If it’s true that Google is set to take over the world, we should probably all get to know our online overlord a little better. After all, the Mountain View giant moves more than 65 percent of the world’s search traffic, and dominates the rest of the web with a broad swath of free services. Since it’s almost impossible to get through a day on the Internet without crossing Google’s path, we’ve created this comprehensive guide to all things G.
Want to know what people are saying about you (or anything else, for that matter) on the web? Set up a Google alert. Type any search string into the field—the more specific, the better. Be sure to use an exclude operator (-) to cut out common words that are likely to clutter your results with false positives. Or, if you’re only looking for results from a few common sites, follow your search term with the “sites:” operator, listing the sites you are interested in after the colon. Next, narrow your results further by selecting the type of content you want alerts about, such as news, blogs, or video, frequency you’d like to run the search, and the address you’d like results sent to.
Google Books and eBookstore
Thanks to the Kindle, Amazon has made digital books commonplace. Now Google is working to make them ubiquitous with Google Books and eBookstore. A convergence of two distinct services, Books is a massive collection of scanned volumes served up as PDFs as well as ebook files from books and magazines on even the most obscure topics dating from the 19th century to the present day. The eBookstore sells current releases at prices comparable to those of Amazon and Apple’s iBooks. The service now pairs with reader apps on Android, iOS, and the desktop.
On the heels of PayPal’s breakout success, Google jumped into the online payment game with Checkout, a basic payment service that lets you buy stuff online via a credit card linked to your Google account. Like PayPal, Google Checkout securely automates payments on a wide range of retail sites, including tech retailers like TigerDirect.com. In typical Google fashion, Checkout buttons are now integrated directly into Google ads and search results, urging users to make one-click purchases just about everywhere in Googleland. A word of advice: Linking your credit card account to your Google account gives you even more reason to keep your password ultra-secure.
Google has emerged as the leader in online mapping. Integrating conventional street maps with comprehensive, surprisingly up-to-date satellite imagery, flyover images, 3D cityscapes, traffic alerts, and street-level views of even the most outlying suburban neighborhoods, Maps can give you a pretty accurate picture of just about any spot on the planet.
For business users, Google offers a multi-service package known as Google Apps Premier Edition. Consisting of slightly tweaked versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Sites, and an additional selection of services from the Google Apps Marketplace, this enterprise-grade suite of tools runs $50 per user per year. Unlike standard Google accounts, which work with all Google services, Google Apps business accounts support a relatively narrow selection from Google’s collection. As a trade-off, however, they support a broad array of third-party business plugins.
If you think downloading and installing Picasa on the desktop seems like too much effort, try Picnik, a simple online photo editor that Google bought last year. Upload a photo to Picnik and you can autofix lighting problems, crop, resize, adjust colors and exposure, remove red-eye, and share the finished product via Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Photobucket, MySpace, and of course, Google Buzz and Picasa Web Albums. A basic account is free, and a premium account adds a truckload of additional features for between $2 and $5 per month (depending on the subscription term).
Paste or type any text into Google Translate’s text box, and the service will detect the language it’s written in, then translate it into one of more than 50 languages, complete with an awkwardly robotic audio transcription.
YouTube needs no introduction. It precedes Google’s ownership, and led the company to kill off its own Google Video service after the buyout. If you’ve ever uploaded or watched a video online, you’ve almost certainly used YouTube.
Built on Google Maps, Latitude is a location-sharing service for mobile devices. Install the app on your phone, and you can invite your friends to share their locations with you (and vice versa) in real time. It’s a fun idea, and useful for families and companies that want to keep track of their people, but also deeply creepy and stalkery. Everyone we know who’s ever tried Latitude disabled it long, long ago.
If Picasa Web Albums and Google Maps had a tawdry little fling, their progeny would be Panoramio, a simple photo-sharing site built around Google Maps. In short, it collects and displays photos taken at specific locations, so you can explore pictures from around the world in Google Maps or Google Earth. Upload a pic and Panoramio will ask you to select the location where the photo was shot. If you enable location tracking with Google Latitude, Panoramio will use Latitude’s location history to match the time the photo was taken in an attempt to pinpoint the photo location automatically. It’s a kludgy setup, and one that’s easily foiled by an incorrect time setting in your camera. Panoramio is still in its infancy, and it’s not at all clear that Google has figured out what to do with it yet.
Google’s entrant in the instant messaging arena is Google Talk, which lives mainly within Gmail but also appears on iGoogle pages and the Orkut social network, as well as in a stand-alone desktop version. Google Talk integrates with AIM accounts, but works best with other Google Talk users, enabling video and audio chat through the Gmail interface. Oddly, the desktop version doesn’t support video, though—so if you use Gmail regularly, that’s typically the best option for Google Talk.
Now in its seventh year, Orkut never gathered much traction with American users, but remains huge in Brazil and India. It’s basically a Facebook clone.
As part of an industry-wide push to move health records online, Google Health aggregates all of your medical information in a single, Googley interface. You can input your vitals, such as blood pressure, weight, vaccinations, and so on, and import medical records from 25 different pharmacies and healthcare providers. The idea is to give you an easy way to track your healthcare and share information with your physician. Whether you really want to trust all this information to Google is another matter entirely.
If you blog at all, you’re probably familiar with Blogger. Google’s blogging service is the sixth-largest in the world, serving up blogs to some 400 million active readers worldwide. In recent years, Blogger has been looking a little stale compared to competitors like WordPress and Drupal, but Google has been hard at work revamping the service with a new template designer, real-time stat tracking, mobile-friendly templates, and other welcome updates. At press time, the new features had yet to launch, but they’ll be worth a closer look when they go live.
Google’s earliest foray into the world of social networking was Groups, which it bought and rebranded in 2001. It’s a massive collection of user-created forums on just about any topic. Very little differentiates Google Groups from Yahoo Groups or any of the other online forum sites. You can join an existing group, or start your own.
In yet another attempt to make headway in the social media game, Google launched Buzz in May 2010. Early adopters immediately pounced on the service, which is integrated directly into the Gmail interface. Buzz had been heralded by Google as a smarter approach to social networking that would reduce unwanted noise in your social stream and surface the most relevant posts from your best buddies. In reality, it did almost exactly the opposite. Most early adopters quickly abandoned the service citing concerns over privacy and usability.
Picasa Web Albums
Despite the name, Picasa Web Albums is more than just an online extension of the Picasa app. It’s more like Google’s answer to Flickr (which we’re pretty sure lost its relevance a year ago). With or without the desktop app, Picasa Web Albums gives you a gigabyte of online storage to share photos and videos. Unfortunately, a gig isn’t a lot of space for pictures, so it won’t be long before Google starts pressuring you to upgrade your storage to 20GB for $5 per year. Is that a lot of money? No, it’s not. Is it enough of a hassle that you’ll just want to stick to Facebook for photo sharing? Yes, it is.
An interesting departure from Google’s standard fare, SketchUp is a free 3D modeling tool that’s insanely easy to use. Even with no background in graphic design, you can start creating 3D graphics in just a few minutes by simply drawing a shape, pulling it into three dimensions, and then drawing more shapes. Google provides more than 100 how-to videos on the SketchUp site to help you get started and master the tools.
Remember when web portals were all the rage, and everyone was supposed to have a personalized home page preloaded with news, weather, email, and whatever else? Yeah, iGoogle is a holdover from that era.
If you need more storage for any of your Google services, Google abides (for a price). A 20GB upgrade costs $5 per year, 80GB will cost you $20, and so on, with options all the way up to 16TB for $4,096 a year. Your upgraded storage becomes available to all of your various Google accounts, in addition to your free quotas on each service, so you can load up your Picasa Web Albums with as many pics and videos as you can afford the space for.
Easily one of the best free photo tools anywhere, Picasa has evolved from humble beginnings into a robust photo editor complete with organization features, advanced editing tools, and built-in sharing options. During installation, Picasa will sweep your hard drive in search of images, and integrate them into its photo browser to get your pictures under control. From there, you can open them up, autofix problems, fine-tune lighting and effects, export your pics to a blog, create a collage, or quickly create a slideshow video to upload to YouTube.
Google Search Power Tools
Once upon a time, search was all Google did. Life was simpler then, and Google Search’s simplicity beat out the growing bloat of rival Yahoo in the span of a year. Does anyone ever say, “Let me Yahoo that for you”? No, they don’t. The Search feature set is constantly changing, but generally consists of six integrated services.
To get the most out of Google Search, it’s still best to familiarize yourself with the engine’s operator strings, such as quotes to find an exact phrase, “site:” to search only a specific site, or “–” to exclude a term from your results. You can also use the Advanced Search interface to add criteria like reading level, language, file type, and date, and turn SafeSearch (the content-filtering option) on or off.
As its name implies, Image Search scours the web for pictures that match your search string. The results appear as a cascading page of thumbnails that enlarge when you hover over them. To narrow results, use the options in the left sidebar to select a size range, image type, or dominant color.
Google Directory is a throwback to the early days when sites were indexed by category and presented in a browsable topic tree. It’s an absurd way to surf the 21st-century web.
Looking for stats on what the world is searching for? Google Trends tracks the most popular search terms to give you a barometer of what’s hot on the web. It’s very handy for search engine optimization.
Whether you’re a blogger or a business with a large site, you can add Google’s search engine to your pages with Custom Search. Enter your site’s URL and Google will give you some code to embed on your site, complete with text autocompletion in the search box (if you enable it). The free version includes Google ads in the results. An ad-free version is available for $100 per year.
Explore More with Google Earth
Google Earth is loaded with cool data, but to make it personally relevant, you should add your own places to it. To add any location to your list of places, punch the address into the Fly To field to zoom to it, then right-click the crosshairs on the map and select Save to My Places.
All data in Google Earth is presented in layers laid over the base map. Major cities and other frequently visited locales will tend to house dense layers of data. You can make the map more navigable and useful by enabling or disabling layers of data. For instance, if you’re trying to get a feel for the layout of a city you’re about to visit, but the map is covered with little data points for all the pictures people have uploaded to Google Earth, uncheck the box for the Photos layer to get a clearer view. To see what the climate is like in the location you’re viewing enable the Weather layer.
Google Earth now includes Street View images wherever they exist on Google Maps. Just zoom down to street level to activate them.
At the top of the Layers box you’ll find a button marked Earth Gallery, which will take you to a large collection of additional layers you can add to your app. Some of them are really practical, like the near-real-time snapshots of active flights in the U.S., which can actually help you locate your inbound flight or track a friend’s flight. Others are just plain awesome, like the Shipwrecks layer that shows you the exact locations of known shipwrecks.
You can add your own photos to Google Earth’s Photos layer by geotagging them in Picasa and exporting them to a KML file that you can open in Google Earth. To contribute your pics to all Google Earth users, upload them to Panoramio in Picasa and, if Google approves, they’ll eventually appear in Google Earth’s Panoramio layer.
Google Earth includes 3D models of significant buildings in many major cities, and you can add your building to the map with Google Building Maker ( google.com/buildingmaker ). Based on SketchUp, Building Maker lets you select a building in Google Earth, then drag shapes onto the image to line up the various facets of the structure. When your 3D model is complete, submit it to Google for approval to have it added to Google Earth.
Google News and Info Services
These services will let you dig a little deeper into specific topics or dimensions of Google’s wide-ranging information services.
Regardless of where you get your news, Google Reader is an indispensible RSS feed aggregator, with mobile versions for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.
For quick access to news from all over the web, Google News is tough to beat. It collects stories on hot topics into clusters, often bringing hundreds of sources together into a single cluster to help you find a multitude of perspectives on the day’s news. Unfortunately, many news sites now target hot Google News topics so aggressively that it can turn any given topic cluster into an echo chamber, but the multisource approach is great.
Google Blog Search does for blogs what Google News does for news sites.
If you’re doing scholarly research, Google Scholar should be on your list of reference sites. It weeds out general web content to focus strictly on scholarly journals to give you sources worth citing.
Doing some investing? Google Finance is a one-stop shop for market analysis and business news.
Like Wikipedia, Knol is a user-created reference site with articles on just about everything. Unlike Wikipedia, Knol is poorly monitored for the veracity of its content. While the site has attracted the contributions of some real experts in their fields, much of Knol’s content is mind-bogglingly incoherent.
Google Voice Secrets
If you use your Google Voice number for business, or just don’t want to be disturbed at certain times, you can set custom days and hours when the service won’t ring your phone. Click the Settings icon in the top-right corner of the window and choose Voice Settings. Then click Edit under the phone you want to set hours for, and click “Show advanced settings.” Under Ring Schedule, you can either choose a preset schedule or click “Use a custom schedule” to set the time range that works for you.
Rather not give up your existing mobile number to get Google Voice’s transcription and voicemail features? Use Voice Lite. During sign-up, just click “I want to use my existing mobile number instead,” and you’ll get the essential features without another number to remember. Note: This feature will port your mobile number from your wireless carrier to Google Voice.
To start recording an incoming Google Voice call, press 4 at any time during the call. The recording will be saved to your Google Voice inbox for later retrieval. Sadly, this feature isn’t available for outbound calls.
Want to jot a few notes about a voicemail so you can refer to them later when you call the person back? Click More at the bottom of the voicemail bubble and then choose “Add note.”
Getting too many annoying calls on your Google Voice number? Change it. Just click Port/Change next to your number at the top of the window, and choose “I want to get a different Google Voice number.”
When you select a Google Voice number, you have the option to choose a number containing an acronym.
Need an hour or two of peace? Enable Do Not Disturb by clicking Settings, then Calls, and check the radio button for Enable “Do Not Disturb.” Choose the amount of time you want calls to go straight to voicemail, and your phone won’t ring during that time.
Power Up Google Calendar
Google Calendar is so straightforward, its basic features need very little explanation. But you can supercharge your productivity by adding these awesome tools from Google Calendar Labs. Click the little green flask icon in the top-right menu to get started.
Premium calendar apps like Outlook let you attach documents to scheduled events so everyone has the same materials for the meeting. By default, Google Calendar doesn’t. But if you enable this handy Lab extra, you’re in business.
Whether you’re taking a vacation or just want to block off a few hours as a no-meetings zone, this add-on saves you the trouble of having to manually turn down meeting invitations when you’re unavailable.
Always getting invited to meetings at times when you’re already booked? Use Smart Rescheduler to automatically analyze your group’s schedules and find a time when everyone can make it.
When your schedule’s really packed, it helps to clear the view a little. This Labs add-on renders next Thursday’s weekly status meeting in a lighter shade than other events so you can focus on less mundane stuff.
Someone invited you to a meeting and inconsiderately named it “Call with you.” Why do people still do this? No matter. Enable Who’s My One-on-One With? to automatically display the names of people you have meetings with to the right of the event name.
The Who’s My One-on-One With add-on from Google Calendar Labs helps you fill in the blanks when your event descriptions are less than descriptive.
Google Platforms: Android, Chrome, and Google TV
A few years ago, you might have been forgiven for doubting Google’s ability to threaten Microsoft’s OS dominance. But now that the company is aggressively branching out into traditional Redmond territory, the competition is heating up.
In the span of two years, Google’s Android mobile operating system has managed to do what Microsoft couldn’t: go toe-to-toe with Apple’s iPhone. Android is currently neck-and-neck with iOS in smartphone market share, and the platform’s app selection is growing fast. Many analyst projections show Google leading the smartphone market within the year, thanks to its multidevice strategy of open development, and the new 3.0 Honeycomb release could signal gains on tablets.
Meanwhile, the Chrome browser has gained roughly a quarter of the global browser market, further eroding Internet Explorer’s slice of the pie chart. And, while it’s still very much in development, the browser-only operating system known as Chrome OS shows that Google has its eye on unseating Windows from the desktop environment.
Constantly hedging its bets, Google has begun a push into the living room with Google TV, an embedded OS for surfing the web from your couch. If you’ve been keeping up with Maximum PC, you know that we haven’t been impressed by the first generation. Whether this platform will succeed or fade into obscurity like MSN TV remains to be seen, but the surge of app-driven HDTVs this year could give it a boost.
Overclock Google Docs
Prefer to work in Microsoft Office but want the sharing features of Google Docs? Yeah, us too. Google Cloud Connect is a simple Office plug-in for Windows that automatically syncs your documents to Google Docs as you work.
Once you’ve been using Docs for a while, your Documents List will become massive and unnavigable. To make files easier to locate even when you can’t remember what you named them, use Collections. They’re basically just folders, but Google seems to want to have a different name for everything. You can share entire collections with other Docs users to make collaboration easier.
Google Docs lets you edit documents from a phone with Android 2.2 or later, or iOS 3.0 or later, installed. No need to download third-party apps. Just browse to docs.google.com and you’re in. If you’re using some other kind of phone, try using Documents To Go.
Collaborating with a colleague on a document? When you’re both viewing it at the same time, you can start a chat session by clicking their name in the upper-right corner of the window. Alternatively, just use the comments feature, which—thanks to a recent upgrade—now acts more like an IM session.
Google Docs can now scan PDFs and image files for readable text when you upload them, turning them into fully searchable, editable documents. Just check the radio button for the “Convert text from PDF or image files to Google Docs documents” option in the upload menu, and select the appropriate language from the drop-down.
Trick Out Gmail
Mousing around your screen like a newb is no way to get things done. Gmail supports a variety of hotkeys to help you navigate through messages quickly, and you can enable them near the top of the Settings menu. At the very least, you should be using the K and J keys to move up and down your conversations list, R to reply, and C to compose a new message.
Tired of typing the same message every time someone asks you the same question? The Canned Responses add-on in Gmail Labs lets you prepare a variety of messages that you can insert by clicking a little drop-down in the editing menu. It’s also good for folks who use more than one email signature.
The Send & Archive feature in Gmail Labs is one of the simplest timesavers you’ll find. As its name implies, it sends your reply and archives the conversation with one click.
Why does Gmail insist on putting your signature after the quoted text in your reply? We don’t know. But we don’t put up with it, either. Enable the Signature Tweaks add-on in Gmail Labs to place the signature above the quoted text, where it belongs.
Google places little icons to the right of the message subject line in your inbox, but half the people we talk to never seem to know about it. To make these icons more useful, move them to the left of the subject by enabling the Move Icon Column feature in Gmail Labs.
It’s nice to be able to set messages apart by clicking a little yellow star, but once you’ve clicked a few hundred of those stars, the significance begins to fade. The Superstars Gmail Labs add-on gives you as many as 12 different icons in place of that single yellow star. What you use them for is up to you.
The Superstars add-on in Gmail Labs gives you up to 12 different icons with which to mark your messages.
Some guy you don’t know is leaving the company, and your inbox is rapidly filling with the insincere farewells of a few hundred well-wishers. Use the Smart Mute add-on in Gmail Labs to automatically bypass your inbox on future messages in that thread.
Often the best ideas turn out to be the simplest ones. Just as Gmail supports hotkeys for faster navigation through your inbox, the experimental Search Keyboard Shortcuts adds several useful hotkeys to your search results view. The shortcuts themselves are similar to those in Gmail: J and K move your cursor up and down the list. 0 or Enter open a result. / puts your cursor in the search box, and Esc removes the cursor from the search box.
Got an obscure question that none of your friends can answer? Ask Aardvark, and it’ll use accumulated profile data to find the best person to send your question to. Aardvark claims to answer most questions within 10 minutes.
Want to share a map with a friend? Enable the Short URL feature in Google Maps Labs and it’ll convert the contents of the Link menu into a short goo.gl address that won’t take up all your character count on Twitter.
Want to break into the mobile development game but lack actual programming skill? No problem. Google’s App Inventor gives you simple building blocks that you can drag and drop to create your own simple apps. You can work directly with your own phone over USB or use the tool’s Android phone emulator to work entirely on the web. When you’re done, package the app and load it onto any Android device you want.
Want to use Google Maps on your Android phone without actually looking at the device? WalkyTalky is an experimental app that makes Google Navigation more useful for walking directions by verbally guiding you and speaking street addresses to you as you pass by them to give you a clearer idea of where you are.
Looking for a parking spot on a busy downtown street? The Open Spot app for Android might just give you an edge. The idea is that users who are leaving their spots are supposed to mark their location in the app so that users who need a spot can find it. Each time you mark a spot, you’ll get karma points, which are exchangeable for nothing at all but can give your ego a boost.
Leanback is just a massive video window that automatically runs through a sidescrolling list of preselected popular videos. You can use your mouse or keyboard to move between them, but the best way to navigate is by using your Android phone as a remote.
You’re already accustomed to using autocomplete in search fields. Why not take the next step? Google Scribe is an odd little app that attempts to autocomplete everything you type. Start typing anything, and Scribe will attempt to complete not only the word itself, but also the rest of the phrase. Once you get a few characters on the screen, keep hitting Enter to let Scribe compose its own text. The resulting text might not be useful, but it’s a fascinating process to watch.
Forget Wikipedia. Google Squared lets you compile your own information page about any given topic. Just type a search term (say, “Disneyland”) into the field and click Square It. Squared will then grab information from a variety of online sources and arrange them in a grid with pictures.
1. Google Goggles
Typing is so 20th century. Google Goggles is a mobile app for Android and iPhone that lets you search based on pictures. Launch the app, take a picture, and Google Goggles will figure out what to do with it. On Android, Goggles is a stand-alone app, and on iPhone it’s now built into the Google Search app. Here are a few cool examples of what Goggles can do.
Take a picture of a business card and Goggles will analyze the text so you can call the person, email them, and add them to your contacts.
Take a picture of a book or product and Goggles will search for it on the web so you can buy it, download it, or just get more information from the manufacturer’s site.
Shoot a landmark, like a bridge or a building, and Goggles will compare it to other images online to tell you what you’re looking at, map it for you, and give you quick access to navigation information.
Whether you’re at a museum or a poster shop, Goggles can take a picture of a painting or sculpture and identify it by name, tell you who created it and when, link you to scholarly works about it, or help you find a reproduction to buy.
So this is that Play-Doh stuff all the kids are talking about.