Quick Review: Google Desktop

We get comfy with Google's new Desktop and build a bridge between the outer web and the inner hard drive.

November 9, 2004

7 Min Read
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The most configuration work you'll have to do is choose the various options on Google Desktop's preferences page. And the way you get there is simplicity itself. Bring up a Web browser and go to Google's main search page. Click on the Desktop choice above the search bar, and it will bring you to your own individual search page. (For a sample preferences page, see fig. 1.)

Google Desktop PreferencesClick to Enlarge

The way this works is quite elegant indeed. The software sets up a special Web server on your desktop--a server that it and it alone can use. No one can access this Web server from outside your machine, and the information Google Desktop collects on your individual machine doesn't leave the premises--unlike that other Google software, Gmail.
Speaking of Gmail, Google Desktop doesn't serve up any ads at all (unlike Gmail, which tries match the contents of e-mail messages with particular ads). That is a good thing. The Google Desktop search results pages look pretty much like what you would expect from Google: Search results along with an additional line or two of information about the type of documents it has found, the date they were created and an image of any cached and static Web content (see fig. 2.).

Desktop Search Results

Click to Enlarge

The cool thing about Google's Desktop is that you can forget it's on your PC. You won't know it's there until you go to the main, Internet-based Google search page and try to search for something. Then you'll see the beauty of this software, as the search results will come up for both what is on your desktop and what is out in the world beyond, all organized neatly and cleanly and clearly (see fig. 3). You will see results for file names as well as the content of those special files mentioned earlier. It is a wonderful thing to behold. You can, of course, segregate the local and Internet searches by clicking on a check box on the preferences page. But seriously, why would you want to?

Desktop Search ResultsClick to Enlarge

You can also specify which type of files to search. If you want to limit your searches to particular files, for example, to determine which PowerPoint presentation mentions "ducks" in either the presentation or in its file name, your search term would look like this: ducks filetype:ppt.
One other thing I should mention. If you configure Google Desktop to have it search your AOL instant messaging traffic, it will begin storing your conversations after you have installed the software and start to index these for full-text retrieval. And as you create new documents, it does the indexing in near-real time. It is a bit spooky, but oh so efficient.
The main search page will tell you how many items are available for search (in my case, about 3,700 items), and if you click on the status link you will see exactly how many of each type of document Desktop has indexed for you at that particular moment. You can't choose to view results for only one type of document, but it's easy to differentiate among them within the results. Okay, so is there any bad news here? Absolutely. If you use a shared computer, then your previous Web history, AIM conversations and documents you may have thought erased are all still available for inspection. Similarly, Google Desktop creates its own document cache, which is handy for comparing previous versions of your saved files, but problematic if your machine is not secured. Anyone who has physical access could obtain this information. Remember that slow afternoon at the office where you were surfing some, ahem, questionable Web sites? Well, that could be a problem and show up in your search results. The best solution? Take advantage of Windows 2000's or XP's multiple accounts capabilities and always logout and lock your machine when it's not in use. Only time will tell if IT will fully accept or support Google Desktop. Obviously, security questions like these will need to be addressed before this application finds its way into corporate America and beyond.
Another problem centers on compatibility. If you don't use Microsoft's Office or Internet Explorer or AOL's IM chat, then you aren't going to like this tool because it doesn't index any other types of documents (other than pure text files) and will ignore Web pages viewed in non-IE browsers. And if you choose to index your e-mails and make extensive use of Outlook's notes, journal and to-do entries, you'll find that Desktop doesn't cover anything other than the content of the e-mail messages themselves. For example, text stored in an e-mail attachment is not indexed, but you can search for the file name of that attachment. (To get around this limitation, you might be interested in a product Microsoft just purchased from lookoutsoft.com called Lookout. This search tool can index these other messaging collections. We'll see how well Microsoft integrates this into a future Office version.)
At the OS level, if you are running an older version of Windows or if you're on a Mac, there's no Google Desktop for you. However, Mac users can take advantage of Quicksilver (quicksilver.blacktree.com), and Windows users can use X1.com's Desktop Search (www.x1.com), which works with a wider variety of file formats and can search e-mail attachments too. Neither is nearly as elegant as Google Desktop; they run as separate applications.

The more cynical among us, myself included, might stop at this point and say, "Isn't searching your desktop something that the operating system should have done to begin with?" Well, yes and no. The best instance of desktop searching, sans-Google, comes from Apple's Mac OS and Sherlock. And Microsoft is supposedly working on integrating search with the next version of Windows, which should be available next year--or maybe the year after that, or maybe by the time George Bush leaves office. Even then, will these OS-based search tools displace Google Desktop? I don't think so. They will never be able to combine the power of local search with the power of an Internet search engine like Google.

Another major Google Desktop limitation concerns scope. Its ability to specify how much content is indexed is pretty crude. You either index all your e-mails or none of them. You can either collect all Word documents or none of them. (A more tunable desktop search software is available free from Copernic.com, as an example.) The only real control you have is on a directory-by-directory basis, which is fine if you have organized your data carefully within directories. But that won't work if you have stuff scattered all over your hard disk, or if you are like most users and don't necessarily know where things get stored on your computer once they leave the comfy digs of "My Documents" and venture out into the cold, cruel world of C:.
Come to think of it, that is why you need to use Google Desktop to begin with--to find your stuff. Assuming you've got the right content and applications, you'll find Google Desktop a welcome addition to your desktop. I recommend the software and suggest you give it a try.

David Strom is the online editor of the Electronics Group and in charge of that group's Web strategies. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing and is author of two books on computing networking. Strom writes a weekly column called Web Informant that is available in various online locations. Until using Google Desktop, he thought he was fairly organized about keeping his file collection. He can be reached at [email protected].

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