organization, which are local universities, 1 from NTU, and some may be from NUS, and fyi the 2 top universities in Singapore are located in the west of Singapore, and I am in the north-west, which is pretty near to each other."

Other Google user complains over at Google Groups: "Whenever I use Google Reader, I would 'cross-over' to another user's account."

And another one: "I've been login to other users today, seeing their feeds instead of mine. I login to gmail and google reader. While reading the feeds halfway I would see my feeds change into other user's [feeds], my account will also change to other google user account."

Other report from a regular reader of this blog: "While I was reading posts in Google Reader today, my account was switched to someone else's account. The account name on the upper right corner changed and I could see all his or her subscriptions in my Google Reader. I closed the Reader and open it again. Nice! I could read another person's subscriptions. I tried iGoogle and it was also changed."

It seems that this isn't an isolated incident and it may have something to do with Google cookies and Google Reader, but it's not very clear. If you had similar problems or you know what causes them, please let us know.

Update. Matt Cutts, from Google, posted this: "Given that most of these reports are coming from a single area (Singapore), it sounds like an ISP isn't handling their connections correctly. We've certainly seen ISPs mess up their proxies before. I'll still ask about this though."

Update 2. Jvy Loh writes: "Since last Saturday [July 22] after Google Reader was patched (need confirmation from Google whether the Google Reader or local ISP proxy/cache played a bigger part in this security problem), I have not noticed any more security glitches. Two other Singapore users who contacted me also reported no more security issues since then. So, we have enough reasons to think that the security issues related to what I have reported have been eliminated."

July 19, 2007

Earth at Night

Google Earth has three new layers from NASA (you can find them in the Featured Content folder): astronaut photos of the Earth, satellite imagery for geographic phenomena like the tsunami from 2004 that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean and Earth City Lights, a layer that shows the intensity of light at night for all the cities in the world. Here's a part of Europe and some context:

"The brightest areas of the Earth are the most urbanized, but not necessarily the most populated. (Compare western Europe with China and India.) Cities tend to grow along coastlines and transportation networks. Even without the underlying map, the outlines of many continents would still be visible. (...) Even more than 100 years after the invention of the electric light, some regions remain thinly populated and unlit. Antarctica is entirely dark. The interior jungles of Africa and South America are mostly dark, but lights are beginning to appear there," says NASA about the layer.

Google Reader Is More Podcast-Friendly

Hello and welcome to a new exciting post from Google Operating System. Stafford from Seoul writes to tell us about a new feature in Google Reader:

"I use Google Reader primarily to catch podcasts - it provides a nice Flash MP3 player within the post. Has anyone noticed that you can click on "popout" which will open the Flash player in a small window so you can keep moving through Reader without closing a post, thus stopping the audio?"

Well, I didn't notice the small link, but it's pretty useful if you subscribe to long podcasts. In fact, Google Reader adds the "popout" link next to each embedded audio or video and you can open more than one podcast in its own window. Now if only I could find some interesting podcasts...

Until next time, have fun and enjoy this summer wherever you are!

Custom YouTube Players: Here Comes YouTube TV

You can now create customized YouTube players, choose a color theme, a video playlist and share your favorite videos. My green player shows three collections of incredible places from Google Earth, but you can use it as your own TV channel: it's easy to control the look and the content. When you add new videos to the playlist, your custom player will automatically include them. I wonder if businesses will be able to completely customize the player when YouTube launches the corporate version, as part of Google Apps.

Google Print Ads, a Good News for the US Newspapers

While the newspapers are slowly dying and are trying to find good solutions to survive in the digital age, Google gives them some help.

"Last fall, newspaper executives and analysts were caught by surprise by the severity of a slump that took hold last summer. Since the beginning of this year, the rate of decline in advertising revenue has accelerated. Total print and online ad revenue was down 4.8% to $10.6 billion in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to the Newspaper Association of America, compared with its full-year decline in 2006 of 0.3%," says the Wall Street Journal.

Last year, Google started to test a program for delivering ads to 50 important US papers using the same AdWords front-end as for online ads. Yesterday Google announced that the program has been extended to 225 newspapers and is open to all the US advertisers. "Google Print Ads enables agencies and advertisers of all sizes to easily plan and buy traditional newspaper media in both national and local newspapers within a single, web-enabled interface. The platform enables marketers to reach new audiences in ways that are relevant for newspaper readers and cost-efficient for advertisers and publishers. And newspaper publishers can increase their bottom line by adding new customers from Google's network of advertisers, many of whom are new to newspaper advertising."

Google Print Ads works in a very traditional fashion, without automatic targeting: "First, you select the newspapers you'd like to advertise in. Next, you can select which sections, days of the week, and ad sizes are the most appropriate for your target customer. Then, you simply name the price you're willing to pay for that insertion, choosing your own offer price instead of entering an AdWords-like auction. The publisher will consider each bid separately, based on a variety of factors including day-of-week, desired section, pre-established rates for the advertiser's industry, and available inventory for that particular day. If the newspaper accepts your offer, you upload your ad directly into the system, and your ad runs. If the newspaper does not accept your bid, you can easily start a dialogue with the newspaper to reach an offer that benefits both parties."

Google wants to build a complete advertising machine that lets you create a campaign and choose the mediums best adapted to your ad and budget (web, print, radio, TV, games, outdoor).

July 18, 2007

Google Reader as a Social News Aggregator

If you use Google Reader, you must know about its sharing feature. "Every Google Reader account comes with a public page which you can use to share items of interest with your friends and family. (...) Like any regular web page, your public page is viewable by anyone who knows its address."

Of course, the problem is that nobody knows that address and you need to email it to your friends or publish it to your site. So except for creating a link blog or filtering the news for some of your friends, the feature is not very useful.

But what if Google Reader showed you the top shared items by your Gmail contacts? Or the top shared items by Latvian people? Or the top shared blog posts labeled as "Google"? Some might say Google Reader will morph into a social news site like Digg, Reddit, Newsvine.

For Facebook users, the transformation is already visible thanks to a simple app that connects the dots between the shared pages. The list of top shared items by more than 4,000 Facebook users is available at the author's website. It's not perfect, but hopefully someone from Google Reader will realize the potential of this feature and will implement it.

Robert Scoble, who lives many hours a day inside Google Reader, where he builds a very interesting link blog, likes the Facebook app. "This is the beginning of something really killer. It's something I wanted Google to do — Google could put out a Digg-style killer that'd be a lot harder to game. Admittedly this isn't to the level of a Digg killer yet, but it is gathering steam at a very rapid pace. There's a lot of smart people using Google Reader — Eric Auchard at Reuters is on the list, for instance. That'll lead to a lot better news than Digg picks on an average day."

BlogRovR - A Guided Walk Through the Blogosphere

BlogRovR is a Firefox extension that lets you browse the web guided by your favorite blogs. After you install the extension, you'll have the opportunity to enter a list of blogs (there are also predefined bundles of blogs) or import an OPML file from your feed reader. Everytime you visit a new web page, you'll a small box with snippets from the blog posts included in your list that link to the current page. For example, if you visit Google Video, you might see two surprisingly similar posts from TechCrunch and Mashable that discuss the problem of copyright infringement in online video sites and link to full-length movies available at Google Video:

You can configure from the toolbar how often BlogRovR's list shows up and even disable it when you don't want to see it.

This is a great way to cluster blog posts: visit the source of a news and you'll see a list of blogs that link to that page. It's also a method to see if one your favorite bloggers linked to your site.

Note: If this extension gives you a déjà vu feeling, then you know about Blogger Web Comments, a Firefox extension created by Google that "makes it easy to see what bloggers are saying about a page you're viewing". The difference is that Google's extension doesn't let you restrict the blogosphere to your favorite blogs.

Social Gmail

Google has an emerging social network and it doesn't use it. No, I don't talk about orkut or Socialstream (which was only sponsored by Google). Gmail, Google's most successful project if we leave search aside, has the potential of gathering information from all the other Google services that can be easily shared with your contacts.

The Past
Contacts started to become actual links in a social network when Gmail added avatars, last year. The chat made it possible to see the online presence of some of your contacts.

In April, iGoogle added a surprising feature: wizards that let you build simple gadgets and share them with your friends: greetings, photo albums, counting the days until a special event. A smart man made this comment: "This reminds me of a Facebook profile page. You can share your favorite photos/videos, put up your status, and add friends to your community so you can look at each other's pages. Google is sort of jumping into the social networking realm with this one...".

The Present
Most Google services have a way to share content: you can share your favorite videos, photo albums, documents, blog posts, but there's no central place to manage how you share content or a simple way to expose the shared content.

Google Reader has a feature that lets you share feed items, but you need to explicitly send to your friends the link to your shared items. Facebook's app for Google Reader generates a list of the top shared items by your friends, and that's a great way to discover new content filtered by the people you know.

Many Google services ask you to create a profile: Google Groups, Blogger, orkut, dodgeball, Google Co-op, but all these profiles are distinct and difficult to manage.

The Future
Gmail can easily create a graph of the interactions with your contacts based on how fast you answer to someone's message, how much do you write, the analysis of messages. Instead of a static profile you need to build for each of your contact, you could see his live profile that contains information aggregated from different services.

All this data could make you communicate more efficiently because Gmail could prioritize messages based on previous patterns and show more context about a contact when you type your message.

Gmail could also separate your contacts into different groups and let you share different data for each group. You'll share photos, documents, web sites, notes from a single place.

Creating a mail application centered on conversations instead of messages was a smart move from Google, but now Gmail should focus on those who create the conversations and try to make the conversations better. After all, conversation comes from the latin conversari ("to associate with"), so conversations could update the associations from Gmail's social graph. That's Gmail 2.0, the social Gmail.

July 17, 2007

Finding Related Web Pages

Google is the only major search engine that offers a "similar pages" feature, but not too many people use it. Launched in September 1999 as GoogleScout (scout=explore, investigate), the feature shows around 30 web pages related to a search result.

For example, to find sites related to Google Reader, you can click on the "similar pages" link placed after the snippet and you'll discover other feed readers, Google Reader's blog, information about feeds, blog platforms.

The related pages are generated by analyzing the link structure of the web. A patent from 2000 explains how this feature works: "a first set of hyperlinked documents that have a forward link to the selected hyperlinked document is provided. Additionally, a second set of hyperlinked documents that are pointed to by the forward links in the hyperlinked documents in the first set is provided. A value is assigned to each forward link in each of the hyperlinked documents in the first set, with the value being reduced for a forward link if there are multiple hyperlinked documents from the same host as the hyperlinked document that includes the forward link. A score is generated for each hyperlinked document in the second set according to the values of the forward links pointing to the hyperlinked document. Accordingly, a list of related hyperlinked documents is generated from the second set according to the score of the hyperlinked documents."

Basically, you're expecting that many sites that link to Google Reader will also link to its competitors and to related information. This is very similar to Amazon's recommendations: "customers who bought this item also bought".

How to use this features?

Unfortunately, Google's implementation has a major flaw: because many pages link to popular sites like Blogger, Flickr, StatCounter, you'll sometimes find these sites in the list of related links even if they're completely unrelated. Gred Linden calls this "the Harry Potter problem", when talking about Amazon's recommendation system. "The first version of similarities was quite popular. But it had a problem, the Harry Potter problem. Oh, yes, Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a runaway bestseller. Kids buy it. Adults buy it. Everyone buys it. So, take a book, any book. If you look at all the customers who bought that book, then look at what other books they bought, rest assured, most of them have bought Harry Potter."

So even if GoogleScout doesn't work well all the time, it's a great tool for research and serependitious discoveries (add a bookmarklet to your browser to use this feature for any site you visit). Another way to find related pages is to search for a site in Google Directory and to click on its category. uses the bookmarks from to complete this sentence: "people who bookmarked this site also bookmarked...", while the untrustworthy Alexa fills in the blanks for "people who visit this site also visit...". Google also uses similar ideas to provide recommendations based on your search history.

July 16, 2007

Google Custom Search Business Edition

Google launched a business edition of the Custom Search program that will allow small businesses to add powerful search features for their sites. Google offers the same benefits as in the consumer edition, but also technical support, customization of search results using an XML API and no ads. The service is not very cheap: $100 per year for websites of up to 5,000 web pages, and $500 per year for websites of up to 50,000 pages, but it's much cheaper than other similar services or Google Search Appliance, a hardware solution that creates a local index and lets you search the intranet as well. The most affordable search appliance from Google costs $1,995 for 50,000 web pages. Here are the prices for other hosted site search solutions (* means that the product lets you control the crawling frequency, ** means the search tool also indexes password-protected pages):

Price for a year (5,000 documents)
FusionBot** $2,400
Spiderline** $1,200
Freefind* $948
SiteLevel* $863.78
FindinSite* $720
PicoSearch** $498 (6,000 documents)
Mysitesearch* $239.4
Innerprise* $228
Google Custom Search $100

Because Google uses its index to deliver results for the custom search engine, it can't guarantee it will index a web site or a certain page. Most other products try to completely index the site and let you control how often they re-index the pages.

Google realized that the ad-supported model, that works very well for consumers, isn't an option for businesses, that want technical support, custom-tailored solutions and are willing to pay for this.

Google to Launch a Search Engine for Ringtones

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google works on a search engine for mobile media content that will include ringtones and games.

"With the new system, users would search for a piece of content -- such as ringtones -- and would get back a list of companies that provide it, with links letting them easily purchase the material. (...) The company has been working for months with content providers -- including large entertainment companies and smaller mobile media aggregators -- to index their material and make it available via mobile search. (...) The Internet company has considered including a social-networking component that would let users of Google's Gmail email service exchange content, one person familiar with the initiative said. Google declined to comment."

Google has launched mobile versions for most of its services, including search, Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube and it's now testing AdSense for mobile content. But a search engine for ringtones and games could jeopardize Google's partnerships with many carriers that want to keep the customers inside their "walled gardens". There aren't many good services in this space (Mogmo comes to my mind), so Google's search engine will actually fill a void. Until some carriers decide to block it.