Thursday, February 07, 2008

I love Google. Just love ’em.

This post is just one big, long, nerdy love letter to Google.

When Google introduced their search engine, it revolutionized the internet. I have to say, I wasn’t very prescient, when they launched it. “Big deal,” I thought, “it’s just a search engine.” But it was a big deal; a search engine that actually made an effort to return relevant results, and was quick? At the time, that was revolutionary. Finding information on the internet became not easier, but possible. (The most common example that people use is a search for something like “breast cancer”—if you’d done a search like that, before Google came along, you’d get a million porn sites before you’d ever get to a relevant search result. And the search would take literally minutes to return, instead of coming back instantly, like Google does.) All search engines have gotten better, since Google was released, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since. They may, some day, become as good as Google, but at the moment, that’s all they’re striving for.

If that’s all they’d done, create a great search engine, Google would have done a great service to the internet. But they didn’t stop there; you can do a lot of custom searches, too. For example:

And that’s just the regular Google search engine. But then they blew me away by creating a special site just for searching for images. And then, to make it even smarter, they combined image search results into the default search engine; search for a famous person, for example, and the first thing Google will show is image results. (I was going to put up a screenshot of a search for Lucy Liu, as an example, but one of the photos shown was kind of… racy.) And then they did the same thing for video. (e.g. you could do a search for videos on the internet with Lucy Liu.) I don’t think this took off that much, but still, it’s nice to have.

But the next product they released that really blew me away was Google Maps. At first, I didn’t realize how revolutionary it was—I was already a regular user of MapQuest, at the time, which I thought was great—except for the fact that you could link to a map, using a URL. (Other sites didn’t realize how useful that would be.) But then someone pointed out to me that you could actually click the maps, with your mouse, and drag them around. I couldn’t believe it. Being someone who worked with internet technologies for a living, including HTML and JavaScript, it never would have even occurred to me that you’d be able to do that. (It took people who didn’t know the technology to try it, and show me what you could do.) That was a defining moment, for me, when I realized just how smart the people at Google were. And since that time, they’ve continued to add improvement upon improvement to the map site: you can search for businesses or places that are close to your search destination; you can use the satellite view, to actually see satellite images of the area; you can use the terrain view, if you’re really interested in the geography of the area; you can actually overlay weather information, on top of the map; when you do trips, and Google picks out a route for you, you can actually drag the route line around, if you don’t quite like the way Google decided to do the trip for you; they have an API, that you can use to add your own places to the map (such as the map that the city of Guelph put on their website, for restaurants). Almost every time I use Google Maps, they’ve got a new feature, and it’s always a useful feature, and always easy to use.

They then came out with their video service, Google Video, which I thought was very cool, but in this instance, someone actually did a better job than Google: YouTube. So, of course, Google bought YouTube. (If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em.) And, to their credit, Google doesn’t seem to have messed with YouTube, since they bought it; they saw that it was working, and they didn’t tinker with it.

And I’ve mentioned before the Google Books search engine. (Including a link to my own book.)

And then there is Google Docs. A search engine for documents on the internet? Oh no! A web-based tool for creating documents! Text documents, or spreadsheets, or even presentations. Not only can you create these documents, you can even collaborate on them—you can have two people working on the same document, at the same time. Plus, you can upload Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations. (You can also upload OpenOffice documents or spreadsheets, although not OpenOffice presentation, at the time I wrote this.) At the time I wrote this, you couldn’t yet save these documents to your computer as Word docs or Excel spreadsheets—at least, not that I could see—but I’m sure that’s coming, too. Then again, they’re much more interested in online collaboration, as illustrated in the video Google created to explain why it’s such a cool tool.

I’ve also heard—although I haven’t really used it—that the Gmail service is pretty cool, too. It may not be as pretty as the new versions of Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, but it’s apparently very good at filtering out spam, and very easy to use.

So everything Google does seems to be very cool, very useful, and very open. If you want to use Google’s services from your website, in many cases you can with a simple link. And, if you’re a developer, you can do even more using their APIs. (Such as the city of Guelph did, in the example I mentioned above, or such as did.)

In terms of technologies, Google has been careful to use very open and simple technologies—most of their pages are just good ol’ fashioned HTML—but they were also one of the first companies to really make good use of AJAX. People didn’t realize what a powerful technology that could be, until they started to see things that Google was doing with it, like in the maps site or in Gmail. It’s such a simple idea, and yet so powerful, that you can use Gmail and the browser can get additional data from the server, without having to reload the whole page.

I’ve heard, from numerous people, that Google only hires the best and the brightest. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be tempted to apply for a job with them, and move to the States, because almost everything they do is brilliant. As a former geek, and current nerd, it’s the type of thing I’d love to be involved with.