Google Desktop — A Different Kind of Search

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted December 30, 2004

It is sometimes hard to remember that Google, the most dominant and popular Web search engine, burst into online consciousness only six years ago. In that short time, the company's name has practically become part of our everyday language.

When I was young and asked my father a tough question or one that required too long an answer, he'd tell me to look it up in the family encyclopedia. I tell my daughter, "Google it."

Taking its powerful search technology in a slightly different direction, Google can now do for the information stored on your PC what it does for the Web. Google Desktop, a browser-based Windows application — currently in beta testing and available as a free download — lets you perform full-text searches of your hard drive as fast as, or faster than, Google searches the Web.

We're not talking about just searching Web pages cached on your hard drive either. Google Desktop also finds e-mail messages, documents and instant message threads. And it uses the same familiar interface as the Google Web search page.

The company suggests that Google Desktop will change the way in which people use their computers. Instead of manually organizing information in Windows folders and subfolders and in applications such as Outlook, they'll be able to find anything, anywhere on their computer, in seconds.

Google Desktop is certainly a breakthrough, but the company's talk of a paradigm shift may be slightly overstating the case.

Two-Second Search
I've had the program installed on my system for two weeks and find that I'm using it more every day. Using Windows or Word search utilities for keyword searches of my large archive of Word documents takes several minutes. With Google, the search rarely lasts even two seconds. And, at the same time, Google turns up other relevant content that I might not have thought of searching.

Google Desktop organizes search results in useful ways. By default it gives you a chronological list of all hits, with little icons beside each to identify the type of content — and images of the cached Web pages. But you can click a link at the top of the page to show only mail or only documents of a particular type.

I especially like how the program shows e-mail threads in chronological order so you see the messages and responses in sequence. You can set up Outlook to display search results this way, but it takes some doing.


Google Desktop Search
Find it Fast — This page may look familiar, but this Google search takes place on your computer — to help you find your files fast.

I do have one tiny quibble with the way Google Desktop works. When you click on a Word or other Microsoft Office file in a list of search results, it launches the program in which the document was created and opens the document — which is exactly what you want. But for Outlook messages, it only displays the text of the message as a Web page.

This doesn't help much if you want to reply to or forward the message. And if you clip text from one of these pages and then paste it into a document, you'll have to strip out the hard line breaks. It's a small complaint, and in fairness, it's probably unavoidable because of the way Outlook and Outlook Express store messages

Google says Desktop will eventually be able to search for more than it can now. In the meantime, the range of file types the product can find is impressive and may be all many users will ever need: Outlook and Outlook Express mail, AOL Instant Messaging chats, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and text files, and your Web history.

Google isn't saying much at this point about which additional types of files the product will eventually be able to search or when it will add new file types — except that full-text searching of PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files is on the list. It's also not clear when the company expects to complete the beta testing — though a Google spokesperson assured us the company had "no plans to charge for the product."

How does Google Desktop work?
No, it has nothing to do with pigeons! (See Google's tongue-in-cheek explanation of how its technology works.)

When you install the download, Google Desktop immediately begins indexing the files on your hard drive. This can take hours, but don't worry, you can continue to use your computer and it shouldn't effect performance — though Google recommends you install the program just before you go off for lunch or at the end of the day.

The program analyses the content of files, sorting every word and storing the resulting index of words in a big database. When you search using Google Desktop, its query processor compares your query to the index and recommends documents it considers most relevant. It's essentially the same process Google uses when searching the Web.


Google Desktop Search
Rapid Results — Google Desktop searches your computer for eight different types of files, and searches rarely last more than two seconds.

Google keeps the index up to date by continually indexing new files as they're created. A memory-resident portion of the program, similar to Google's Googlebot or Web crawler, continually monitors your activity and indexes or re-indexes any compatible files you create or modify.

Google stores the indexes on your PC in the C:\Documents and Settings\username\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Google Desktop Search sub-folder (where username is your user name). Not that there's any reason for you to ever monkey with them.

This Desktop bot takes up about 10MB of memory on most computers. It goes about its work without using very much in the way of computing resources, though. I have noticed no slow-down in my computer since installing Google Desktop.

The Google Desktop database can reach a significant size, but not as big as it might. This is because Google uses sophisticated compression technology. It can store indexing information for 10,000 items in under 80MB. This not a trivial amount of storage, but given that the cost of hard disk capacity has come way down in recent months (250 gigabytes for less than $200) and given how useful this product is, it's a small price to pay.

What About Privacy?none of your indexed information ever leaves your computer. You can read more about Google Desktop privacy policy on the Web site.

The Bottom Line
If you factor in the few seconds it takes to search, plus the time to sort through the results, Google Desktop is — hands down — faster than other search utilities, like the ones that come with Windows, Word and Outlook.

In fact, what's not to like? Google Desktop works amazingly well, and it's free. Whether it permanently changes the way we all use computers remains to be seen.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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