Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Book Reveiw: "Google Hacks"
Reviewed by Alan German

Sub-titled “Tips and Tools for Smarter Searching”, this book just had to be for me. I have never figured out how to do a Google search without producing at least 100,000 hits, few of which pertained to the issue in question. So, did authors Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest come to my rescue? Let’s find out…

The review copy, kindly provided to OPCUG by the publisher, O’Reilly Media, Inc., is the 2nd Edition of the work. The book is more-or-less sanctioned by Google since members of that company provide the forewords for both editions. As the first foreword indicates, one has to wonder just how much hacking can be done on Google to warrant an entire book. The answer is clear – plenty. The book contains 100 hacks (i.e. tips, tools, and techniques) that require well over 400 pages of explanation.

As you might imagine, just about everything you wanted to know about using Google is between the covers – from case (in)sensitivity, to the 850 million messages in Google Groups, to the technique of screen scraping. One caution though – to use most of the hacks in the book requires the knowledge to do scripting - using packages like Perl, Java and PHP. In fact, the book’s contents are broken down in several distinct sections. The first chapter is probably the most useful for many users since the tips describe Google’s basic features, and how to make best use of the search engine’s built-in, advanced capabilities. The remaining chapters make heavy use of scripts, together with information on specialized items such as add-ons, Google’s AdWords, page ranking, and the Web API. Since I don’t really do any scripting, and don’t think I have a use for AdWords, this article will mainly focus on the first section of the book, with just brief mentions of some of the more esoteric hacks that appear in later chapters.

Probably everyone knows how to search for a specific phrase by enclosing the text in quotation marks. But, do you need to enter capital letters for proper names? Try entering “ottawa pc users’ group” in Google’s search box and the answer is clear. Just like the book says - text searches are case insensitive – and can be very direct!

Probably everyone also knows that the use of “and” as a search word is redundant for most search engines, Google included. But, did you also know that if you want to use a Boolean “or”, this has to be entered in upper case? Or, that you can combine Boolean search terms using brackets? For example, "President's Report" AND (Taylor OR Schopf) site:opcug.ca returns information on precisely what you might expect. (As noted initially, AND in this search phrase is redundant; it is included here for clarity.) A remarkable finding, to me at any rate, was this item of special syntax: “site:”, that allows you to restrict your search to a specific web site. You may have heard that OPCUG ran a workshop on digital imaging this past fall. You could have looked on the club’s home page, where you would have found the Workshop button prominently displayed but, just to illustrate the power of this tip, try typing the following into Google’s search box - "digital imaging workshop" site:opcug.ca. Now, that’s a focused search result!

Google has lots of other similar tricks up its electronic sleeve. For example, there’s the use of * as a wild card that, among other uses, will allow you to circumvent the search engine’s ten word search limit (did you know Google had such a limit?) You can also specify that a search is to include a range of numbers, such as looking for a digital camera having between 3 and 5 megapixels, by using the syntax: “digital camera” 3..5 megapixels. Regrettably, a search for "Windows XP" ..$10, i.e. hopefully finding someone selling XP for less than $10, is not so successful.

Try typing "digital imaging
workshop” site:opcug.ca

into Google’s search box.
Now, that’s a focused
search result!

Of course, if you don’t want to hack too much, you don’t have to learn all this strange syntax stuff. Google has a perfectly fine advanced search engine readily available through the link “Advanced Search”, just to the right of the main search box. Here, you can set a variety of complex search terms by simply completing various pre-defined fields, and selecting from a set of drop-down menus.

Some of Google’s other features noted in the book are similarly available from links on the search engine’s main screen. Have you tried searching for image files on a given topic through the “Image” link? "Chris Taylor" +OPCUG produces lots of hits but not the particular image I was thinking of (Chris will know the one!). On a more serious note, the “more” link on Google’s main page leads to a whole raft of things discussed in the book, including Directory, a subject index making use of the open directory project, Scholar, where academics can search for technical papers, and Google’s Labs where mere mortals can play with some stuff that is still under development. One of the latter items that has been mentioned on PUB II recently is Google Maps, http://maps.google.ca/. This is a great tool for finding locations, showing them as maps, satellite images, or a hybrid of the two, with a street map overlaid on a satellite image. And, the site gives really good driving directions between your house and the target location - or vice-versa - in case you’re really drunk on the drive home! Of course, in the latter case, what you really must do is to use “Local” and search for “taxi” in “Ottawa, ON”.

If you are a user of G-mail, there’s a whole chapter on that system for you to read. If you want to be a user of G-mail there’s a whole raft of tips on how to obtain a G-mail invite. In fact, if anyone with such an invite and who, having read this article, is feeling particularly grateful – probably because you weren’t singled out like Chris! – you can donate your invite to a very worthy cause. You will find my E-mail address on the back page of the newsletter! (See! I really did read the book. This is Hack #71 in action!)

As promised, here are some of the really weird and wonderful things that you can find in the book, most of which require scripting. How about finding a recipe based on the contents of your refrigerator, generating a random page view, or running permutations on a number of keywords automatically? Or, there’s my particular favourite - the Red Green special - making a “search engine belt buckle” by fastening a PDA onto a belt with (duct) tape, and programming it to generate scrolling Google results! For non-programmers, there are also some ready-to-go systems available on the web. You can try the “easy expert search” at
http://www.soople.com/ as an alternative to Google’s advanced search engine. And, if you find a real use for Touchgraph (a visualization tool for results from entering a URL), http://www.touchgraph.com/TGGoogleBrowser.html, please let me know!

Finally, for those who, like me, have no idea what a screen scraper is, it refers to the process of extracting information automatically from a web page, as in “spidering and scraping”. A program can wander around the Internet, capturing information from various web pages, for use outside of the context of the actual pages, e.g. in an indexing application like Google.

Google Hacks is packed with useful tips although, as noted, many require scripting and may be beyond the capabilities (or interests) of most of us. The good news is that the text is written with exceptional clarity, so that the simpler tasks are easy to follow and put into practice. While you can purchase the book on-line from O’Reilly (see below), you can also preview the full text at no charge for a trial period of 14 days by signing up at:
http://safari.oreilly.com/?XmlId=0596008570


Bottom Line:

Google Hacks: Tips and Tools for Smarter Searching
Second Edition, December 2004
by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest
O’Reilly Media, Inc.
ISBN 0-596-00857-0

Available on-line ($36.95) at:
http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/googlehks2/chapter/index.html

Preview the full text at no charge for a trial period of 14 days by signing up at:
http://safari.oreilly.com/?XmlId=0596008570

For an OPCUG discount on this and other O'Reilly books, visit
http://opcug.ca/public/promos.htm

Google website: http://www.google.com/


Click here to view the full OPCUG website with frames.

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