5 Google Tips To Improve Your Search Experience

Want an RSS feed of all Britney, all the time, or 3-D modeling software? Beyond basic search and apps like Google Earth, here are some little-known tips to enhance your

March 17, 2007

14 Min Read
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Google is known as a major-league search destination and as the source of "wish I'd thought of that" apps such as Google Earth, the Picasa photo-sharing program, and Gmail. However, a closer investigation turns up both some little-known ways to get the most out of your searches and some funky productivity boosting applications you might not have heard about.1Create Customized News Feeds
All the world's news may be at your fingertips on the Web, but one still typically has to either browse through an online newspaper, visit a bookmarked site, or browse through a long list of RSS feeds to find that nugget of interest. What if you could create a customized feed, which would instant present you with just the news you're interested in? Perhaps you're interested in what Microsoft is up to. Or maybe you've been slacking off on the technology and following Britney Spears instead. Either way, Google News Feed is the app for you.

These feeds are a refinement of Google's widely used news page, which aggregates news from around the world into nine coarse-grain buckets such as Top Stories, Science & Technology, Health, and Sports.

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Turning the feeds from something you access within a Web browser into a more useful information flow that comes to you is done by grabbing via Really Simple Syndication. By now, even people who don't use that technology know this is called an RSS feed--an XML stream that can be decoded by an RSS reader.Feeds have their own form of URL. For example, Google News's Sci/Tech RSS feed is http://news.google.com/news?ned=us&topic=t&output=rss. Simply plug the URL into your RSS reader or into the new RSS facility that's been integrated into Internet Explorer 7 and you're good to go. The RSS feeds for the other eight Google News categories can be picked up here

Far more interesting is the full-custom capability I mentioned in the beginning. To pursue this tack, go back to Google News. Type the subject of interest--we're going with "Microsoft"--into the search box at the top of the page. After you hit "Search," the page will come back with an RSS link about six inches down the left side of the browser. Click on that, and you'll get a link--http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&ned=us&q=microsoft&ie=UTF-8&output=rss, in this case--which you can paste into your RSS reader. That'll keep all the latest Microsoft-related stories coming your way.

Once that's done, the customized feed will be displayed in your RSS reader just as if it were a "regular" feed from another other site you normally subscribe to. (If you're still interested in our hypothetical "Britney Spears" feed, the RSS link to paste into your reader is: http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&ned=us&q=britney+spears&ie=UTF-8&output=rss. )

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Best of all, with Google's customized feed feature, you can add a new feed at any time, simply by doing a new search and grabbing the RSS URL from the button on the left side of the Google News page. (That is, when you do a search, you get an RSS feed which corresponds to that search. Also, note that the feed will continually draw in new stories on that subject, not just stuff extant at the time of your search.) Sophisticated users have long relied on Web-based RSS readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. With the capability now built into IE 7, you no longer have an excuse not to try out perhaps the most useful Web tools that hasn't yet advanced much beyond the early adopters into ubiquity.


Generate Sidebar 'Gadgets' For Windows Vista

One of the biggest holes in the ecosystem surrounding Windows Vista has been the paucity of Gadgets--those cool, Mac-like applets the live on your desktop. (Most people keep them arrayed vertically on the right side.) True, Microsoft does offer about a dozen of its own basic gadgets, which bring you the time, weather, and latest headlines. And there's a rapidly evolving community of third-party Gadgets. (Though Microsoft's Gadget Web page is somewhat misleading in that it doesn't distinguish between Windows Live gadgets (lots and lots, but little demand) and ones for Vista (not nearly as many, and these are the ones people want).Where Microsoft has come up a bit short, Google has unintentionally stepped into the breach. Google has a healthy collection of time-wasters, ranging from the joke and recipe of the day, to Wikipedia search and People magazine headlines. However, the Google Gadgets are specifically intended to work with your own "personalized" version of the Google home page, or with the company's own Google Desktop Web-based apps.

Fortunately, a small desktop-software company called Mesa Dynamics which has stepped into the breach with a free utility, which effectively bridges the gadget gap between Google and Microsoft. Amnesty Generator for Vista converts Google's Web-oriented Gadgets into Gadgets which can run in Vista's sidebar.

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In operation, Amnesty Generator requires the user to take Google's HTML and paste it into the app. A click of a button and the Vista Gadget is ready to go. Interestingly, Mesa Dynamics also offers a version of its app running under OS X, for generating Mac Sidebar applets.

We tested out the Amnesty Generator on a simple Calendar Gadget from Google. The Amnesty tool requires you to grab the source code of the Google Gadget and paste it in. Once that's done, you just add an image for your desired desktop icon, and give the Gadget a name. Click, and Amnesty outputs your Vista Gadget, and automatically inserts it into the your Windows Vista gallery. You can then deploy it to your desktop just like any other Vista Gadget.Be advised that my testing indicated that not all the Google Gadgets can be cleanly converted. Amnesty did generate some Gadget code that didn't work once it was pasted onto the Vista desktop. However, given the large inventory of Google Gadgets, you're sure to end up with enough working additions to Vista to keep you busy for a while.


Locate WiFi Hotspots Anywhere In The United States

Hotspotr is a beta (actually, "beta-ish," according to its home page) site that's a featured project from the Google Code effort. Google Code is a varied collection of software efforts, ranging from internal efforts to programmer written by outside professional to ideas which emerged at Google's famous Summer of Code. This year will mark the third iteration of the event, which is a kind of Woodstock for young programmers, who gather together to create open-source apps.

Google Maps applications. Lewis also runs the Hotspotr site.

A quick check of the site verifies its beta status. Right now, Hotspotr is mainly focused on coffeehouses, so laptop users can figure out where to get the longest computing bang for their $3 latte. (Oddly, it also seems to list many libraries.) Hotspotr currently compiles some 4033 cafes in 1200 cities. As a result, its listing are rather sparse in many places, including New York City. Perhaps reflecting its West Coast origins, its connectivity guide to San Francisco is much stronger. Hotspotr is relying on users to add and rate Wi-Fi locations in their area, so perhaps it'll evolve into a beefier list.

In fairness, I should emphasis that there are a number of available WiFi directories which are, for now at least, more ready for prime time than is Hotspotr. These include Wi-FiHotSpotList.com, and Jiwire. At the same time, I caution readers against blindly surfing to Wi-Fi Hotspots turned up by Google's search engine. The reason: At least a few of the less reputable among these sites attempt to place spyware on your machine.


Google Unplugged

Our penultimate item is actually a collection of little-known Google projects as well as some also-rans which are apparently no longer being pushed, though they linger as Web detritus.

The elephant in the room among seldom-read-about Google apps is SketchUp.

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