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Book Review: Google, The Missing Manual

Most people who use the Web have become addicted to Google. Once, twice, three times a day for some people. Some people even Google themselves. Yet even heavy users may have just scratched the surface of what you can do with the search engine.

That's where Google: The Missing Manual comes in. Written by two editors at O'Reilly Media, Sarah Milstein and Rael Dornfest, the book takes users on a comprehensive tour of all the ways that you can take advantage of Google's technology and database. The book is fresh. The first edition was printed in May, 2004, and they managed a quick revision of the introduction to get news of GMail, Google's email service, and the Google IPO into print.

I always assumed that I was a Google expert, for going straight to the advanced search page at http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en, rather than the classically simple front page at google.com. However, I underestimated what you can do with Google. I already knew about using Google as a dictionary but you can also use it as a calculator, a phone book, a map, and to look up UPC codes, flight information, and stock quotes.

The most valuable part of the book to me was Chapter 2, on Superior Searching. It shows not only how to use advanced features, but also how to manipulate the Google syntax to get it to deliver what you want. This includes searching by titles, text, anchors, date range, file types and synonyms. It also introduces you to how you can set your own preferences as you use Google.

Lost in Translation

Among the many preferences you can set for Google is your choice of output languages. This not only includes all major and most minor languages, but also more fanciful ones including "Elmer Fudd" (pweferances), "Bork Bork Bork" (the language of the Swedish chef from The Muppets Show), Hacker, Klingon, and Pig Latin. Idly looking at the possibilities, I wondered what Yiddish would look like, assuming I would see things like schlep, schmuck, and so on. Well, that wasn't a wise move on my part, because it took me to a page of right-to-left Hebrew characters. I actually had to click on two different links before I figured which one took me back to my Preference page, which was also in Yiddish. Of course, looking at my Output language preferences, I had no idea what the Yiddish word for English was. So I blindly picked an option that I figured was somewhere around where English would alphabetically be on the list. Even if I didn't hit English, I figured I could eventually find a language (such as French or Spanish) where I could at least recognize the choice for English. I made my choice, clicked the button, and suddenly found myself at the page called "Pweferences". Luckily, I had picked the Elmer Fudd language, and was able to get back the rest of the way from there. (Actually, since the book had already told me that Google stores your preferences in a cookie on your computer, I also knew that I could probably delete any Google cookies on my computer to get me back to the default English page.)

The Unknown Google

Part Two in the book is called "The Unknown Google" which gives tips on how to use Google's Image Search, Google News, Froogle (shopping with Google), Google Groups and the Google Directory, which is based on the Open Directory project. Part Three shows how to use tools, such as the Google toolbar and third-party tools, that make it easier to use Google.

The final section of the book is for webmasters, giving help on what you can do to make your site Google-friendly. There are some things they don't cover here. As the authors state at the beginning of the chapter

Here's what you won't find in this chapter: tips on gaming the Google engine, interfering with the proper functioning of its index, or otherwise playing the Google ranking game unfairly. While Google tries its darnedest to keep up with such attempts -- and does a pretty good job of it -- people have found some dirty tricks that pay off in the short run. If you came to this chapter looking for that sort of edge, you'd best look elsewhere.

What they do tell you in this chapter are some of the fundamental steps you need to get your web site noticed in Google. Most experienced web designers will know these things. However, the barriers to entry in web design are low, and more and more people are finding themselves webmasters of some sort. The information will definitely help those people. This section ends with a discussion of Google's AdSense program, where website's can run ads supplied by Google, targeted to your site from the information in the Google database. (It doesn't always work that way. I use Google AdSense on my blog about computer bugs, and every once in awhile I notice that one of my advertisers is Terminix.)

If you are just a casual user of Google, doing a random search here or there, you can probably do without this book. However, anyone who finds themselves doing lots of searches -- such as students, teachers, writers, librarians, analysts -- will certainly find ways of finding information faster, and doing more efficient searches, by reading this book.




BlogcriticsThis book review first appeared at Blogcritics.org