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 online experience, including a free way to generate Sidebar Gadgets for Windows Vista.

Alexander Wolfe, Contributor

March 14, 2007

16 Min Read

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.


Create 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.

(click image for larger view)Google provides RSS news feeds for eight broad topic areas, ranging from world and national news to sports and entertainment.

(click image for larger view)News feeds customized to any topic you desire can be created by putting in a search term and then grabbing the RSS feed from the middle-left portion of the Google page.

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. 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. )

(click image for larger view)Here's the XML code generated by the Google News RSS feed; in this case for a customized "Microsoft" feed.

(click image for larger view)RSS readers like Bloglines -- or the new RSS feature in Internet Explorer 7 -- can be used to view your customized Google feeds.

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.

(click image for larger view)The Amnesty Generator requires you to grab the Gadget's code from Google's Gadget page, plug it in, add an image for your icon, click a button and the Vista Gadget is automatically generated.

(click image for larger view)Here's our final Vista Date and Time gadget, generated by Amnesty, shown in the upper right corner of our Windows Vista Desktop.

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.

(click image for larger view)Hotspotr has a decent collection of Wi-Fi listings for San Francisco, though many of its other cities are still sparsely mapped.

Hotspotr was developed by Andre Lewis who's also the author of a book on 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.

(click image for larger view)SketchUp is Google's 3-D offering aimed at the AutoCAD space. It's available both in free and paid versions.

It's 3-D modeling software, for mocking up buildings, interiors, and other architectural and industrial designs. There's a free version, which won't necessarily rival AutoCad, but isn't exactly lightweight, either. Interestingly, Google sells a "Pro" version of SketchUp 6 for $495. Bet you didn't know that Google sold expensive software, did you?

Further off the beaten path -- thanks to Random Musings blog for pointing this out -- is the Google Friends newsletter. This monthly e-mail missive seems to have ceased publication with the April 2006 issue. However, the archives turned up some interesting pointers, such as this trial of Google mobile text messages. You're supposed to be able to send an SMS query and get an answer back. However, when I tried "NY Rangers" on the demo, I got an old score.

The "Friends" archive also turned up an interesting reviewer's guide to Google's Webmaster tools, and a pointer to Google Stock Quotes. The award for oddest app goes to Google Easter Eggs, a browser-based game where you use your mouse to help a bunny catch a descending series of "eggs" in order to spell out "Google."


Ensure Privacy For Google Searches

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The Cloak is one of a slew of Web tools which claims to enable anonymous Web surfing.

No story about Google is complete without a word about privacy. My February 2006 article, Five Ways To Keep Your Google Searches Private appeared shortly after the U.S. government subpoenaed Google, MSN, Yahoo, and AOL to hand over data on user searches.

Everyone was in a tizzy that their most private (read: embarrassing) searches were going to be publicly linked to their log-ons. For most folks, such fears are obviously overblown. Not so for the likes of Robert Petrick, the North Carolina computer consultant who was convicted of killing his wife by prosecutors which uncovered Google searches for the words "neck," "snap," and "break" on his hard drive.

My search-privacy tips last year were pretty obvious: Delete your browser's history; regularly clear out out your cache and cookies, and keep the door closed. (That last one wasn't really part of the list). Preston Gralla weighs in with some additional tips in his recent article, Seven ways to keep your search history private.)

Apart from the basic strategy of covering your search tracks, stronger technical medicine is available. Check out the Electronic Privacy Information Center's list of anonymous surfing tools. There's The Cloak, which hides your identity from sites you visit connecting you via an anonymous proxy server. (Though presumably The Cloak's computers know where you've been, and could be subpoenaed by a court at some future date if any illegal activity was being investigated.) Another tool, Anonymizer, adds an anonymous e-mail to the shielded-surfing feature.

Proxy servers are the main means of maintaining anonymity in Web surfing. As an explanation noted: "Anonymous proxy servers can be used for all kinds of Web-services, such as Web-Mail (MSN Hot Mail, Yahoo mail), web-chat rooms, FTP archives, etc." There are many sites which purport to list public proxy servers. However, it's probably a dangerous strategy to attempt to connect via such servers; there's no promise of anonymity from some unknown third-party computer.

For those who aren't doing anything untoward in their searchers, but are nevertheless concerned about the ethics of maintaining long-term records on peoples' searches, Google in mid-March offered something of a solution.

In a change in policy, Google's position is now: "Unless we're legally required to retain log data for longer, we will anonymize our server logs after a limited period of time. When we implement this policy change in the coming months, we will continue to keep server log data. . .but will make this data much more anonymous, so that it can no longer be identified with individual users, after 18-24 months."

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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