Although this is a column about search engines I normally try to avoid Google, simply because it's well covered everywhere else. However, in the first half of this year there have been a number of changes and dare I say it, improvements to Big G which are worth exploring.
In actual fact, it's becoming harder and harder to ignore Google, simply because everyone else is embracing it, seemingly with no reservations. ItProPortal  is reporting from Hitwise that Google has increased its share of the UK market by 10 points to reach 87.3%. During the same period, use of Yahoo has fallen by 8% to 4%, and both Microsoft and Ask are grubbing around on about 3% each. Given Google's huge market share everywhere else, it should come as no surprise that it's increasing in the United States as well. Hitwise has reported: 'Its share increased from 68.29 percent in May to 69.17 percent in June, the analyst firm said. Over the same period, Yahoo dropped from 19.95 percent to 19.62 percent and Microsoft dropped from 5.89 percent to 5.46 percent. Fourth-place Ask.com has managed to eke out gains over the last year, though it slid from 4.23 percent to 4.17 percent from May to June.' 
Google Experimental Search  is a fairly descriptive title for what the company is doing in this area of its site. Google likes to experiment, and to involve users in those experiments. The link takes you to Google Labs, and you can join a number of different experiments. The ones that they're most excited about at the moment are a combination of three - timeline, map view option and info view.
The timeline option displays a graph at the top of the search page which summarises how your results are spread through time. If you click on a timeline bar it narrows the results to that specific period. It's a nice idea and great if you need information on a subject which was written at a particular point in time. The map view lets users visualise on Google maps the key places found in their results. This is great for finding locations of conferences, events and so on. The 'info' view provides a control panel to review information from a page that contains dates, measurements, locations or images.
If you're interested, just follow the link and join an experiment. Other experiments are suggested terms, keyboard shortcuts. Alternatively, you can visit the Google Labs page to check out other experimental features. I don't expect that all of these will reach fruition, but it's worth visiting every now and then, just to see what the company is up to. In fact, it's worth remembering that a lot of what Google attempts doesn't actually work out the way they intended. PC World have an interesting article entitled 'Top 10 Google Flubs, Flops, and Failures'  which is a listing of exactly that. Examples include Accelerator, Answers, Catalog, Voice Search and several others.
While we're on the topic of what's not good at Google, it's worth remembering Google Librarian Central  is still not happening. This was a team, together with a weblog that was going to do great things for the library community. I noticed that there had been no postings since 29 June 2007 and the irony of the last post should not be lost of any of us. In part: "[our] blog team is taking a break to think about the best ways to communicate with you and keep you updated on what's happening with Google. We're not leaving you hanging, though."
LibraryStuff  then asked the same question; Sarah, the Librarian in Black  also wants to know , and Stephen Abram is also keen to know what the situation is . The general consensus (without putting words into anyone's mouths) is that Google is cynically trying to use librarians, and drip feeding us until they think we're no longer important, at which point we get dropped. It's a cynical view, but an understandable one. Another viewpoint is that perhaps Google is rather less the 800 lb gorilla and rather more a 4-year old child at Christmas who is constantly running from one toy to another, playing with them for a bit and then dropping them and moving to something else. It's now been over a year since Google posted to that weblog; furthermore they've not addressed the question that we've all raised. Perhaps the company doesn't think it needs to, or that librarians on the whole are happy with it, but the silence is still really rather deafening.
Since I wrote the above section Google has closed the Google Librarian Central blog . It has been thinking about how best to communicate with us, and this apparently is best done by closing the weblog and reverting to a newsletter. Is this one of the first examples of a company dumping Web 2.0 technology in favour of 1.0?
Don't worry though - Google is still committed to the goal of sharing information with us. Stop laughing at the back - it's there in black and white. Its staff say they're going to be sending out the newsletter  'every few months'. In other words they're making it as vague as possible so we can't easily keep a track on how bad they're becoming at communicating.
They've learned a lot from us, and the most laughable comment they made is that they want to keep the dialogue open, which apparently they can do best by closing their weblog. I don't believe a word that they're saying. The weblog has become an embarrassment to them and the best way of getting librarians off their back is a) by getting rid of it and, b) making a display of continuing to talk to us with a newsletter that they'll update when they feel like it. Which will be what? An annual event? It's worth pointing out that this is my personal view and is not necessarily representative of Ariadne as a whole. Indeed, there are also librarians who completely disagree with this interpretation – Meredith Farkas doesn't see what the fuss is all about, starting her blog post on the subject with "Seriously, I just don't get it." 
One of the problems of Internet search is trying to get to the majority of data that's freely available, but which is hidden inside databases. Until now it's been very difficult to get access to that material, unless you're prepared to locate a site with database-driven content and use that site's local search engine. Now however, Google has started to index this data, often referred to as the dark, hidden or invisible Web. . This is still something that is at the very early stages of development, but it's a very positive step which if it works will enable us all to search and retrieve more data than we could possibly dream of; though of course that's going to come with a whole host of new problems.
A new function that you may notice when you're searching for a particular site is that Google sometimes offers the option of searching the site directly from the results. If you visit the engine and do a search for Argos  for example you'll get a search box that pops up below the site summary. This is pretty hit-and-miss, so don't expect it to happen for all the companies you look for, but it's very helpful when it is available, and means that we don't have to worry about including a 'site:url' variable in the search.
Another point worth mentioning is that if you do run that search you'll also see that Google has added in direct links to various sections of the Argos site, such as the store locator option. These shortcuts are very helpful since they flag up key elements of a site for a searcher, and allow direct access, rather than having to waste time going to the site and hunting around for the particular section or page of the site that you want. This option also works on sites that do not have the site search option. So as I say, it's pretty hit-and-miss, but it's a helpful improvement that other search engines would do well to emulate.
Google and Yahoo are working with Adobe to make it easier to index Flash content.  This includes Flash gadgets, buttons, menus, self-contained Web sites and anything in between. The inability to index Flash has always been something of a mixed blessing - it does limit what can be found on the Net, but equally has been something of a hold on enthusiastic people who want to make everything Flash, usually at the expense of good content. I suppose this will now open the floodgates of a whole rash of Flash-enabled Web sites, and for the most part I don't think this is a positive move. However, if this is going to happen, we do need to be able to search effectively and perhaps this push will encourage other engines to look at providing the same functionality.
Google Maps  is a great resource and I think it's one of the very best things that Google has done. They've now added a really nice new feature - when you look for a location it brings up an opportunity to explore the area through photographs, video and user-contributed maps. They've provided some very useful help  on how to contribute your own material. It is an excellent way of finding out more about a particular location and is an excellent example of user- generated content.
This is a real oddity, but very welcome nonetheless. If you type in the name of a football club, at the top of the usual results Google will give you the result of the last game the team played and details on the next. I do however wonder where they're getting the data from, since they don't say. (The next link goes to a Wikipedia article, so perhaps treat it with a little caution.) There is an organisation called Football DataCo Ltd , which is a company which has been granted the power by the industry to provide content and allow organisations like newspapers to reproduce that information on payment of a fee. In fact, the resource currently isn't working, but that may simply be because we're in the off season. You can however see a screenshot from my Flickr account .
One of the irritating features of the Internet for me, and I know a lot of others, is the difficulty in finding out a little more about particular Web sites. It's sometimes helpful to see who owns a site, for how long it's been operating, where it is based and so on. While there are lots of different resources out there which help track this information down I've never found them entirely satisfactory, and I always need to try and remember where they are! Google has now added a 'whois' name function. If you run a search such as whois Ariadne.ac.uk you may get a small amount of information on when the site first went live and when it expires. It also gives you a link to another site, Domain Tools , which lets you dig deeper. This service does appear to be slightly buggy and some people have reported seeing it while others have not. If that's the case for you, I'd suggest jumping straight to the Domain Tools site and searching directly, or simply type their URL into the address bar followed by the URL of the site that you're interested in the format http://whois.domaintools.com/ariadne.ac.uk This will then provide you with information such as a description of the site, related sites, indexed data, server data and so on.
Google News  has started to add in recent quotes from politicians and celebrities who are in the news . Simply type in the name of your preferred person in the news and the search engine may well provide a popup of a recent quotation. I think the value of this is limited, but it works automatically and may prove useful in some circumstances so it would be churlish to be too critical of it.
Google has just launched Knol  onto the world - it's previously been invitation-only. It's their attempt to take on the likes of Wikipedia and Britannica, by inviting people to submit articles on subjects close to their hearts. Other people may make changes, but these have to be authorised by the original author. There are a number of Knols already available, but from a quick look I would calculate approximately that there are only about 400 at the time of writing. The vast majority of the articles written are currently in the medical field; my estimation is in excess of 80%. The others are a fairly odd mix - highlighted on the home page are articles on 'How to backpack' and 'Toilet clogs' which seem slightly unusual articles to focus on at the launch but perhaps that's just me.
Articles vary - in length, authority and linguistic ability. Another featured knol on the homepage informs me that 'Tooth pain is generally felt as a sharp or aching pain in or around a tooth.' Well, yes. Some knols are written by apparent experts - I say apparent because while there are biographical notes about some (but not all) authors they seem to be autobiographies. Other biographies have been left blank.
The layout of articles is good - title, sub heading, author, article rating, description, alternative titles, revision history, contents list, reviews and so on. Adverts that accompany each article are over on the right-hand side and are reasonably unobtrusive - authors take a percentage of the revenue made. This may go some way to explaining why there are so many medical knols, given that the advertisements are going to make reasonable sums of money. I suspect this is going to bias the type of articles that are written - unlike Wikipedia and Britannica where people write on subjects they are passionate about, I think a fairly large proportion of Knol authors may have monetary gain on their minds. Nothing wrong with that, but it's a potential bias of which users should be aware.
Setting up a knol is very simple, and looks rather like the screen you get when writing a document in Google docs. Articles are created into one of three Creative Commons licences. Currently it's not possible to embed video, which is a drawback and slightly odd, given the Google/YouTube love fest, but I expect this will change in time.
Is it worth using at the moment? In my opinion it's not. While I'm pretty sure that the authors are who they say they are, if I'm dealing with anything that's medical I'd prefer to use more authoritative sources, and if it's something else then I'd probably go to a Web site - there's a nice article on what to do in Singapore for example, but I think I'd get as good if not more information at an official tourist board site. Of course, there's also the problem that it's not very big yet, so I'm unlikely to find the information that I want. This will change over time however; so mine is not an entirely fair criticism, though accurate in the short term. However, Knol is worth keeping tabs on to see how it grows in the future.
As an interesting item with which to finish this column, it's worth having a look at The Bible According To Google Earth . This is a superb concept. A group of artists have created works based on the Bible (Adam and Eve, the Ark, Parting of the Red Sea and the Crucifixion) as they may have looked if viewed by Google Earth. It's worth taking a few seconds to look at them; it's a wonderful idea and well executed.