10 Useful Google Tools


Google's stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 8, 2006. See pictures of the Googleplex, Google's headquarters.
Google's stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 8, 2006. See pictures of the Googleplex, Google's headquarters.
Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images

Some days it seems like Google is working hard at achieving its goal of organizing the world's information, making it easier for us to find what we need. Other days it seems like the company plans to take over the entire world. And with a code of conduct that includes the direction of "don't be evil," maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing [source: Google Investor Relations].

There's no denying it -- Google is an Internet powerhouse. It's such an influential presence on the Web that when Yahoo! partnered with Google to put Google Ads on Yahoo! search results pages, people began to worry that Google would monopolize the search engine advertising business. Even the U.S. Congress began to question the allegiance [source: Hart]. Google has certainly come a long way -- the company grew from a haphazard collection of computers networked together in a garage to a global corporation worth billions of dollars.

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The backbone to Google's business is its search engine, but that's not the only service Google offers. Do a little digging on Google's site and you'll come across everything from productivity applications to an instant messaging client. Google developed some of these products and features itself. But in some cases, Google products started out as independent projects designed by other companies. If Google executives see an interesting application that helps the company achieve its goals, there's a chance Google will make an offer to acquire that company.

­It ­seems that Google is reluctant to promote many of its projects from beta versions -- early releases that may still have problems with functionality -- to completed products. Even Gmail, Google's e-mail client that launched in 2004, is still in beta. But some of the company's initiatives are less finished than others. Google allows users to try experimental services at the Google Labs Web site, but admits that the services "aren't quite ready for prime time" [source: Google Labs].

Let's dive right into the diverse world of Google products. We'll start by taking a closer look at Gmail.

­

10

Google E-mail

Gmail organizes e-mails into threaded conversations.
Gmail organizes e-mails into threaded conversations.
Courtesy Google

In 2004, a Google press release revealed that the company wasn't satisfied with dominating Internet searches -- the second-most popular online activity. Google wanted to tackle the biggest online service on the Internet: e-mail. To that end, Google announced it would allow a select number of people to test a Web-hosted e-mail service called Gmail [source: Google].

Gmail started out as Google's internal e-mail service. When Google decided to make Gmail available to people outside of the company, it chose to take a gradual approach. At first, the only way to get a Gmail account was to receive an invitation from someone else. Nearly three years after announcing Gmail, Google opened up access to the public at large. Now anyone can create a Gmail account.

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­Gmail organizes messages into "conversations." If someone sends you a message and you respond, Gmail will present the two messages together in a stack. The original e-mail will be on top and your reply will appear beneath it. Future messages will appear under the originals, which Gmail collapses so that they don't take up too much space on your screen. By grouping messages and responses together, Gmail makes it easier for users to keep track of several discussions at once.

Some people think that communication by e-mail is dying (or is already dead). Google appears to have an answer to that as well: Google Talk. Find out more about it on the next page.

9

GTalk

The Web-based Google Talk gadget doesn't have all the bells and whistles found in the desktop version.
The Web-based Google Talk gadget doesn't have all the bells and whistles found in the desktop version.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Just when you thought the Internet had its fill of instant messaging clients, along came Google Talk. Introduced in 2005, Google Talk is an application that lets users send messages to each other. Unlike Gmail, the Google Talk client isn't entirely Web-based. Users must first download an application to their own computers in order to access its full set of features.

Those features go beyond simple messages. You can send unlimited files -- of unlimited size -- to other users. Just remember that if you choose to send someone a big file, it's going to take a while to transfer to the other user, especially over slower connections. Also, if you have a cap on how much data you can transfer over your network, you might face some hefty fees from your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

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Google Talk is also a voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) client. That means you can make PC-to-PC calls to other Google Talk users. You and your contact will both need microphones and speakers, but Google Talk handles the rest. Real-time voice transmission can take up a lot of bandwidth. Just like file transfers, you might risk going over your data cap with your ISP if you use this feature a lot.

Users can also download the Google Talk Gadget, a Web-based application that allows users to access many (but not all) Google Talk functions from a personal Web site like a blog or an iGoogle page. That means you can use any computer connected to the Internet to navigate to the right site and use Google Talk. Right now, using a Google Talk Gadget is the easiest way Mac owners can access any of Google Talk's features.

That pretty much covers communication. What else can Google organize? How about Internet shopping? Read all about the Google Checkout service in the next section.

8

Google Checkout

A sample of the stores that use the Google Checkout system.
A sample of the stores that use the Google Checkout system.
 2008 HowStuffWorks

Many people use the Internet to shop. One of the drawbacks of online shopping involves transmitting your personal information over the Internet. If you want to purchase items at different Web sites, you have to enter all your information multiple times. Google saw the opportunity to create a tool that would allow merchants and users to take advantage of a universal checkout system.

Here's how it works: first you create a Google account. If you already have a Google account, you'll need to enhance it by providing a credit card number, billing address, shipping address and a phone number. Once you complete this step, you can go shopping.

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All you have to do is log in to your Google account and look for Web sites that subscribe to Google Checkout. When you see the checkout symbol listed next to an entry on a search results page, you know that you can purchase items from that site using your Google account. You'll be prompted to provide your Google Checkout password, but you won't have to enter your credit card number or personal information again. You make your selections and Google handles the rest of the transaction. The merchant never even sees your credit card number.

­Google Checkout is free for consumers. Merchants must pay 2 percent plus 20 cents per sales transaction. But Google gives a discount to merchants who use Google AdWords. For every dollar a merchant spends in AdWords advertising per month, Google will process $10 of sales without charge [source: Google Checkout].

Google also offers products designed to help you organize your life. Find out more about Google Calendar in the next section.

7

Google Calendar

An empty Google Calendar.
An empty Google Calendar.
2008 HowStuffWorks

In April 2006, Google released a free online calendar application called Google Calendar. If you have a Google account, you can create a Google Calendar. If you don't have one, you can register for a free account.

You can use Google Calendar to schedule events and invite people to participate. By sharing folders, you can compare your schedule with other users. If everyone keeps his or her calendar up to date, it's easy to avoid conflicts. A single user can open multiple calendars and view all the scheduled events in a single window. Since this can get confusing, Google displays each calendar's events in a different color.

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Google includes its search feature within the Google Calendar system. You can search for specific calendars. Calendar owners can choose to keep a calendar private or share it openly with everyone. It's also possible to create multiple calendars with one account. That can come in handy for organizations that have multiple customer bases. For example, a theatre might have one calendar for the general public that shows the times of performances and a second calendar for actors to let them know about auditions and rehearsal schedules.

Another Google product that's gaining popularity is a suite of applications that you'd usually find in office desktop software. It's the Google Docs suite of programs. Find out more about them in the next section.

6

Google Docs

Google Docs uses a simple folder and file organizational system.
Google Docs uses a simple folder and file organizational system.
2008 HowStuffWorks

The Google Docs suite marks Google's attempt at getting into the online productivity software game. The free suite includes a word processor, a spreadsheet editor and a presentation application. In short, it has the basic software applications many businesses need. Instead of saving all your data to your computer's hard drive, you save your Google Docs files to a remote Google file system. Because the files are hosted on the Web, you can access them from any computer connected to the Internet. Your documents aren't tied to a specific device.

Another feature of Google Docs is the ability to share documents and editing capabilities with other Google users. Multiple people can make edits to the same document at the same time. With traditional desktop applications, a project manager might have to handle multiple copies of the same file as various collaborators make edits and additions to the document. With Google Docs, everyone can make his or her changes directly to the file saved on Google's servers. Google Docs also keeps track of earlier versions of the document -- project managers don't have to worry about someone accidentally deleting an entire section.

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One drawback to Google Docs is that none of the applications are as robust as popular desktop productivity software suites like Microsoft Office. If you only need basic functionality, Google Docs can be useful. If you're accustomed to creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations with all the bells and whistles, you'll probably want to stick to traditional software.

We're halfway through. Maybe you're feeling a little lost with all these products and features. Never fear, Google has a solution: Google Maps. Find out more in the next section.

5

Google Maps

The Google Maps satellite view gives you a birds-eye perspective of cities like Atlanta, Ga.
The Google Maps satellite view gives you a birds-eye perspective of cities like Atlanta, Ga.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Google launched its online map feature in 2005, nearly 10 years after MapQuest's online debut. Like its competitor, Google Maps lets users view maps of specific regions and get directions from one location to another. Google Maps allows users to view street maps, topographical terrain maps or even satellite views. For some areas, Google also has a traffic map feature that can alert you to any snarls or bottlenecks.

The Google Maps feature relies on digital map images from NAVTEQ. NAVTEQ provides map data to many different clients, including in-vehicle navigation systems. A company called deCarta -- formerly Telcontar -- provides the applications that power the mapping features. Google employees create the applications that combine the images from NAVTEQ and the mapping capabilities provided by deCarta to create the features you see in Google Maps.

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In 2008, Google added a new feature to Google Maps. Now you can get walking directions from one location to another. Previously, Google Maps only plotted out driving directions, which have to take things like one-way streets into account. Now users can find the shortest walking route between two points.

Sometimes Google's decisions don't go over as well as they had planned. Google's Street View feature for Google Maps is a good example. Google mounted special cameras to cars, then sent them through cities across the United States and France. The cameras pointed in different directions and took pictures every few seconds, giving users a street-level view of certain cities. But some people say that Google's actions violate privacy. Google responded by blurring people's faces in the photos to protect their identities.

Google Maps is closely related to the Google products suite called Google Earth. We'll look at it more closely in the next section.

4

Google Earth Maps

The interactive globe in Google Earth
The interactive globe in Google Earth
Google Earth™ mapping service

Google is always looking at new ways to organize and present information. One of those ways is to geotag data. Geotagging is a way of linking information to a real-world location. You view geotagged information on a map. While Google Maps could serve as a way to provide geotagged information to users, Google decided to go with an alternative. Google chose a digital globe and called it Google Earth.

Google acquired a company called Keyhole in 2005. Keyhole built the foundation for Google Earth, a digital globe that gave users the ability to zoom in and out of views ranging from a few dozen feet from the surface of the Earth to the equivalent of orbiting the planet. Google Earth gives the user dozens of choices, from viewing satellite images of the planet to overlaying maps, three dimensional terrain features and even fully-rendered cityscapes.

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Google Earth also allows developers to create applications to link information to specific locations on the globe. Users can elect to view geotagged information ranging from general news reports to customized data. Google Earth makes it possible to illustrate news stories in a new way. For example, a news agency could illustrate a story about wildfires by plotting out the damage on Google Earth.

Originally, the only way users could access Google Earth was to download an application and install it on their own computers. The application accesses the Internet to get the latest information and updates, but the user's computer hosts most of the application's features. In 2008, Google launched a new Google Earth application that's entirely Web-based. But since the full version of Google Earth needs a lot of computing resources to run smoothly, the Web-based version is a streamlined variation with fewer features than its desktop cousin.

When Google executives say they want to organize the world's information, they're not kidding. And they aren't stopping with just the Web -- they want to organize your information too. That's where the Google Desktop application comes in. Read more about it in the next section.

3

Google Desktop

Google Desktop lets you install gadgets like these on your own computer's desktop.
Google Desktop lets you install gadgets like these on your own computer's desktop.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Have you ever had to search for a particular file on your computer? How about an e-mail that's somewhere in the middle of a folder that has thousands of messages in it? The experience can be frustrating, and those of us who are organizationally challenged can endure a lot of stress while trying to dig up a particular piece of information.

That's where Google Desktop can come in handy. It's a downloadable application Google offers free of charge. Once a user downloads and installs the application on a computer, Google Desktop goes to work. It searches and indexes the files on the user's computer. It does all this during the idle time when the computer isn't working on other things.

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It doesn't just index the name of a file -- it searches the contents as well. Maybe you don't remember the subject of a particular e-mail, but you remember it mentioned something about a new sushi restaurant in town. You can search for the term "sushi" using Google Desktop and it will return results relevant to that term. The results look a lot like the search engine results pages Google generates for Web searches. One of those results should be the e-mail you need to retrieve.

Google Desktop also gives users the option to install personalized Google Gadgets. Gadgets retrieve information on the Web and present it in a window that stays on the user's desktop. Information might include traffic and weather updates, news feeds or to-do lists, among other things.

If the Google Desktop doesn't gather enough information for your liking, you can always create a specialized Google homepage that can pull information and applications from hundreds of sources. That's the idea behind iGoogle, which we'll look at in the next section.

2

iGoogle

iGoogle acts as a portal to other Web sites.
iGoogle acts as a portal to other Web sites.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

­You probably have a small number of Web sites or applications that you use more than others. What if you had a way to collect those Web sites so that you could go to a single location on the Web to access all of them at once? That's the concept behind iGoogle, a free aggregator or portal Web service.

The iGoogle service allows users to select multiple applications and news feeds from across the Internet. Each user can customize his or her own iGoogle page. For example, sports fans can add applications that grab the latest scores and statistics of their favorite teams from the Internet and display them in a dedicated window on the iGoogle page.

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Google lets users organize their own iGoogle pages using a set of simple tools. One of those tools is a series of tabs at the top of the iGoogle page. Account holders can create tabs for specific categories of applications or news feeds. This makes it easier for users to find the information they want when they want it. Once the user sets up his or her iGoogle site, the application does the rest of the work.

While you can choose to include Google apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs in your iGoogle page, you aren't limited to Google applications. Third party developers have created iGoogle applications that let you access lots of different Web-based programs. With the right application installed in iGoogle, you can access things like:

The final Google product we'll look at is possibly the most controversial one. That's because it's an attempt to organize medical documents. Find out more about Google Health in the next section.

1

Google Health

The Google Health profile page
The Google Health profile page
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Changing doctors isn't always a smooth experience. On top of all the normal stress of dealing with unfamiliar people, you also have to find a way to get your medical information from your previous doctor to your new one. That usually means you have to rely on other people and hope that they respond. Transferring your medical data is important because the more information your doctor has about your medical history, the more effectively he or she will be able to diagnose and treat you when you need it.

Google's solution to this issue is to create an electronic, centralized location for your medical files called Google Health. Your doctors would transfer your files to Google's databases. Instead of having to track down the physical location of a paper file, your doctor would be able to log in to a computer and pull up your entire medical history. You don't have to worry about remembering which doctor has your file.

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But some people think Google's approach creates a serious problem. What if someone were to compromise Google's security systems and access that data? Medical information is, by its very nature, personal. The potential for abuse of this information worries some people. Others don't like the idea of a third party having access to all their medical information, even if it is secure from hackers.

Google stresses that its databases are very secure and that patient privacy is a primary concern. Google Health's purpose is to put patients in control of their own medical information. It's supposed to give them the tools they need to stay informed about health issues. It's up to the individual to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks.

That wraps up our look at ten Google products. If the past is any indication, we'll see many more Google applications and services in the future. As long as the world has disorganized information, Google's job isn't done.

To learn more about Google and related topics, search through our links on the next page.

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