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September 30, 2009

A New Batch of Google Wave Invites

Google Wave is about to open to new users. Starting today, Google will send 100,000 invites to some of those who were eager to use an early version of the service. Google's blog lists three categories of users that will receive invites: Google Wave Sandbox users, those who signed up and offered to give feedback on Google Wave and some Google Apps users. When you receive an invitation to Google Wave, you'll be able to invite other people so you can use Google Wave together.

"Google received more than 1 million requests to participate in the preview, said Lars Rasmussen, engineering manager for Google Wave, and while it won't be able to accommodate all those requests on Wednesday it is at least ready to begin the next phase of the project," writes CNet.

Like Gmail's early version released in April 2004, Google Wave lacks many basic features: you can't remove someone from a wave, you can't configure permissions or write drafts. The interface is not very polished and some of the options are difficult to find, but it's important to keep in mind that Google Wave is just one of the ways to implement an open protocol. Gmail revolutionized email with an interface inspired by discussion boards: messages are grouped in conversations and it's easy to handle a large amount of messages. Google Wave wants to revolutionize real-time communication by extending a protocol mostly used for instant messaging, XMPP.

Combining email, instant messaging and wikis seems like a recipe for confusion, but Google Wave pioneers a new generation of web applications, where everything is instantaneous. As Google explains, each wave is a hosted conversation and users can edit the conversation in real-time.

September 29, 2009

Google Docs OCR

Google Docs API tests a new feature that lets you perform OCR (optical character recognition) on an image. There's a live demo that illustrates this feature: you can upload a high-resolution JPG, GIF, or PNG image that has less than 10 MB and Google Docs extracts the text and converts it into a new document. Google mentions that "the operation can currently take up to 40 seconds" and a small test showed that the service is not yet reliable: it's slow and it frequently returns errors.

The results are far from perfect and you'll find many errors, but the service is free and it's constantly improving. Here's the result of the OCR for this scanned document:

There aren't many free OCR services available, so an OCR service provided by Google would be very popular. ABBYY FineReader Online is one of the best online OCR services, but the free version is limited to 10 pages a day.

Google sponsors the development of an open-source OCR software called OCRopus, but it's not clear if the online service provided by Google Docs uses OCRopus.

Google Hot Trends OneBox

Google started to show an OneBox at the bottom of the search results for the queries listed in Google Hot Trends. The OneBox mentions that a certain query is "#N of 100 most popular searches in the past hour", even though Google Hot Trends doesn't aggregate the most popular searches, which are pretty boring and don't change very often. As Google's blog explains, "Hot Trends lists the fastest rising searches on the web at any given hour".

Google uses the fact that a query is suddenly popular in various ways: for example, to include recent web pages in the list of top results or to show results from Google News and Google Blog Search. Unfortunately, Google Hot Trends doesn't do a good job at explaining why a certain query is popular, so Google should add more real-time news sources like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube.

September 27, 2009

Show Gmail Labels with Unread Messages

If you have a lot of labels in Gmail, it's difficult to see all of them without scrolling down. In July, Gmail added an option to hide some of your labels, so that the most important labels are always visible. Unfortunately, if you receive a message that's automatically labeled using a filter and the label is hidden, you'll miss the message.

A new feature from Gmail Labs solves this problem: enable Hide read labels and "the visible labels in the navigation bar will be hidden under the 'more' menu when they don't contain any unread conversations".

Since the feature only hides visible labels, you can go to the label management page and click on "show all" next to your labels. If all your labels are visible and Hide read labels is enabled, Gmail will only show the labels that include unread messages.

Google Reader has a similar feature: if you click on the arrow next to your subscriptions and select "show updated", you'll only see the folders and the feeds with unread items.

{ via Gmail's blog }

Google Street View's Partner Program

Google has a partner program for Street View. "Do you manage a unique property (pedestrian mall, amusement park, university campus, etc.) that users would like to visit in Street View? Through our Partner Program, you can now request Google to collect imagery of your location. Once the images are added to Street View, people all over the world will be able to virtually explore your property."

For now, the program is limited to properties that are interesting to Google's users. Some of the examples included in the FAQ: "zoos, parks, universities, amusement parks, outdoor marketplaces, stadiums, monuments, tourist destinations, and race tracks".

Here's a Street View tricycle at the Palace of Versailles:

... and another Street View trike at Stonehenge:

{ via Brian Ussery }

Export Google Sites

Google has released an API for Google Sites that lets you create or edit pages, upload or download attachments, monitor the activity of a site programmatically. The API could be use to create a new interface for Google Sites, to upload files from other sources or to migrate your data.

Google's Data Liberation team built a Java application for importing and exporting Google Sites. The application lets you export the pages from a site and all their attachments to a folder.

"The folder structure of an exported site is meant to mimic the Sites UI as closely as possible. Thus if exporting to a directory "rootdirectory," a top-level page normally located at webspace/pagename, would be in a file named index.html, located in rootdirectory/pagename. A subpage of that page, normally located at webspace/pagename/subpage, would be in a file named index.html in rootdirectory/pagename/subpage. Attachments are downloaded to the same directory as the index.html page to which they belong," mentions the user guide.

You should only enter the domain name if you use Google Apps. "Webspace" is the name of your site:

Unfortunately, you can't use this tool to import HTML files to an existing site. The importing option is only useful for the sites exported using the same application.

September 25, 2009

Chrome Frame, Not Just for Internet Explorer

Google has recently released a plugin for Internet Explorer that renders web pages using Google Chrome. The plugin, called Google Chrome Frame, is open-source and the code is publicly available.

By looking at the code, it's obvious that the plugin is not limited to Internet Explorer. There's also a NPAPI plugin, which should work in browsers that support NPAPI: Firefox, Safari, Opera and other browsers. Here's a comment from one of the Chrome Frame files:

"ChromeFrameNPAPI: Implementation of the NPAPI plugin, which is responsible for hosting a chrome frame, i.e. an iframe like widget which hosts the the chrome window. This object delegates to Chrome.exe (via the Chrome IPC-based automation mechanism) for the actual rendering".

A post from the Chromium blog explained the purpose of Google's plugin: "With Google Chrome Frame, developers can now take advantage of the latest open web technologies, even in Internet Explorer. From a faster Javascript engine, to support for current web technologies like HTML5's offline capabilities and <canvas>, to modern CSS/Layout handling, Google Chrome Frame enables these features within IE with no additional coding or testing for different browser versions."

Instead of asking users to download a different browser, Google and other companies that develop complex web applications can ask users to install Google Chrome Frame. This way, Google Chrome runs invisibly inside another browser.

Google Maps Place Pages

When you perform a search in Google Maps and click on "more info" next to a search result, Google opens a new page that aggregates useful information about places and local businesses. Until now, Google showed an expanded bubble directly on the map.

The new Google Maps pages have user-friendly URLs like and they include a lot data: photos and videos from Panoramio and YouTube, user-generated maps, reviews, related web pages, information from Wikipedia, Street View imagery.

"We think Place Pages will make searching much easier (and hopefully more fun!) for our users, but we're also excited about what it means for business owners. By default, users looking for local businesses can easily view ratings for your business, reviews, related maps, find nearby transit options showing them how to get to you, and take a look at your business with a Street View preview - and it's all on one page," says Google LatLong blog.

While new Place Pages look nice, they have a big drawback: when you click on "more info" next to a search result, Google Maps opens a new page and you lose the context, so it's difficult to compare the results. To go back to the list of results, you need to use your browser's back button.

September 23, 2009

Google Sidewiki

Last year, Google launched a feature called SearchWiki that allows users to customize search results. If you are logged in, you can remove search results, promote them at the top of the search results page and enter comments. While the feature is useful to personalize the results for frequent queries, the "wiki" component was only an afterthought.

Check the SearchWiki page for "google" and you'll realize that the 27511 notes recorded by Google aren't very useful. Comments aren't helpful, even though Google tries to rank them by usefulness.

A similar feature is now available in Google Toolbar. Google Sidewiki lets you enter comments about any web page and shows some of the best comments in a sidebar. The feature is integrated with Google Profiles, so you can find more information about the author and read other Sidewiki comments.

Google notifies you if there are comments about the current page, so you need to send your browsing history to use the feature.

Sorting the comments by date wouldn't be a great idea, because spam and silly comments like "lol" or "cool site" would be prevalent. That's why, Google developed a ranking algorithm that takes into account many signals: user votes, author's authority, text analysis. Danny Sullivan says that "Google has a language sophistication detector now, and one that works in the 14 different languages that Sidewiki supports".

Learning some information about a site, finding if a certain company is reputable or reading a comment that corrects some errors from an article - all are use cases for Sidewiki, but it remains to be seen if Google manages to rank comments properly.

As with Knol, Google encourages experts to post comments in Sidewiki: "What if everyone, from a local expert to a renowned doctor, had an easy way of sharing their insights with you about any page on the web?" Unfortunately, experts don't have an incentive to post comments and isn't always easy to distinguish experts from opinionated users.

Larry Page once said that Google wasn't supposed to be a search engine. "We built a ranking system to deal with annotations. We wanted to annotate the web--build a system so that after you'd viewed a page you could click and see what smart comments other people had about it. But how do you decide who gets to annotate Yahoo? We needed to figure out how to choose which annotations people should look at, which meant that we needed to figure out which other sites contained comments we should classify as authoritative. Hence PageRank."

A Slippery Slope

Now that Google launched a Chrome plug-in for Internet Explorer, users will see dialogs that suggest to install the plug-in. The first Google service that will show this message is Google Wave.

"To use Google Wave in Internet Explorer you need to install the Google Chrome Frame browser plugin. Or, you can use one of these browsers: Google Chrome, Safari 4, Firefox 3.5. If you want to continue at your own peril, go ahead."

I'm not an Internet Explorer user and I understand that developers hate it because they have to spend a lot of time finding workarounds for IE, instead of adding new features, but this message is misleading.

"To use Google Wave in Internet Explorer you need to install the Google Chrome Frame browser plugin." That's simply not true: Google Wave works in Internet Explorer, even though there are some features that require Google Gears or work better in other browsers.

"Google Wave depends on strong JS and DOM rendering performance to provide a desktop-like experience in the browser. HTML5's offline storage and web workers will enable us to add great features without having to compromise on performance. Unfortunately, Internet Explorer, still used by the majority of the Web's users, has not kept up with such fairly recent developments in Web technology. Compared with other browsers, the JavaScript performance is many times slower and HTML5 support is still far behind. Likewise, the many different versions of IE still in use -- each with its own set of CSS quirks and layout limitations -- further complicates building rich Web applications. In the past, the Google Wave team has spent countless hours solely on improving the experience of running Google Wave in Internet Explorer. We could continue in this fashion, but using Google Chrome Frame instead lets us invest all that engineering time in more features for all our users, without leaving Internet Explorer users behind," explains Google.

Just because you can't offer the same experience in all browsers is not a reason to mislead users. You can inform users that your application runs faster in Google Chrome or certain features are only available if you install a plug-in or a more recent browser.

It's a slippery slope and I hope Google doesn't drop support for Internet Explorer just because it's a good opportunity to promote its own browser. Especially now, when even Microsoft builds applications that don't require Internet Explorer.

"Graceful degradation is an important principle in Web design. It means that, when you put in features designed to take advantage of the latest and greatest features of newer browsers, you should do it in a way that older browsers, and browsers letting users disable particular features, can "step down" to a method that still allows access to the basic content of the site, though perhaps not as snazzy in appearance," explains Dan Tobias.

Blogger App for iPhone

BlogPress Lite is the free version of a blogging app for iPhone that supports Blogger, WordPress, TypePad and other platforms. The free version only works for Blogger blogs and it's the only free Blogger app available in the App Store.

The setup is awkward: after entering your Google credentials, the application asks you to enter your Picasa credentials. This is unnecessary since Blogger and Picasa Web Albums are two services connected to the same Google account. Instead of adding the photos to the same album used by Blogger, the application lets you choose one of your albums.

BlogPress Lite lists all the blogs from your account, has a landscape mode with a wider virtual keyboard and an option to label your posts.

Despite promising to offer a rich-text editor, the application only lets you add plain text and upload photos. BlogPress Lite resizes the photos before uploading them, but the resizing algorithm is pretty poor and resulting images are very small.

After writing your post, BlogPress Lite provides two options: publish the post or save it as a draft. Unfortunately, saving the post as a draft doesn't upload it to Blogger, it only saves the post locally. To upload the post the post as a draft, you need to click on the arrow next to the title and disable publishing.

To sum app, BlogPress Lite has a poor interface, doesn't include a rich-text editor, but it's a better way to edit posts on a mobile phone than using Blogger's web interface and it's the only free blogging app from the App Store that supports Blogger. The application has been developed by InfoThinker, with Google's support.

How to find the application? Search for BlogPressLite in the App Store or use this link. BlogPress Lite requires iPhone OS 3.0 or a later version.

{ via Rick Klau }

September 22, 2009

Picasa 3.5 Adds Face Recognition

If you liked the feature from Picasa Web Albums that detects the faces in your photos and clusters them, it's now available in Picasa 3.5. Face recognition works locally, without sending data to Google's servers.

For some reason, the feature is enabled by default and it starts to process your photos right after installing the software. It's pretty slow and the accuracy is far from perfect: you might see multiple clusters for the same person and different people addded to the same cluster.

If you sign in using a Google account, you can choose people from your contacts when you're asked to add names for each group of photos. There's also the option to download the name tags from Picasa Web Albums if some of your photos are stored online.

"As with Picasa Web Albums, your reward for trudging through your photos to add tags is better organization, which for a massive library of old, archived shots can be hugely helpful," thinks Josh Lowensohn, from CNet.

Another new feature in Picasa 3.5 is geotagging using Google Maps. Until now, you had to install Google Earth to add locations to your photos. The latest version of Picasa has a "places" sidebar that lets you drag photos to a map.

Three years ago, when Google acquired Neven Vision, a blog post mentioned the goal of the acquisition: improving the way you organize photos in Picasa. "It's not always easy to search through your personal photos, and it's certainly a lot harder than searching the web. Unless you take the time to label and organize all your pictures (and I'll freely admit that I don't), chances are it can be pretty hard to find that photo you just know is hidden somewhere deep inside your computer. We've been working to make Picasa (Google's free photo-organizing software) even better when it comes to searching for your own photos — to make finding them be as easy as finding stuff on the web. Luckily we've found some people who share this goal, and are excited that the Neven Vision team is now part of Google."

Update: For now, this is an English-only release, so it's not available if you set a different language for the Picasa page. Here are the direct download links for Picasa 3.5:


Use Google Chrome in Internet Explorer

If you can't install Google Chrome and you must use Internet Explorer, there's a way to use Google Chrome's rendering engine inside IE: Google Chrome Frame. After installing the plug-in, you can test it by adding cf: in front of any URL from the address bar.

Google Chrome Frame is an interesting option for the developers that write web applications and use HTML or CSS features that are available in any modern browser except IE. They can add a meta tag at the top of a web page and enable the Google Chrome plug-in:

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="chrome=1">

Google also provides some JavaScript code that prompts users to install the plug-in. It's not very pleasant to ask users to install a plug-in if they want to use your applications, but it's easier than asking them to change their browser.

Google Chrome Frame is an early-stage open source plug-in that seamlessly brings Google Chrome's open web technologies and speedy JavaScript engine to Internet Explorer. With Google Chrome Frame, you can:

* Start using open web technologies - like the HTML5 canvas tag - right away, even technologies that aren't yet supported in Internet Explorer 6, 7, or 8.

* Take advantage of JavaScript performance improvements to make your apps faster and more responsive.

Tip: After installing the plug-in, bookmark cf: to speed up Gmail in Internet Explorer. You should also try to use the applications from the Chrome Experiments page.

Push Gmail for iPhone and Windows Mobile

Two years after Yahoo surprised everyone by launching push Yahoo Mail for iPhone, Google adds push support for Gmail. And it's not limited to iPhone, it also works for Windows Mobile devices.

"Push e-mail is used to describe e-mail systems that provide an "always-on" capability, in which new e-mail is instantly and actively transferred (pushed) as it arrives by the mail delivery agent (MDA) (commonly called mail server) to the mail user agent (MUA), also called the e-mail client. E-mail clients include smartphones and, less strictly, IMAP personal computer mail applications," explains Wikipedia.

Instead of periodically fetching new messages, mail clients receive notifications as soon as there's a new message. Applications no longer waste bandwidth and you're able to read a message shortly after it was sent.

"Using Google Sync, you can now get your Gmail messages pushed directly to your phone. Having an over-the-air, always-on connection means that your inbox is up to date, no matter where you are or what you're doing. Sync works with your phone's native email application so there's no additional software needed."

If you're already using Google Sync to synchronize your calendars and contacts, it's easy to edit the settings and enable it for mail, as well.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this feature, so you should only enable push support for Gmail if you really need it. "Depending on your device, any push connection may use more power than fetching content at intervals. In some cases the difference in power usage may have a noticeable impact on your phone's battery life," mentions Google.

Google explains the difference between using Google Sync, IMAP and Gmail's web application for mobile phones. "Google Sync synchronizes Gmail, Google Calendars, and contacts with your mobile phone. You can use the Google services directly in the built-in Mail, Calendar and Contacts application on your phone. Google Sync offers some advantages over using IMAP on your phone. Most importantly, it allows for content to be pushed to your phone within seconds after changes occur on the server. On the other hand, using Gmail Drafts from your phone is not possible via Google Sync. On iPhone and iPod Touch devices, the Gmail web application offers the most comprehensive features and the best experience for most users. But for users who prefer using the native Mail application, Google Sync offers an alternative way to access their Gmail account."

While Google Sync is also available for Blackberry, Nokia S60 devices and other mobile phones, push Gmail only works for Windows Mobile and iPhone devices that support ActiveSync. At least for now.

September 18, 2009

YouTube Resume

YouTube added a cool feature for those who watch long-form videos. If you're logged in, you watched at least one minute from a video that's longer than 20 minutes and there are more than 3 minutes left, then YouTube's player has a neat surprise for you: close the page and when you open it again, the player resumes where you left off watching.

It's a helpful addition, considering that not many desktop video players offer a similar feature.

Another change is that the HQ/HD flag is now sticky. Once you click on HQ or HD, YouTube will save the setting in a cookie and all the other videos will use the options, assuming that they have high-quality versions. "When you switch to view a video in high quality and lean back to enjoy the wide player experience, having to lean forward again to switch the experience back on, video after video, can be a real chore. Moving forward, your choice is sticky, meaning that when you go wide it will persist across your session."

Google Clusters Results from Forums

Google already knows if a page is part of a discussion group and it also extracts useful information like the number of posts or the date of the most recent post.

Now Google started to cluster forum threads and to show related discussions below some results. Google uses a similar technology for Google News, where news articles from more than 25,000 sources are categorized based on their similarity.

For now, this is just an experiment, so only a small percentage of Google's users will see the enhanced results.

September 17, 2009

Replace Google's Logo with a Doodle

If you like one of the many doodles used by Google to commemorate holidays and events, why not personalize Google's homepage and replace the standard logo with your favorite doodle? A Greasemonkey script created by the Google employee Tiffany Lane will help you pick a doodle from this page and make it sticky.

"By default the script will override your favorite doodle on holidays or any days with a special doodle (personally, I never want to miss a new doodle on the Google homepage). After the holiday is over, your favorite doodle will be back. However, you can change this preference so that your favorite is always shown," mentions the author.

Unfortunately, the script is quite complex and it only works in Firefox, assuming you've installed the Greasemonkey extension.

For iGoogle users, there's a gadget that lets you pick "one of the past Google holiday logos to sit atop your page, or have it cycle through them randomly".

{ via Search Engine Land }

On Browsers and Operating Systems

An interesting excerpt from "The Microsoft case: antitrust, high technology, and consumer welfare" by William Hepburn Page and John E. Lopatka, especially if you read it in light of Google's announcement that it will release a browser-centric operating system:
First, [Microsoft] included IE with Windows and required OEMs not to delete it. Second, it designed IE and Windows in such a way that it was difficult for anyone, OEMs or end users to delete it. The legality of Microsoft's contractual and technological linking of the browser and the operating system arose first in the interpretation of the 1995 consent decree and then in the 1998 case in the application of sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act. The issue in the consent decree case was whether the browser and the operating system were integrated, and therefore specifically exempt from the decree's anti-tying provisions. The Sherman Act section I issue was whether the browser was illegally tied to Windows, either contractually or by design. The Sherman Act section 2 issue was whether the technological and contractual linking of the browser and the operating system constituted illegal maintenance of a monopoly in operating systems. (...)

In his findings of fact, Judge Jackson treated Microsoft's contractual and technological bundling of IE and Windows as a single strategy to constrict the OEM channel. He first found that browsers are separate from operating systems. Consumers think of the browser as simply software that allows them to gain access to information on the Web. Some consumers want the browser provided separately from the operating system, either because they want a browser other than IE or because they do not use a browser and do not want one taking up space on the hard drive. Other operating system producers bundle a browser with their operating systems but they allow OEMs and users to delete it. Microsoft prohibits deletion even though it offers different versions of its browser separately for non-Windows operating systems.

Instead of integrating its own browser in Chrome OS, Google will build the operating system as an extension of the browser. In less than 10 years, browsers have evolved from being one of the many applications that can be installed on a computer to being an essential application that could even be used to replace a traditional operating system.

Google Docs Has an Equation Editor

Google Docs added the equation editor previously available in Knol. It's a basic LaTeX editor that's not very easy to use if you aren't familiar with LaTeX or programming.

Open a Google Docs document, click on "Insert" and select "Equation" from the menu. You can type LaTeX code or use the drop-downs to select Greek letters, fractions, integrals, functions, summations and other operators.

Google converts the code to an image using an undocumented feature of the Google Chart API. If you export the document as a Microsoft Word file or in a different format, Google Docs will only include the corresponding images.

If you know a better online LaTeX editor, tell us about it in a comment.

{ Thanks, Bogdan. }

September 16, 2009

Google Buys reCAPTCHA

reCAPTCHA seems like a perfect match for Google: it's a project that generates CAPTCHAs and uses the results to digitize books. "reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. (...) Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one."

It's no wonder that Google decided to acquire reCAPTCHA and use the service to improve Google Book Search's digitizing accuracy.

"reCAPTCHA's unique technology improves the process that converts scanned images into plain text, known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This technology also powers large scale text scanning projects like Google Books and Google News Archive Search. Having the text version of documents is important because plain text can be searched, easily rendered on mobile devices and displayed to visually impaired users. So we'll be applying the technology within Google not only to increase fraud and spam protection for Google products but also to improve our books and newspaper scanning process."

The service offers a simple JavaScript API that allows you to embed CAPTCHAs in any web page and many popular sites use it: Facebook, Twitter, Ticketmaster.

September 15, 2009

Google Chrome 3.0

You shouldn't read too much into Google Chrome's version numbers. Just because you can now install Google Chrome 3.0, it doesn't mean that Google wants to appear more mature than it already is. For Chrome, version numbers are just a way to highlight major milestones.

Three months after the first developer preview, Google Chrome 3.0 is out of beta and ready to replace the current stable version. Since Google updates the browser automatically, you might not even notice that you use a version that brings new features.

Even if it's one of the fastest browsers available today, Google Chrome continues to improve its performance. "We've improved by more than 150% in Javascript performance since our very first beta, and by more than 25% since the most recent stable release," mentions Google.

The new release supports themes so you can customize the browser with one of the 28 new themes. Not all of them are good-looking, but they're easy to install and you don't have to restart your browser after changing the theme.

Google Chrome 3.0 has an updated new tab page that lets you customize the pages reordering them using drag and drop, by pinning the pages you use frequently and removing the pages you no longer visit. Google simplified the page by removing the list of search boxes and the recent bookmarks.

(Tip: you can still use the previous new tab page design, by appending this flag to a Chrome shortcut: --old-new-tab-page.)

A feature you won't probably use too often, at least for now, is the support for the HTML5 video and audio tags. Like Firefox 3.5, Chrome includes video codecs that allow you to embed videos without using slow and unreliable plug-ins like Adobe Flash. You can test this feature in, an experimental Ogg video uploading site, or in YouTube's HTML5 demo page, which uses an H.264 video.

One year after the first release, the numbers are impressive: "51 developer, 21 beta and 15 stable updates and 3,505 bugfixes". Google Chrome's market share is 2.84%, according to Net Applications, but the browser's impact was even more significant: Chrome set a high standard for browsers by focusing on speed, a simplified user interface and by handling web pages as if they were applications. Safari 4, as well as the the next versions of Firefox, are influenced by Google Chrome's simplicity.

In other Chrome news, the documentation for creating extensions is now available and the support for extensions is enabled by default in the dev channel. If you use the stable version of Chrome, you need to wait a little bit.

Google Fast Flip

Google Labs has been very active lately. The most recent service launched in Google Labs is Fast Flip, a visual version of Google News that encourages serendipitous discoveries.

"Fast Flip is a new reading experience that combines the best elements of print and online articles. Like a print magazine, Fast Flip lets you browse sequentially through bundles of recent news, headlines and popular topics, as well as feeds from individual top publishers. As the name suggests, flipping through content is very fast, so you can quickly look through a lot of pages until you find something interesting," explains Krishna Bharat, the man behind Google News.

The homepage shows thumbnails of the news articles and clicking on the thumbnail loads a screenshot of the article. You can't read the entire article in Google Fast Flip, so you need to visit the original source. The service shows articles from a small number of sources, including BBC News, New York Times, Newsweek and Slate.

The nice thing is that you can quickly go to the next preview by clicking on the blue right arrow or by using the right-arrow key. The service provides recommendation based on the articles you read, you email or explicitly like. There's also a mobile version optimized for iPhone and Android phones.

September 14, 2009

Bing Visual Search

Gone are the days when search engines provided mostly textual information, a list of 10 blue links that invite you to find the answers on your own. Search engines are now focused on extracting useful information from web pages and surfacing data in interesting ways.

In June, Google launched Squared, a Labs project that generates lists of entities related to your query and finds values for the associated attributes. Search for [dog breeds] and you'll find a list of breeds, suggestive images, information about the average weight and the country of origin.

Bing, Microsoft's search engine, has just launched a similar feature: visual search. It's just an early demo and it requires Siverlight, but it looks more impressive than Google Squared. Probably because Microsoft built the interface around images and used the attributes to refine the results.

"Visual Search allows you to quickly scroll through the galleries or do a one-click refinement using the quick tabs on the left, which are specifically relevant to the type of results you are browsing through," mentions Bing's blog.

Bing's visual galleries are more polished than the results generated by Google Squared, but Bing only shows galleries for a small number of queries like "popular TV shows" or "world leaders" and the information is obtained from structured data sources.

It remains to be seen if Microsoft manages to extend the visual search engine and dynamically generate results for any query. For now, you can play with the demo galleries.

Export the Locations Saved in Google Maps

Google Maps saves the most recent 100 locations typed in the search box so you can easily retrieve them. If you want to migrate to a different Google account or you'd like to view the locations in Google Earth, Bing Maps or another mapping service, you can now export the saved locations to a KML file.

In addition to exporting the locations, Google Maps also lets you import a KML file that includes a list of placemarks.

This is just one of the many Google features that prevent data "lock-in". Google has a Data Liberation team "whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products". It's a great initiative from a company that has always encouraged competition. If Blogger is no longer your platform of choice, you can migrate your data to WordPress or a different service. If Gmail is frequently down, has a poor spam filter or it's no longer your favorite webmail service, you can auto-forward your mail to a different service and fetch the existing messages using POP or IMAP.

"Many web services make it difficult to leave their services - you have to pay them for exporting your data, or jump through all sorts of technical hoops -- for example, exporting your photos one by one, versus all at once. We believe that users - not products - own their data, and should be able to quickly and easily take that data out of any product without a hassle," explains Google's public policy blog.

Further reading:

* Google's public policy blog
* This blog's In/Out label

September 13, 2009

Even More Recent Google Search Results

Ran Geva noticed that Google's date range restrictions have been extended and you can now find web pages indexed by Google less than one minute ago or even less than 10 seconds ago.

(Update. Google doesn't necessarily index web pages as soon as they're published, but the sites that use feeds or sitemaps are indexed pretty fast. With recent advancements like PubSubHubbub that provide real-time notifications for updates, the delay between publishing pages and finding them using Google will be further reduced.)

Click on "show options", select "past 24 hours" and tweak the URL by replacing "tbs=qdr:d" with "tbs=qdr:n" to find pages indexed in the past minute.

Example: a search for [Tiger Woods] restricted to almost real-time results.

The date restriction feature is quite flexible, but you need to know the syntax used by Google's URLs:


where [name] can be one of these values: s (second), n (minute), h (hour), d (day), w (week), m (month), y (year), while [value] is a number.

To find the web pages indexed less than 45 seconds ago that include the word "flu", use this URL:

Unfortunately, if you restrict the results to very recent web pages, Google shows a small sample and doesn't list all the results.

{ Thanks, Ran. }

September 11, 2009

Locking Google SafeSearch

Google tests a feature that will let you lock the SafeSearch settings on a computer. Currently, the SafeSearch settings can be easily changed from the preferences page, the advanced search page or by editing a Google search URL.

"Many users prefer not to have adult sites included in search results (especially if kids use the same computer). Google's SafeSearch screens for sites that contain explicit sexual content and deletes them from your search results. No filter is 100 percent accurate, but SafeSearch should eliminate most inappropriate material."

To lock SafeSearch settings, you'll need to log in using a Google account and select the locking option from the preferences page. "Use this page to lock the SafeSearch settings selected. The lock takes effect when you sign out. when locked, SafeSearch displays a distinctive image as the background of the search results pages," explains Google.

It's not very clear if the locking will be limited to the current browser and whether clearing Google's cookies will disable the lock. Here are some messages that might be used by Google:

Jump to the Relevant Section of a Google Search Result

What happens if you want to link to a paragraph from a web page or to a comment from a blog post? Some sites use fragments to link to certain sections from web pages. For example, each Wikipedia article includes a table of contents that links to all the sections of the article. sends you directly to the section about processing fragments. If you search for [processing fragment identifiers] using Google, the top result includes an interesting option that lets you jump to the relevant section of the article. This is especially useful for long articles that include a lot of information.

The "jump to" feature is not limited to Wikipedia articles, so you may find other search results that have special snippets.

Last month, Google added sitelinks for internal navigation to help you find popular sections from a web page directly from the search results page. Google's goal is to send you directly to the right answer for your question, even if that means bypassing the homepage of a site, ignoring Flash intros or finding information from the snippets.

{ via Search Engine Roundtable }

Bring Back the Small Google Search Box

If you don't like Google's new search box and you think the font size is way too big, there's a Greasemonkey script that brings back the old interface. I've tested the script in Firefox and Google Chrome, so you should try it if you use one of these browsers.

In Firefox, you need to install the Greasemonkey extension, restart the browser and then install the script. If you use Google Chrome Dev Channel or a recent Chromium build, follow these instructions and copy the script to the User Scripts directory.


... back to:

{ Thanks, Anon. }

September 10, 2009

Google Earth 5.1 Is Faster

Google's 3D Earth browser has been updated and the latest build, 5.1.3506.3999, loads faster and it's snappier.

"We've made a lot of adjustments under the hood, like improving memory utilization so we can show more buildings, layers, and user content. We improved our shaders (that's graphics-speak for small programs that run inside your graphics processor) to make the atmosphere draw faster. We also worked to reduce stuttering (known as frame drops) to provide an even smoother experience as you fly around the globe. When we draw imagery, we now use compression technology to use less memory and graphics resources. We know that waiting for a program to start-up can be really frustrating, so we improved our start-up time by 25%," mentions Google LatLong blog.

While the performance improvement is noticeable, Google Earth continues to use a lot of resources. In a small empirical test, I compared the latest release with an earlier version and the results are even better than Google's claims:

Google Earth version Start-up time Memory usage when searching for "Paris"
Google Earth 5.0.11337.1968 11.5 seconds 183 MB
Google Earth 5.0.11733.9347 10.4 seconds 164 MB
Google Earth 5.1.3506.3999 6.9 seconds 145 MB

Update: If you want to download Google Earth without installing Google Updater, here's the direct download link for Windows. This build includes the plug-in for IE/Firefox/Chrome that lets you use Google Earth inside a browser. That means you'll end up with three different Google Earth versions when you upgrade: the old version, which for some reason is not removed, the new version of Google Earth and the plug-in, which wastes 33 MB by including separate copies of the files used by Google Earth.

Google Internet Stats

Google launched a microsite that collects Internet stats for the UK. "This Google resource brings together the latest industry facts and insights together in one place. These have been collected from a number of third party vendors covering a range of topics from macroscopic economic and media trends to how consumer behaviour and technology are changing over time."

Here are some interesting stats:

"In May 2009, Google had over 4.0 billion search page views in the UK." (Nielsen Netview, May 2009)

"20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute." (YouTube, May 2009)

"Users are 1.5x more attentive when browsing YouTube than when watching TV." (Motorola with Mindshare and GM, partnered with YouTube, December 2008)

"Worldwide mobile phone subscription penetration is 61%." (eMarketer, March 2009)

"There are 1.6 billion people online worldwide, representing nearly 24% of the world's population." (, April 2009)

"60% of UK consumers would view ads to receive free content." (KPMG, April 2009)

{ via Steve Rubel }

Listen to Google Voice Messages in Gmail

Gmail Labs has a new feature, but it's only useful if you have a Google Voice account. When you receive a new voicemail, Google Voice sends an email notification that includes a transcription of the voicemail.

The problem is that you have to click on a link and open a new page to listen to the voicemail. If you enable "Google Voice player in mail" in Gmail Labs, you can play voicemails in Gmail.

"Best of all, your message status will stay synced: messages played from Gmail will appear as read in your Google Voice inbox and won't be played again when you check new messages via your phone," explains the Gmail blog.

A simple Google search lets you find some public voicemails and their transcriptions, but it's worth pointing out that sharing your voicemail is optional.

While this feature is useful, it's limited to Google Voice. Gmail should provide a scripting framework like Google Apps Scripts that lets you add features and handle repetitive tasks.

Google Emphasizes the Search Box

When your homepage is so simple that's almost invisible on a widescreen, you have to find a way to stand out. Google decided to supersize the search box:

"The new, larger Google search box features larger text when you type so you can see your query more clearly. It also uses a larger text size for the suggestions below the search box, making it easier to select one of the possible refinements. (...) Google has always been first and foremost about search, and we're committed to building and powering the best search on the web — now available through a supersized search box."

If you don't see the redesigned homepage, then the data center you hit hasn't updated it. For those that are curious, Google uses a 17-pixel font for the search box, up from 13 pixels.

Update: You can go back to the old interface using a Greasemonkey script.

September 9, 2009

Embeddable Google Document Viewer

Google Docs offers an undocumented feature that lets you embed PDF files and PowerPoint presentations in a web page. The files don't have to be uploaded to Google Docs, but they need to be available online.

Here's the code I used to embed the PDF file:

<iframe src="" style="width:600px; height:500px;" frameborder="0"></iframe>

but you should replace the bold URL with your own address. As I mentioned, the document viewer works for PDF and PPT files.

Some other sites that offer similar features: Zoho Viewer, PdfMeNot.

Update (Sept. 25): The viewer is now available at You can use it to embed PDF documents, PowerPoint presentations, and TIFF files.

September 5, 2009

Google Doodle's Mystery Revealed

Yesterday Google posted a mysterious doodle that linked to the search results for [unexplained phenomenon]. According to Google Korea's blog (English translation), this was the first from a series of 3 doodles that celebrate a famous person. The next doodle will be posted on September 15th and the hints are: mystery, invisible, novel.

As someone suggested in a comment, it's very likely that Google celebrates the birthday of H. G. Wells, a famous science fiction author born on September 21st. He wrote "The War of the Worlds", a novel that describes a Martian invasion, and "The Invisible Man", a book about a scientist that finds a way to become invisible.

Here's an extract from a 1938 radio broadcast of a play based on "The War of the Worlds". The play was directed by Orson Welles and it managed to terrify listeners, who thought it was a news broadcast of a real alien invasion.

Update (Sept. 15): There's a new doodle that points to a search for [crop circles] and this time there's a missing "l". Google posted on Twitter some coordinates: 51.327629, -0.5616088 that send you to this address: 1-7 Woodham Rd, Woking, Surrey GU21 4, UK. As you probably know, H. G. Wells was born in England. "H.G. Wells moved to Woking in 1895. This was the beginning of his writing career, and whilst living in the town he wrote several books including War of the Worlds," mentions

Update (Sept. 20): Indeed, Google's doodles were related to H. G. Wells' birthday. "Inspiration for innovation in technology and design can come from lots of places; we wanted to celebrate H.G. Wells as an author who encouraged fantastical thinking about what is possible, on this planet and beyond. And maybe have some fun while we were doing it," explains Google. Here's the third and final doodle:

Upload Multiple Files to Google Docs

If you want to upload a lot of documents to Google Docs, it's difficult to upload them one by one. You can send the documents by email, but this option is not very reliable and not all the formats are supported.

Google Docs has an API that lets you upload, download and edit documents, but there aren't many applications that use it. One of these applications is Google Docs Batch Upload, developed by Anton Beloglazov. It's a command-line Java application, so it should work in Windows, Mac, Linux, as long as you have JRE 1.6.

Google Docs Batch Upload lets you upload all the files supported by Google Docs from one of your folders. Use the following command to upload all the files from a folder and all its subfolders (unfortunately, the application doesn't recreate the folder structure in Google Docs):

java -jar google-docs-upload-1.0.jar <path> --recursive

(replace <path> with the path to the folder you want to upload)

In other news, documents will not be editable from 12:00 to 1:30 pm PST, according to the Google Apps Status Dashboard.

September 4, 2009

Today's Google Doodle, an Unexplained Phenomenon

I don't usually post about Google's doodles, but this one is special. Google's homepage has an interesting doodle that shows a UFO and links to the search results for [unexplained phenomenon].

The doodle is self-referential because many people will think that the doodle itself is an unexplained phenomenon.

To make things more interesting, Google posted an encrypted message on its Twitter account:

1.12.12 15 1.18.5 20.15 21.19

decrypted as "All your O are belong to us", a reference to the popular Internet meme "All your base are belong to us".

The doodle's URL is, which suggests that there's a missing "O".

Some people suggest that the doodle could be connected to the Exeter UFO Festival. "The Exeter incident was a highly-publicized UFO sighting that occurred in September 1965, approximately 5 miles from Exeter, New Hampshire, in the neighboring community of Kensington."

Update: From what I understand from this post published by Google Korea's blog, this is the first from a series of doodles that provide clues to solve the mystery: who's celebrated by Google? The next doodle will be posted on September 15th and the hints are: mystery, invisible and novel. As someone suggested in the comments, Google probably celebrates the birthday of H. G. Wells, the author of "The Invisible Man" and "The War of the Worlds".

Update 2 (Sept. 15): There's a new doodle that points to a search for [crop circles] and this time there's a missing "l". Google posted on Twitter some coordinates: 51.327629, -0.5616088 that send you to this address: 1-7 Woodham Rd, Woking, Surrey GU21 4, UK. As you probably know, H. G. Wells was born in England. "H. G. Wells moved to Woking in 1895. This was the beginning of his writing career, and whilst living in the town he wrote several books including War of the Worlds," mentions

Update (Sept. 20): Indeed, Google's doodles were related to H. G. Wells' birthday. "Inspiration for innovation in technology and design can come from lots of places; we wanted to celebrate H.G. Wells as an author who encouraged fantastical thinking about what is possible, on this planet and beyond. And maybe have some fun while we were doing it," explains Google. Here's the third and final doodle:

Random Gmail Theme

Gmail added 3 new themes to the gallery, but my favorite addition is an option that picks a random theme every day. If you can't decide which theme works best for you, select the "random" theme and Gmail will look different every morning.

Unfortunately, you can't skip the themes you don't like or at least pick a list of favorite themes.

A fresh mix: Gmail's Turf theme + Google Chrome's Grass theme

iGoogle has a similar theme sampler. "With this theme, you'll get to try out a new featured theme every day and decide whether you want to keep it."