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March 31, 2010

Google April Fools' Day 2010

It's not a surprise for anyone that Google celebrates April Fools' Day. Since 2008, Google's offices outside of US have their own pranks.

Google Japan developed a special version of Google Voice Search for animals. Unfortunately, Google Translate is not very helpful:

"For this animal, the dog still, cats, pigeons are just the future, cows and horses, hamsters, frogs, and plans to expand into. Voice Search a variety of potential animal, you try all means, exchange'd appreciate help with animals. Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful to the people around the world. You are also feeling the animal to be able to access, will continue to continue research, and Nakajima are saying."

There's also Google Translate for Animals, a new Android application that "allows you to record animals sounds and have the sounds analyzed and translated by Google Translate into any of the 52 supported languages".

Google Australia is now able to "Optimise for Colloquial Cultural Articulation (OCCA) - which means our products can now be tailored specifically for the typical Strayan user. (...) OCCA greatly reduces the latency between a user's thought and ability to pinpoint information; a boon for local users who'd have Buckleys makin' sense of American English."

Google Street View is now available in 3D, but you need to click on an icon to go 3D:

Google decided to change its name to Topeka, the US city that intends to change its name to Google.

Google's search results pages use some interesting units of measurements to estimate how long it took Google to obtain the results: Plunk, gigawatts, warp, centibeats, skidoo, femtogalactic years, velocity of an unladen swallow.

YouTube has a new text-only mode: TEXTp. "It's great news that there are 24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we support 1080p and HD uploads are rising quickly, but that's also meant increasing bandwidth costs cutting into our bottom line. (...) TEXTp is the result of months of intense transcoding efforts by our engineers, who toiled for weeks to ensure that a large chunk of videos on the platform could be reduced to their most basic elements. By replacing the images in the video with a series of letters and numbers, the videos are far less taxing on our system -- and have the added benefit of promoting literacy!"

You can try the new mode by appending &textp=fool to YouTube URLs (like this).

Google Docs lets you store ANYTHING. "Ever wish you could CTRL+F your keys? Store your keys and other objects you commonly lose with Google and you'll never have to worry about finding them again. We're testing a new mail courier network integrated with our Street View fleet. We'll show up within 3 hours to pick up anything you choose to store in Google Docs, guaranteed. At $0.10 per kg, you can store a grand piano for the price of lunch."

Google Voice added a standard voicemail mode.
Standard Voicemail Mode brings your voicemail back to something reminiscent of 1997, with features like:

* Automatic voicemail deletion: messages will be deleted automatically after 14 days
* Numeric keypad access: access to voicemail will only be available via your phone
* Beeper interoperability: your beeper will be paged every time a voicemail is left
* Message maximums: store a maximum of 10 messages at any given time
* Numeric page: people leaving you voicemails will be given the option to send a numeric page

Google Mobile Search found a way to return better results for queries like "where am I". Try this query on your mobile phone and you'll find a lot of interesting results:

Gmail's login page no longer uses vowels and greets users with a short message: "Wlcm t Gml".

Google Feedback Extension

Google developed an extension for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer that lets you send feedback about Google services. For now, the extension can only be used if you get an invitation from Google and it's limited to Gmail.

Google Feedback lets you highlight the parts of the page corresponding to your feedback, hide personal information, describe the issue and send your feedback. The extension is useful because you can send Google an annotated screenshot that illustrates your problem without using an image editing software.

To get an invitation, go to this page and enter your Gmail address.

{ Merci, Fran├žois. }

Gmail Adds Support for OAuth Authentication

Google Code blog announced that Gmail started to support OAuth authentication for IMAP and SMTP. What this means is that developers will be able to create applications that use Gmail data without requiring to enter your password.

"In addition to making it easier for users to export their data, we also enable them to authorize third party (non-Google developed) applications and websites to access their data at Google. While it is possible for a user to authorize this access by disclosing their Google Account password to the third party app, it is more secure for the app developer to use the industry standard protocol called OAuth which enables the user to give their consent for specific access without sharing their password," explains Google.

Gmail Drive is a popular application that uses your Gmail account to store files. After installing the application, it asks your username and password to send data to your Gmail account. If you don't trust the application, it's not a good idea to enter the password of your Google account.

When applications like Gmail Drive switch to OAuth authentication, you'll no longer have to enter your credentials. Instead, the application will open a Google web page and you'll only have to authorize the request.

An example of application that already uses OAuth authentication is SmartPush, an iPhone app that lets you filter email notifications.

Google Search Shows IMDb Ratings

Here's a feature I've been expecting ever since Google started to test rich snippets for pages that include reviews: showing movie ratings in IMDb's snippets.

Now you can see the ratings without having to click on the search results, which is useful if you browse the web using a mobile phone or you want to check the ratings for a lot of movies.

"Google tries to present users with the most useful and informative search results. The more information a search result snippet can provide, the easier it is for users to decide whether that page is relevant to their search. With rich snippets, webmasters with sites containing structured content—for example, review sites or business listings—can label their content to make it clear that each labeled piece of text represents a certain type of data: for example, a restaurant name, an address, or a rating," explains Google.

To quickly see the IMDb ratings for a list of movies, you can start with an empty Google Square, add the column "IMDb rating" and start entering movie titles.

March 30, 2010

Google Chrome to Bundle Plug-ins for Flash and PDF

CNet reports that "Google is planning to bundle its Chrome browser and/or operating system with Adobe Systems' Flash in a deeper partnership" that is expected to be announced today.

The latest updates to Chromium, Google's open-source browser, show that Chrome will use internal plug-ins for Flash and PDF, which are likely to be bundled with the browser. Chrome has implemented some NPAPI extensions for "2D, 3D, and mouse/keyboard events" using Mozilla Pepper, a platform-independent framework for browser plug-ins. There are already switches for enabling the internal PDF and Flash plug-ins, but they don't work yet.

"Over the past few months a number of us have also been discussing some of the issues facing NPAPI as a platform independent browser plugin framework. First, we feel there are some changes needed to NPAPI to keep up with recent developments in browser technology, such as out of process plugin execution. Second, while NPAPI provides an extensive framework for writing plugins, many end up relying on operating system or browser platform specific features. This is especially true of windowed plugins that implement 2D or 3D graphics, where almost the entirety of the plugin may consist of operating system specific graphics or event APIs," explains Mozilla's wiki page.

Chrome OS could take advantage of the new plug-ins because users no longer have to install them and they'll be more stable.

In other news, a recent Chromium build added a new internal page (chrome://plugins) that lets you disable individual plug-ins.

Update: Chromium's blog has more information. Google says it has "begun collaborating with Adobe to improve the Flash Player experience in Google Chrome. Today, we're making available an initial integration of Flash Player with Chrome in the developer channel. When users download Chrome, they will also receive the latest version of Adobe Flash Player. Users will automatically receive updates related to Flash Player using Google Chrome’s auto-update mechanism."

To use the built-in Flash plug-in in the latest dev build, you need to edit Chrome's shortcut and add a flag: --enable-internal-flash to the target value. When you open Google Chrome, you're prompted to accept the license agreement:

Google Chrome includes Adobe Flash, a beta version of a runtime that will work on "a broad range of mobile devices, including smartphones, netbooks, smartbooks and other Internet-connected devices".

If you don't like Flash, there are many ways to disable it in Google Chrome: there's a new option that lets you disable individual plug-ins and you can use extensions like FlashBlock.

Google's goal is to improve the plug-in model and to make it "as fast, stable, and secure as the browser's HTML and JavaScript engines". That's a good news, even if you're not a fan of Flash or the Adobe PDF plug-in.

March 29, 2010

Bookmarklet for Google Reader Play

Mihai Parparita wrote a bookmarklet that loads the feed for the current site in Google Reader Play. Mihai suggests to use the bookmarklet for web pages that have a lot of photos, like Flickr profiles or comic feeds.

Google Reader Play creates a slideshow from any feed or collection of feeds, but I don't think it's useful as a standalone app. Google Reader could detect photo feeds and integrate Reader Play as a new view.

Send Files in Google Chat

One of the few features that are available in Google Talk's desktop client, but couldn't be used in the web-based gadgets from Gmail, iGoogle and orkut, is file sharing. The missing feature is now available in iGoogle and orkut, but not yet in Gmail.

"Starting today, you can share photos, documents, and other files while chatting in iGoogle and orkut. To give it a try, just click Send a file... in the Actions menu while chatting with a friend (no download required). This feature is also compatible with the file transfer functionality in the Google Talk downloadable software, so you can share files directly from the web with folks who use the desktop version," explains Google.

You can send multiple files at the same time, but you can't select multiple files from the file picker dialog. Google Chat doesn't support transferring files larger than 100 MB.

Google Talk's desktop client is no longer updated, as Google focused on improving the chat feature from Gmail and adding similar features to iGoogle and orkut. Google Talk's homepage still links to the Windows client, but the first option is a plug-in for video chat.

{ Thanks, Niranjan. }

March 24, 2010

More Relevant Communication

Yaakov Sabal writes:

Today, we have a binary definition of spam. [A message is either spam or not spam.] But it is not this way. Beside the die hard spam, there is a huge amount of irrelevant email I get on a daily basis, which is nice but not needed - not now, not in this context.

For some reason, Gmail didn't invest into relevancy of messages based on contacts. I have work contacts, I have close team contacts, I have friends, family, enemies etc. My contacts are just a reflection of my life, the society I am in contact with and I am not willing to communicate with the whole society at once. (...)

Buzz is the same: if I buzz about the last concert in town, why should people that I know and follow me - BUT don't live in the same town - should care about it? If I buzz about science, why people that don't like science should care about it? (...)

People should not need to have a black belt in Inbox Zero to [communicate efficiently] - instead Google should provide a cool way to deal with irrelevant bulk things from people.

Yaakov suggests that Google should rank email messages, Buzz messages based on their relevance. Messages from contacts you frequently communicate with are more important than newsletters, Buzz messages related to your interests are more relevant than random blurbs.

Last month, Google acquired Aardvark, a service that connects questions with people that are likely to answer them. A similar technology could rank the messages from your inbox, Buzz messages or Google Reader items.

Dynamic Search Results Refinements

Search Engine Land spotted a new Google search feature. If you click on a search result from a forum and then go back to the search results page, Google adds a link that restricts the results to forum pages: "get more discussion results". The same feature is also available if you click on "show options" and select "discussions", but it's more difficult to find.

It's the first time when Google changes the search results page after clicking on a result. Google could add other related features: for example, it could show a list of similar pages.

When you click on a search result, Google tracks the click and uses it to adjust the order of search results. An interesting approach to personalize search results is to use the clicks to disambiguate the query and dynamically adjust the results. Surf Canyon is an extension that customizes your search results based on the results you've selected and shows recommendations when you click on a search result.

March 23, 2010

Google Bookmarks Lists

Google tests a new interface for Google Bookmarks that lets you share your bookmarks.

You can now create bookmark lists and share them with other people. Google says that "lists make it easy to organize and share stuff you find on the web", but the new feature adds what was already available in Google Notebook, a great service that allowed you to create collections of interesting content from the web. Google stopped developing the service, but Google Notebook is still available for the existing users.

"We're working hard to improve Bookmarks and make saving and sharing stuff on the web easier than ever. That's why we've created lists. Like labels, lists let you organize your stuff into categories. But they can do so much more! For example, lists have the smarts to pull the most important information (like maps and reviews) from the sites you care about, and put it in a single place. You can easily see when a site in your list has been updated. Sharing and collaboration is easy, making lists an ideal way to plan a trip, research a purchase, or organize an event," suggests Google.

Here's an example of a public list that shows useful web pages related to Google Bookmarks lists and here's a list of web pages related to Seattle. You can follow a list to be notified by email when the list changes.

The nice thing about Google Bookmarks lists is that you can convert labels to lists. It's easy to add new web pages to a list thanks to the integration with Google Search, Google adds relevant thumbnails and monitors web pages for new content. And if you invite other people to your list, they can add new web pages, reorder the list, add comments and more.

{ via Google Blogoscoped }

March 22, 2010

Google Shuts Down the Chinese Search Engine

As promised, Google will no longer censor search results in China. Google's solution is to redirect users to Google Hong Kong, which shows uncensored results. Google Blog explains this interesting decision:

"Users visiting are now being redirected to, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. (...) We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced—it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China."

It's obvious that Google Hong Kong will be blocked in China and this workaround is only temporary. Google wanted to continue operating in China without censoring search results: "In terms of Google's wider business operations, we intend to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access"

Google agreed to censor search results in China four years ago because it hoped that things will get better over time. Here's an excerpt from a Google blog post written in 2006:

"We aren't happy about what we had to do this week, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information. But how is that full access most likely to be achieved? We are convinced that the Internet, and its continued development through the efforts of companies like Google, will effectively contribute to openness and prosperity in the world. Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there."

Unfortunately, Google's optimism was misplaced: "Google and more than twenty other U.S. companies had been the victims of a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China" and there were many "attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger".

Google China's homepage until today:

Google Chine's new homepage:

March 19, 2010

Google and Pre-announcing New Features

Google: "We don't pre-announce our products." (2006)

Before the launch of Google Apps Premier Edition, Google rarely pre-announced new features or new services. Since many new features were released in beta, Google announced them when they were available. Google wanted to deliver real value and trying a service is far more exciting than reading a blog post or a press release.

Something changed in 2007, when Google launched Google Apps for businesses. In April 2007, Google promised that it will launch an online service for editing presentations: "Well, we tried to keep it a secret as long as we could, but to be honest, we've been dying to tell you about the bun we've got in the oven. We'll soon be welcoming a new addition to the Google Docs & Spreadsheets family: presentations. Our due date is this summer." The service has been released in September.

Now it's no longer surprising to read things like: "We're pleased to announce the upcoming release of the Google Apps Connector for BlackBerry Enterprise Server". Businesses need predictability, but Google shouldn't become predictable.

The latest pre-announcement is from Google Analytics, which will launch "a global browser based plug-in to allow users to opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics. Our engineers are now hard at work finalizing and testing this opt-out functionality. We look forward to make it globally available to our users in the coming weeks."

It's nice to know that the engineers are "hard at work" and that the plug-in will be available "in the coming weeks", but when it will be released, people will no longer be excited to try it. If the launch is delayed and the plug-in won't be available "in the coming weeks", many people will wonder why they can't download it and will conclude that it's vaporware.

Coming soon: Google will announce some upcoming pre-announcements that will be posted in the coming weeks. Google's engineers are already hard at work writing blog posts about features that aren't yet available, but they'll be released at some point in the future.

Viacom vs YouTube: Inconvenient Truths

The truth is difficult to find if those that know it have a lot to lose when it's revealed. Three years after Viacom sued YouTube for 1 billion dollars, some pieces of truth are revealed:

"For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately "roughed up" the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko's to upload clips from computers that couldn't be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users." (YouTube blog)

"Viacom produced numerous documents, including a Google memorandum from the Google Video team about YouTube. The team told senior Google execs that YouTube was a "rogue enabler" of content theft, that its content is all free, and much of it is highly sought after pirated clips and that YouTube's business model is completely sustained by pirated content. In May 2006, Ethan Anderson, international business product manager for Google Video, told other execs, I can't believe you're recommending buying YouTube... they're 80 percent illegal pirated content." (Ars Technica)

While YouTube became popular by hosting unauthorized content, it's now a platform for self-expression and many companies use tools like Content ID to make money from the videos that include their content. Like many other online services, YouTube is protected by the DMCA, a United States copyright law which "creates a safe harbor for online service providers against copyright liability if they adhere to and qualify for certain prescribed safe harbor guidelines and promptly block access to allegedly infringing material (or remove such material from their systems) if they receive a notification claiming infringement from a copyright holder or the copyright holder's agent."

Even if YouTube's employees were aware that a lot of the videos weren't uploaded by the copyright owners, it was difficult to tell which videos should be removed.

This case shows that it's a bad idea to fight against those that love your work and want to promote it. Encouraging fans to be creative, learning from their ideas, finding which of your works is more popular and making money from ads - there's a lot to gain from being open-minded.

March 18, 2010

Stop Buffering a YouTube Video

Update (June 2013): This feature is no longer available, now that YouTube uses adaptive streaming.

Sometimes you start watching a YouTube video and you realize that it's not very interesting. You pause the video, but YouTube continues to download the file. What can you do to stop the download?

Until now, a simple trick to stop buffering a YouTube video was to fast forward to the end of the video. The good news is that YouTube added an option to stop the download: right-click on the video and click on "Stop download".

YouTube's help center has more information about buffering. "The YouTube video player downloads a video as it plays. A buffer is a section of memory in your computer which allows for the simultaneous writing and reading of information -- on YouTube the buffered section is represented by the red section of the video timeline. The YouTube video player reads video information from one section of the buffer while writing to another. This kind of multitasking allows for smoother playback of video during a continuous process of downloading which is especially helpful for slower connections. "

Google TV

New York Times reports that Google has partnered with Intel and Sony to create a TV platform powered by Android.

"Google and Intel have teamed with Sony to develop a platform called Google TV to bring the Web into the living room through a new generation of televisions and set-top boxes. (...) The partners envision technology that will make it as easy for TV users to navigate Web applications, like the Twitter social network and the Picasa photo site, as it is to change the channel. Google intends to open the Google TV platform, which is based on its Android operating system for cellphones, to software developers in the hopes of spurring the same creativity that the consumers have seen in phone apps."

The idea is not new, as many other companies tried to bring the Web to the TV. YouTube already has a version for large screens, Google already sells TV advertising and there are many Google apps that could improve the TV experience. New York Times says that Google's software will include a new interface for YouTube, a browser and other Android apps that will extend the functionality.

"Google has built a prototype set-top box, but the technology may be incorporated directly into TVs or other devices, like Blu-ray players. (...) A person with knowledge of the Google TV project said that the set-top box technology was sufficiently advanced that Google had begun testing it with Dish Network, one of Google's longstanding partners in the TV Ads program."

Tweak Google Chrome's Translation Feature

Google Chrome 4.1 added a feature that detects the language of a web page and lets you translate it. The feature can't be disabled entirely (there's a setting for disabling it in the latest dev build), but you can hide the translation bar for certain languages. For example, if you go to Google Greece's homepage, there's an option button that lets you disable the translation bar for or for all Greek web pages.

The easiest way to disable the translation feature for the languages you're familiar with is to define a list of your preferred languages:

* click on the wrench menu, select Options, go to the "Under the hood" tab.

* click on "Change fonts and language settings" and go to the "Languages" tab.

* add the languages you use the read web pages.

March 17, 2010

Google Chrome 4.1, Now Available

Google Chrome 4.1 for Windows doesn't add too many new features, but it's a very interesting release.

Google Chrome is the only browser that automatically translates web pages written in foreign languages. It's a great feature, previously available in Google Toolbar and in a Chrome extension, that's now included in a browser. Besides using the best free machine translation service available today and translating pages inline, Google Chrome uses a language detection algorithm that doesn't require a connection to Google's servers. The language detection library is open source and any developer can use it.

"For most languages, the library determines the language of a page by breaking down its text in quadgrams, or sequences of up to four characters. The library then looks up each quadgram in a large hashtable that contains language probabilities, which is included in the Chrome binaries. This hashtable was originally built by processing language probabilities over billions of web pages library are indexed by Google's search engine. In just a few milliseconds, the library can accurately determine the language of most web pages."

The second new feature is an improved content filtering dialog that lets you selectively disable images, cookies, JavaScript and plug-ins. It's almost like having a less sophisticated version of the NoScript extension for Firefox. You can disable JavaScript for all sites and whitelist the sites you trust, you can block third-party cookies or block images from a domain.

Chrome's blog mentions that Google Update no longer generates an unique ID for each Chrome installation. "We've implemented a new approach to our Google Update technology, which allows us to remove the unique ID from Google Update while still preserving our ability to determine the number of active users and keep everyone up-to-date with the latest security updates and speed improvements." There's also a page that explains the privacy controls that are available in Google Chrome.

Chrome is more cluttered (translation infobars and content filtering icons should be more discreet), better suited for advanced users and it's updated faster: 4.1 is an intermediary version released two months after Chrome 4.0.

Data Mining Using Google

Today's xkcd comic is about quantitative Google queries. Randall Munroe found the number of search results for queries like "My IQ is X", where X is a variable, and plotted a graph for each query. While the results aren't reliable (Google only shows an estimation for the number of search results), it's an interesting way to mine Google's index of the web.

If you are familiar with Google Spreadsheets, try to create a sheet that lets you enter a query like "My IQ is X", a variable name and the values for that variable. The result should be a graph that shows the number of Google search results for each instance of your query. Use importXML and an XPath expression to find the number of Google search results: "//p[@id='resultStats']/b[3]". Here's an example.

{ Image licensed as Creative Commons Attributions-Noncommercial. }

March 15, 2010

Google Book Search's Irrelevant Suggestions

You probably noticed that Google's search services show different suggestions. For example, when you type "us" in Google Image Search, the first suggestion is "us map". Typing "us" in Google Web Search doesn't return the same suggestion: "us bank" is more popular. It makes sense to restrict the suggestions to queries that are popular in each specialized search engine because they're actually relevant.

Google Book Search seems to be the only Google service that shows irrelevant suggestions. When you type "shak", the top suggestions are "shakira" and "shake weight", even if "shakespeare" would be much more appropriate. Obviously, Google uses suggestions from the web search engine and "Shakira" is a more popular query than "Shakespeare".

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action." (Hamlet)

Google and Apple

New York Times has an interesting article about the evolution of Google's relationship with Apple. If three years ago Google was an important partner for Apple, Android's launch and its growing popularity eroded the relationship.

"In the last six months, Apple and Google have jousted over acquisitions, patents, directors, advisers and iPhone applications. This month, Apple sued HTC, the Taiwanese maker of mobile phones that run Google's Android operating system, contending that HTC had violated iPhone patents. The move was widely seen as the beginning of a legal assault by Apple on Google itself, as well as an attempt to slow Google's plans to extend its dominion to mobile devices."

While Steve Jobs, Apple's visionary CEO, says that "Google wants to kill the iPhone" and "<<Don't be evil>> is a load of crap", Google's co-founders "spoke very openly about their admiration for Jobs and how he's a role model for them." It's an interesting antithesis between Apple and Google that goes beyond the openness of the mobile ecosystem: for Google, the process is more important than the results. Android's goal is to "get mobile OS development moving more rapidly" and that's not a selfish ambition.

This quote is meaningful:

"People close to the company say [that Larry Page and Sergey Brin] are disappointed that the relationship with Apple has soured. Still, they and other Google executives see the company's push to open up the industry and to succeed in mobile computing as too important to sacrifice just to placate Mr. Jobs."

Google doesn't want to "kill the iPhone", it only wants to push things forward.

Gmail Contextual Gadgets

Gmail has released a few Gmail Labs features that show useful information related to your messages. Gmail's gadgets detect links to YouTube videos, Flickr photos, Google Docs documents or Yelp reviews and show previews below the email. The gadget that lets you preview YouTube videos is now a standard Gmail feature, while the other gadgets can be enabled in Gmail Labs.

Wouldn't be nice to develop similar gadgets for previewing content from other sites, for showing public information about the sender or for performing repetitive tasks directly from Gmail? Google Apps started to offer an API for contextual Gmail gadgets, but it's only available for trusted testers.

"These gadgets can smartly draw information from the web and let users perform relevant actions based on the content of an email message, all without leaving the Gmail inbox."

Google says that these gadgets "can boost employee productivity by complementing email in a context-specific and actionable way", but I'm sure that they're a great way to extend Gmail for all users. For example, a cool gadget for Blogger users could let you moderate comments without opening a new page or reply to comment directly from Gmail.

March 14, 2010

Google Explains its Core Businesses

Google tries to explain in three beautiful videos the main principles behind its three core businesses: search, ads and apps. "Search is our core technology; ads are our central business proposition; and apps are the umbrella over our web-based software that you can access anywhere, any time," according to Google.

How Google search works: Google creates an index of the web pages it can find and it returns the most relevant results by evaluating more than 200 quality factors. Google's search results are impartial, they're clearly separated from ads and they're returned in less than half a second.

How Google's search ads work: when you do a Google web search, you see ads only when they're relevant. Ads complement search results by offering useful information, especially for commercial queries. Google's ad system is designed to rank higher the ads that are actually useful.

How Google Apps works: it's an online suite of communication and collaboration tools. All the applications and all your data is stored online, so they're not attached to a specific computer. There's nothing to download or install and you can access your files from almost any computer or mobile device.

Sometimes it's difficult to explain the things you are working on because they're familiar to you and they seem obvious. For example, a common misconception about Google search is that Google actually visits all the web pages every time you perform a web search. Of course, that would be extremely inefficient and you would no longer see the results almost instantly.

March 13, 2010

Browse Newspapers in Google News Archive

You can now browse all the issues digitized by Google for newspapers like The Montreal Gazette, The Sydney Morning Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. The digitized newspapers are searchable in the Google News Archive and they're also included in Google's regular search results.

"The News Archive Partner Program provides a way for Google and publishers and repositories to partner together and make historical newspaper archives discoverable online. As part of Google News, the News archive search function provides an easy way to search and explore historical archives. For articles already in digital format, we've worked with the hosts of these archives to crawl and index their materials. When materials aren't easily available in digital format, we have partnered with the copyright holder to scan and present the newspaper in a way that is full-text searchable, fast and easy to navigate," explains Google.

Google also digitizes books, magazines, photos and videos.

{ via Search Engine Roundtable }

March 12, 2010

MusicBee, a Web-Centric Music Manager

I rarely post about topics that don't have too much to do with Google, but there's a little-known music player that deserves some recognition. MusicBee is a powerful music player and music organizer for Windows that helps you auto-tag your songs, find lyrics and album pictures, create smart playlists with related songs from, convert songs and much more.

MusicBee manages to combine the best features from applications like iTunes, Windows Media Player or Winamp, while adding a lot of useful features that aren't available in those popular media players. For example, you can automatically fix the tags for all the songs from your music library with just a few clicks.

MusicBee has a great integration: it automatically scrobbles the tracks you play, it lets you import your loved tracks and your playlists, it has a cool feature that imports tags and there's also an option to sync play counts with

The application supports tabs and it includes a Mozilla Gecko-based browser that lets you read information about the songs you're currently listening and download songs from music blogs.

Besides the extensive support for music formats (MP3, WMA, Vorbis, AAC, FLAC), the application converts music files from one format to another and synchronizes your files with many portable devices, including iPod and iPhone.

MusicBee is probably the media player that integrates with the most popular music-related web services and the nice thing is that it's constantly improving. Steven, MusicBee's only developer, is open to feedback, sometimes implementing user suggestions and fixing bugs in less than a day after they're posted. It's amazing to see that the first version of the player has been released in December 2008.

The downside of including a lot of features is that the application might look cluttered and some features are difficult to find, but that's a small price to pay.

Google's Command for Posting Buzz Messages

Google Mobile Blog has a cool tip for those who post Google Buzz messages from an iPhone or an Android phone:

"You can post your public buzz simply by speaking it. From the Google Mobile App for iPhone or Quick Search Box on Android, select the voice search icon, say "post buzz" followed by the text you'd like to post, and watch your words appear. Before your post is sent, you'll be able to edit it or change its tagged location."

It's probably the first time when Google's voice search feature can be used for other things than searching. In fact, you don't even have to use the voice search feature: go to on your mobile phone's browser, type post buzz, followed by your message and Google Buzz will open.

Maybe Google will add similar shortcuts for creating Google Calendar events, composing Gmail messages or finding Google Docs files. Yahoo's open shortcuts are an interesting approach to adding command-line features to the search box, but they're less powerful than YubNub's commands.

March 11, 2010

How to Install Google Quick Search Box

Google has recently discontinued Quick Search Box for Windows, which was included in Google Toolbar. If you liked the application, there's a way to use it, even if it's no longer available in Google Toolbar.

1. If you already have Google Toolbar for IE, it's likely that the toolbar has been updated to the latest version and you need to uninstall it. Just click the arrow next to the Google Toolbar wrench and select "Uninstall".

2. Install an older version of Google Toolbar for IE (6.3).

3. Now you can install the latest version of Google Toolbar from or wait until the application updates itself. You can also install the most recent version from FileHippo.

Quick Search Box for Windows, Discontinued

Quick Search Box, a small Google application bundled with Google Toolbar, is no longer available for Windows. The software was both a program launcher and a Google search box instantly available even if your browser is closed.

"At Google, we like to launch early and often, and iterate on our products. We often experiment with new features in Toolbar and sometimes we have to decide how best to focus our efforts on features we expect will yield the most benefit to users in the long run. Along these lines, the Quick Search Box feature will no longer be available in Google Toolbar. At this time we have no plans to release it separately, but I'll keep the community informed if these plans change. Thanks to all the users who helped us test and improve the feature," says Brian Rose, from Google.

Quick Search Box is still available for Mac, iPhone and Android, but each flavor of the application has different features. I think it would be a good idea to add all the features from QSB for Mac to the Windows version and release it as a standalone application. It could be a lightweight alternative to Google Desktop, an extensible open source application that lets you search the files from your computer and your online data from services like Gmail or Google Docs.

{ Thanks, Marcus. }

March 10, 2010

Macros for Google Spreadsheets

If you wanted to use macros in Google Spreadsheets, there's a good news: Google Apps Script is now available for all Google Docs users. That means you can write scripts for performing repetitive actions, creating custom functions or even adding advanced features to Google Spreadsheets.

You can try one of the featured scripts by opening a spreadsheet, clicking on the "Insert" menu and selecting "Script". Unfortunately, Google's sample scripts aren't very useful: you can play Hangman, draw a fractal, convert a named range to a CSV file or translate the text from a cell into 10 other languages.

After installing a script, you need to reload the spreadsheet to be able to use it. Then you have to find the UI element that triggers the script: usually it's a new menu. Clicking on the menu entry doesn't run the script: you first need to authorize the script and then you have to click on the menu entry one more time. It's not user friendly.

To write your own scripts, read these tutorials. You'll have to type some JavaScript code, so you should be familiar with this scripting language.

Google Maps Adds Biking Directions

Google Maps added a new type of directions for the US: bicycling directions. Google's blog explains that "biking directions keep you on bike-friendly roads and avoid some of the city's busiest intersections".

Adding bicycling directions wasn't an easy task because Google had to gather information about bike trails, bike lanes, uphill or downhill slopes. Google's algorithms try to find the best route and they take into account a lot of interesting factors.

"Our biking directions are based on a physical model of the amount of power your body has to exert given the slope of the road you're biking on. Assuming typical values for mass and for wind resistance, we compute the effort you'll require and the speed you'll achieve while going uphill. We take this speed into account when determining the time estimate for your journey, and we also try hard to avoid routes that will require an unreasonable degree of exertion."

Google Reader Play

Google Reader Play is a new way to read popular articles and an interesting interface for browsing web pages.

"In Google Reader Play, items are presented one at a time, and each item is big and full-screen. After you've read an item, just click the next arrow to move to the next one, or click any item on the filmstrip below to fast-forward. Of course, you can click the title or image of any item to go to the original version. And since so much of the good stuff online is visual, we automatically enlarge images and auto-play videos full-screen," explains Google.

The interface is optimized for posts that include images and for short blog posts. You can use keyboard shortcuts to navigate to the next post or you can start the slideshow view to only look at the images and headlines.

I was disappointed to see that Google Reader Play doesn't show your subscriptions. It only shows a list of recommended pages and Google uses your actions (starring, liking or sharing items) to improve the recommendations. If you want to read your subscriptions in Google Reader Play, use this URL:

March 9, 2010

Refresh POP3 Accounts in Gmail

If you use Gmail's POP3 fetching feature to read messages from other email accounts, you've noticed that Gmail checks for new messages less frequently than desktop mail clients. Usually, Gmail tries to find new messages every hour, but some accounts are updated more frequently, especially if you get many messages.

"Once you've set up Mail Fetcher, Google will check your other accounts on a regular basis, and new mail will appear automatically in Gmail. Gmail checks individual accounts for new messages at different rates, depending on previous mail fetch attempts. At this time you can't customize the frequency of automatic mail fetches," explains Google.

While the most obvious improvement would be to manually set the frequency, Google decided that's inefficient, but added a Gmail Labs feature that lets you manually refresh your accounts. Go to Gmail Labs, enable "Refresh POP accounts" and click "Save Changes". When you want to check for new messages, click on the "Refresh" link at the top of the page. You should see a message informing you that Gmail is "fetching mail".

Until now, you had to go to the Settings page, select the Accounts tab and click on "Check mail now" next to each POP3 account. Gmail solved this problem by adding a new feature to the existing "Refresh" link. "The refresh link at the top of your inbox will not only update your inbox with your new Gmail messages, it will also fetch messages from any other accounts which you have set up," mentions Emmanuel Pellereau.

Yahoo Mail has a better mail checking interface: you can refresh individual POP3 accounts with just two clicks and there's a keyboard shortcut for refreshing all accounts. Unfortunately, Yahoo Mail checks your POP mail accounts for new messages only when you request it.

Update: The Labs feature has graduated in August 2012 and it's a standard Gmail feature. Click the refresh button at the top of your inbox.

March 7, 2010

The Beast File: Google

Hungry Beast, a news program that airs on ABC1 Australia, had a segment about Google a few days ago. The TV show defines Google as an advertising giant whose main goal is to track users and deliver targeted ads.

Many of the numbers that are supposed to show Google's power are outdated. For example, the number of Google servers was estimated to 450,000 in 2006. comScore estimated that Google attracted more than 2 billion searches a day in July 2009.

Hungry Beast claims that Google "wants to own your phone, your email, your computer and your entire digital life". Using the verb "own" is inappropriate, since Google simply hosts your email and offers software for your phone and your computer. Projects like Data Liberation show that Google's doesn't want to trap your data.

Another claim is that "Google wants to own the cables that deliver the Internet and the electricity to power them", when Google's goal is to "help make Internet access better and faster for everyone" by showing that it's possible to "deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access". Like Gmail, which offered for the first time 1 GB of storage for free, or Google's bid in the FCC spectrum auction, which helped consumers because Google convinced FCC to add some new rules: the winner of the auction has to "give its customers the right to download any application they want on their mobile device, and the right to use any device they want on the network".

The video concludes that Google's ultimate goal is to gather data about everyone in the world and to show great targeted ads. Actually, Google's mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". Google's disrupting business model pushes the boundaries of technology by democratizing knowledge. Ads are only the fuel that helps Google accomplish its mission.

"We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place. (...) With our products, Google connects people and information all around the world for free. (...) By releasing services, such as Gmail, for free, we hope to help bridge the digital divide. AdWords connects users and advertisers efficiently, helping both. AdSense helps fund a huge variety of online web sites and enables authors who could not otherwise publish." (Google's IPO Letter, 2004)

{ via Harvey Sanchez }

Exploring Google Suggest

What Do You Suggest? is a site that lets you visually explore how Google Suggest autocompletes a query. "What Do You Suggest takes a seed from you, then guides you on a journey through language and the collective lives of Google users."

Simon Elvery, who created the site, found a lot of interesting patterns:
There are some recurring themes which have emerged as I've been playing with the site during its creation. Among other things, it seems people do rather a lot of searching on the topics of music, religion and relationships.

Sometimes the results are sad, like the people searching for free ebooks on relationships for dummies, and sometimes hopeful like looking for love.

Health is also a recurring theme with the names of medicines, diseases and symptoms appearing over and over again.

{ via Information Aesthetics }

March 5, 2010

Google Acquires DocVerse

Another week day, another Google acquisition. This time, Google bought DocVerse, a company founded by two former Microsoft employees which built a plug-in for Microsoft Office that lets you collaborate with other people in real-time.

"DocVerse combines the benefits of web-based collaboration tools like Google Docs and Zoho with the power and familiarity of the world's most popular productivity application, Microsoft Office. DocVerse offers the first ever product to truly enable real-time sharing and editing of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel files. Its key advantage is that it does not require you to learn a new way to work by seamlessly plugging into Microsoft Office."

DocVerse doesn't use Google Docs as a back-end for real-time collaboration, but Google will probably integrate with Google Docs.

Google says that many people "are still accustomed to desktop software", so the acquisition will help these users to try cloud computing services while still using their favorite software.

DocVerse's blog offers an interesting perspective of a two former Microsoft employees: "We fundamentally believe that Google is one of the best positioned companies to truly disrupt the world of productivity software. We're looking forward to the opportunity to scale our vision at Google. Our first step will be to combine DocVerse with Google Apps to create a bridge between Microsoft Office and Google Apps."

Google says that you can no longer create a new DocVerse account, but there's a simple way to try the Microsoft Office plug-in. Download the setup and create a new account when DocVerse asks you to log in.

March 4, 2010

Google's Integrated Services

Google has released a lot of new services that live inside other Google applications, without having a standalone interface. It's an interesting approach that facilitates the adoption of a new service, but makes it difficult to find a new service.

Google Tasks is available inside Gmail, Google Calendar, as an iGoogle gadget and as a mobile app, but there's no standalone desktop interface. Google Buzz integrates with Gmail, Google Maps, but you won't find a separate desktop interface.

Google Social Search and Google Real-time Search are two filters in the "search options" sidebar, but they don't have homepages like Google Blog Search or even Google Patent Search.

Maybe Google decided that it's a better idea to offer new features for the existing Google services, instead of releasing disparate services.

Gesture Search for Android

There's a new Android app in Google Labs: Gesture Search. Google's applications offers an alternative input method: drawing letters.

"Gesture Search from Google Labs lets you search your Android-powered device by drawing alphabet gestures on the touch screen. It allows you to quickly find a contact, a bookmark, an application, or a music track from hundreds or thousands of items, all in one place. It is fast and fun to use."

In the screenshot below, you can see Gesture Search in action: after drawing letter "a" in the Contacts app, the user draws the letter "n" to quickly find Andy.

Gesture Search shows two important things about Google's mobile operating system. If you use an Android phone, you'll be able to try a lot of great apps developed by Google. Another important thing is that Android apps can integrate with built-in applications, so you're able to find applications, contacts, songs and bookmarks using a third-party app.

Unfortunately, Gesture Search is only available for Android 2.0 and not many people can upgrade to this version without buying a Droid or a Nexus One. At least for now.

March 3, 2010

Google Replaces SearchWiki with Starred Results

Google removed SearchWiki, the feature that allowed you to customize search results by promoting them, removing them or adding comments below search snippets. SearchWiki cluttered search results and the aggregated results from public SearchWiki pages were rarely useful.

SearchWiki has been replaced with a simple feature that lets you star search results. Click on a star next to a search results and you'll see it in a "starred items" OneBox at the top of the page. Another side effect is that the starred search results are added to Google Bookmarks, so you can quickly find them later. The "starred items" OneBox shows the most relevant bookmarks that match your query and it's the easiest way to search Google Bookmarks.

Those who used SearchWiki to remove search results or to add comments won't lose their changes. "If you previously removed a result, it will remain hidden whenever you do the same search in the future. These hidden results will be listed in a "removed results" section at the bottom of the page," explains Google. There's also a SearchWiki page that lists all your notes.

Even if I didn't like SearchWiki at the beginning, I ended up using this feature a lot. Adding web pages to search results pages and improving the snippets with custom annotations were a great way to refind web pages.