Beyond Search: Google Specialty Services

Google's Web service empire at a glance

Even people who have never opened a Web browser in their life know about Google -- but the undisputed king of search is about much more than just keywords, text ads, and ten-per-page results.

Here's a look at some of the company's other services for Web users.

Alerts: Simply enter any search term you want to monitor, choose one of five categories (News, Blogs, Groups, Web, or Comprehensive), and set your inbox to receive alerts once a day, once a week, or "as-it-happens". I chose the last option for two different terms and received my first alerts about an hour later. You can easily save or delete specific alerts, as well as change their frequency or turn them off altogether.

Catalogs: View images of catalogue pages scanned as part of the Google Base service, which lets people add their own information to Google's databases. Most of the catalogues are years old, and few big-name directories are present (five-year-old Hickory Farms and Crate and Barrel catalogues are typical). Many are from small, regional companies, heavy on boating and fishing items, specialty foods, and other niches. You can't order products online, either; instead you call the toll-free number displayed prominently to the left of the catalogue pages. If only the information on the grainy, scanned pages were as easy to read. Fans of catalogue shopping will likely be disappointed with the service's offerings.

Custom Search Engine: Create your own search engine in your area of expertise, or use the creations of others. If you roll your own engine, you can place it on your own site (even customize its appearance to match that of your site), or add it to Google's list of custom sites and invite others to suggest sites to include in your engine. I created a search engine about Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in just about 15 minutes.

Directory: This service lists sites of interest in various categories, A la mid-1990s Yahoo, Northern Light, and Magellan. Directories seem particularly anachronistic on Google, since keyword searching has replaced such hierarchical lists of topics. However, Internet directories help people unfamiliar with a subject learn more about it without having to know which specific words to search for. In other words, if you're not sure what you're looking for, Web directories such as this one may help you find it.

Pack: With a single download you get a collection of free software that includes the Google Earth 3D geo-browser, the Picasa photo organizer, a screen-saver maker, the Mozilla Firefox browser with Google Toolbar, a six-month subscription to Symantec Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition, Google Talk, the RealPlayer media player, the Skype VoIP client, the Google Desktop utility for searching files on your PC and/or the Web, the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Personal antispyware program, Adobe Reader 7, Google Video Player, and GalleryPlayer HD Images, which includes ten free high-definition images you can use as desktop backgrounds or screen savers. One problem for me is that I already have several of those programs installed on my PC, and the others I don't need or want. Even when I buy a new system, I prefer to install only the applications I know I'll use. Also, PC World always advises that you load new programs one at a time to make correcting installation problems easy. If you download and install all of these programs at once and something goes wrong, you won't know where to begin to troubleshoot.

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Dennis O'Reilly

PC World
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