Power User: Google is a user's best friend

John McCormick

Every Web user should know how to exploit the features of the powerful Google.com search engine. Besides the news.google.com beta test site I've mentioned before, it also features a free but invaluable Google toolbar that you can download from google.com. It appears as a little search window in every browser session.

The toolbar is much more than just a shortcut to general searches. It makes searching for images or discussion groups easy. It helps with the complex but powerful Google Web directory search, which restricts searches to specific categories and displays interesting information about some results. It's a fast way to get more relevant hits.

You can quickly estimate the quality of information on a Web page by looking at the Google PageRank, which appears as a small green thermometer on the toolbar. It shows how many people visit the page, and a high percentage of green indicates good content.

Did you ever wish that all Web sites had a faster, better search feature? The search box always seems to be the last item on the designers' minds. If you can't find it or don't like what it turns up, try the Google toolbar. It works not only for the current page, which you can search by pressing Ctrl-F in Internet Explorer, but for the entire site. It's often faster than a site's own engine, and you don't have to look for it or wait for a page to load.

Another handy feature is custom research done by experts approved and monitored by Google. Go to answers.google.com and enter a question, along with the price you're willing to pay for a good answer. Answers cost $2 to $100.

Free-lance researchers respond, choosing questions about which they have special expertise. They look for answers from any source, not just the Web. If no one will tackle your question for the initial price, you can raise the amount. You can set a time limit on how long you are willing to wait and even reject an inadequate answer. The researcher might ask you to clarify your question; answers include references.

Some recent submissions included, 'Which sweetener is worse'Sweet'N Low or Equal?' and 'Lodging habits and traffic dynamics of truckers entering Eastern Texas.' Another was, 'Is there a way to search whois for all sites owned by a particular person or entity?' The answer to that one, by the way, was no.

Looking to buy something? Check out another beta feature, catalogs.google.com, which lists hundreds of catalogs with page images and links to each company's Web site. Among all the ordinary catalogs I found some unusual ones such as a source for robot motors and servo controls.

Google can machine-translate Web pages from French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish into English. The results aren't perfect, but they're pretty good'and free.

Google also can search U.S. residential and business phone directories. Need a reverse directory? Just key the number into Google without quotation marks but with the usual hyphens. If there's a record of the number on the Web, you'll get the owner's name and address. My brief tests showed this to be quite accurate.

You can search for 12 file types, from Adobe Portable Document Format to WordPerfect. That's a handy way to narrow search results. For example, a PDF file probably is a fairly long, formal document such as a white paper that you might not want to take time to read.

Counting sheep to sleep? Type 'sheep filetype:pdf' to find Adobe Acrobat documents about sheep. Try 'sheep filetype:wk1' and find ways to calculate costs for sheep farming and so on. The same goes for .DOC, .PPT, .XLS and other file types.

Remember this resource the next time you are about to start from scratch to draw up a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation or an Excel spreadsheet. For example, a good, copyright-free expense account sample from the University of Maryland appears at www.salisbury.edu/admin/ap/documents/Expense%20AccountFormFill.xls.

For more specialized tools, check out www.google.com/help/features.html.
Google, one of the few dot-coms that actually makes money, is positioning itself as a one-stop research site. But there are many Web resources not indexed by any search engine and known as the invisible Web. These sites hold hundreds of times more information than the Web most people know. I'll discuss the invisible Web in future columns.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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