If, like me, you spend a lot of your time looking at search engines and search engine technology, you like a little variety in your life. It's always fun to look at new search engines and to see what is happening in the industry. However, while all roads may well lead to Rome, all discussions on search engines eventually return to Google; there is no getting away from the fact that Google is doing more in the search engine industry than anyone else. As a result I'm just going to bite the bullet and spend this column talking about Google-related issues. I'm not, however going to talk about how to search Google since, if you read this column on a regular basis you'll already know about all of the basics; what I'm going to do is to look at a few of the hidden extras that Google is working on which you may not have already discovered. I'll also pass comment on a few of them, and take a few wild guesstimates on how various Google initiatives may well be changing the face of the Internet as we currently know it.
We all know about Google search, and as I just said, I'm not going to talk about it. Well, not directly anyway. However, there are a few interesting developments in this area that it is worth discussing. The Google Advanced Search function is an excellent tool, and you can do a great deal with it. However, it's not always terribly user-friendly for people who are not experienced searchers and who may have difficulties working out the various options. At this point, enter Soople . Soople is a great little page and it styles itself as 'easy expert search'. All the major search functions are available, but the nice thing about it is that it offers explanations on all the different options. If you don't know what searching within a site or domain actually means, simply click on the link for an explanation. Soople also provides you with the option to search in particular categories such as Career, Health, Images and so on. You can also register with the service to set up your own version of Soople, with just the options that appeal to you. It's an excellent resource and well worth for pointing out to people who you feel may have problems searching using the advanced page.
Of course, Google isn't the only search engine that is out there. (I know that it's sometimes difficult to believe, but there are others, trust me!) Sometimes it's worth running a comparison between what Google finds and what other search engines find, and there has recently been a rash of comparison tools making their way onto the Internet. Graball  is a really nice tool that allows you to view results from Google in a left-hand pane and the results from Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, MSN, DMOZ, AltaVista, Gigablast or LookSmart in the right-hand pane. Useful if you really need to see what results different search engines pull up, or you want to illustrate that Google doesn't actually find everything. Twingine  does the same thing, only this time Google is in the right-hand pane, and Yahoo results are in the left-hand pane. Consequently it's rather more limited than Graball, but useful for a quick search. DoubleTrust  (Two is better than One) is a little more sophisticated since it provides you with a little more information about the pages returned, and shows the relative positions of pages in both Google and Yahoo. If you're more interested in news and current affairs, try out NEWSiness  which compares news results between Google and Yahoo.
There have been several attempts at personalised searching in the past, but none of them have worked terribly well in my experience. However, Google has now tackled this problem head on. If you visit the site up in the top left-hand corner is a small 'Sign in' link. If you click on that, you get taken to a sign-in page (there's a surprise!) and if you have a Gmail account, or you belong to a Google group for example you can sign in and get your own personalised home page. Having done that you are then able to set up the Google Home Page by adding in links to your Gmail account, headlines from the New York Times, BBC News, Google news, and also small things such as 'word of the day' or inspirational quotes. It's still at a very early stage, and I'd like to see them do more in this area, for example by allowing you to add in RSS feeds but it's a reasonable start. However, that's almost just cosmetic; the real power of the thing is that you can check your own search history. Google keeps a note of what you have searched for and displays your search activity. Furthermore, it will also show you the pages that you looked at under the searches that you have run, and you can also run searches within your own search history. It's a great tool to use on those occasions when you have visited a page but can't remember what or where it was.
The second part of the jigsaw is that Google has done extra work on the whole personalisation front. Using the personalisation feature Google can monitor the pages that you click on and can work out what particularly interests you. While they're not yet saying exactly how it works (although there's an excellent article at SearchEngineWatch  that goes into detail) it should mean that you'll be able to get results filtered that match your own interests. So, if Google notices that you're particularly interested in gardening (because those are the type of pages that you view) when you run searches the engine can give you the opportunity of configuring the results to re-rank them so as to give greater emphasis to gardening pages.
This is clearly going to have far-ranging implications, particular as far as the whole search engine optimisation process works. At the moment an optimiser can write content in such a way that a page gets a high ranking by using the various different algorithms Google uses in order to get a particular page towards the top of the results. In the future however one could argue that this approach is going to be less valuable, since Google will know what you're interested in and can do this automatically for you. I certainly don't think it's going to destroy the whole optimisation industry overnight, but it will certainly change the way in which people look at writing their content.
For some time now our American friends have been able to utilise Google to provide them with local content, and this is now being rolled out to other countries as well. There are a couple of resources available that will be of particular interest to those of us in the UK. The first is Google Local UK  and this resource allows searchers to put in a particular post code or location and then search for whatever interests them. For example, if you need to know where you can get a Ministry of Transport roadworthiness certificate for your car (MOT), simply type in your postcode, and 'car MOT'; Google Local will display listings of Web sites in your area, references and even directions. Not only that, but you can use this function for a variety of other things as well: if you're going on holiday to Cornwall, type in the place where you'll be staying and search for beauty, and you'll have a list of places to visit.
Google UK Maps  is another splendid resource. Type in the place in which you're interested and Google will display a map of the location. Alternatively, type in a particular feature, such as 'London Eye' or 'Glastonbury Tor'. You can zoom in reasonably closely to your location, although it doesn't give details on all the streets in the area, just the main ones, which is a slight irritation. However, there are two features that I particular enjoy: scrolling around the map is very smooth and not at all jerky - it's also easy to zoom in or out quickly. Secondly you can also view a satellite image of the location. The level that you can go down to is limited in most areas of the country and has little value, but for somewhere like London you can zoom in close enough to make out individual cars! The picture is often slightly strange, and it looks as though you are viewing the location upside down, but this is apparently caused by the way in which the photograph is taken by the satellite.
Closely allied to the satellite imaging is a new Google offering, Google Earth . This combines satellite imagery, maps and search to allow you to view almost anywhere on earth. It's a utility that you have to download, but it's quick and easy to do so (though you do need a reasonably recent and powerful machine to get the most out of it). Once again, although everywhere on earth can be viewed, there are only a few locations (particularly outside the US) that you can view in any great detail. However, if you like taking virtual tours around the world, this is an excellent application to play with.
Google has made video search available for some time now  and recently invited people to send in their own images for inclusion in its database. With the addition of the Google viewer these videos can easily be viewed directly from the Web page. There are currently some problems with this; I've been unable to view all the videos that are available (though other people in the UK have reported that they can see them), and Google has said that searchers in some countries are as yet unable to view them, although this feature will be rolled out in the coming months.
This latest move has raised concerns in some areas and there is an interesting article in the Financial Times  that explains this in more detail. Briefly, Google claims that this move will simply help media companies find a bigger audience, while others are concerned that this will result in publishers losing control of their own work.
If these recent innovations were not enough, Google is now preparing to launch what has already become know as the Google Wallet; a system for allowing micropayments. Again, we're at the very early stages of this initiative, and it's not yet clear where Google is going to go with this, although they have already said that they do not intend on going head to head with eBay and PayPal. However, the service will allow Google to expand into other areas, such as an ability to market the sale of consumer items such as books, text documents, video and audio. Once the system is in place it will allow Google to sell almost anything. Micropayments have been talked about for several years now, but it would be possible for an author to publish an article and make it available for the cost of a few pence, paid for and administered via the Google Wallet. There is also some suggestion that this will have a real impact on the whole Adsense campaign; if authors can sell their work and make money from it they may be less inclined to place adsense advertisements on their sites. This will therefore mean that it's less viable for Web authors who use adsense to market their sites, or to write short articles that are designed to draw in traffic to click on links. We may well therefore see far greater concentration on good quality content for which people are prepared to pay, though of course this is simply speculation on my part. However, if you wish to read more about the possible results of the Google Wallet, it's worth looking at the article from Enterprise News and Reviews , and what Gary Price over at SearchEngineWatch  has to say about it (which also includes a link to a good article from the Wall Street Journal).