A Closer Look at Google Desktop Search

The new Google Desktop Search tool allows people to scan their computers for information the same way they use Google to search the Web.

The tool is remarkable for its power and simplicity. Google Desktop Search seamlessly blends into Google itself. Desktop Search users see a new “Desktop” link on the Google home page and SERPs (define). Selecting the link returns results found on their own computers.

The tool indexes the full text of Outlook email; Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files; AOL Instant Messenger chats; Web pages viewed online in Internet Explorer; and any saved HTML and text files.

The tool also indexes file names of images in JPEG or GIF formats, giving it rudimentary image search capabilities. File names of Adobe Acrobat PDF content and some other file types are also indexed. Full text indexing of information in these files is not done.

Unlike Gmail and Google Web searches, ads aren’t shown alongside desktop search results nor is content viewed through desktop search.

Using Google Desktop Search

Google Desktop Search is only for Windows XP and 2000 users. Once installed, the application starts indexing information in file types it understands on your hard drive. Only files on your primary hard drive are indexed. Additional hard drives aren’t searchable.

Indexing is fast and occurs only when the computer is idle. Once built, the index is continually updated. Got a new email? Visited a Web page? The information is automatically recorded and searchable within seconds.

A little swirly Google Desktop Search icon resides in the Windows taskbar. Click, and a browser window opens with the Google home page. At least, it looks like the home page. In reality, it’s a Google Desktop Search home page, hosted on your computer.

Search on this page and you search your hard drive’s contents. A list of everything found is shown. Icons indicate what’s a Web page, email, and so on. You’re also shown a count indicating total matches and the number of email, file, chat, and Web history matches.

Click on a count to narrow the search to one data type. For example, click on the email count, and you’re shown only matching email messages.

Phrase searching with quotes and term exclusion using the minus sign, as on Google, is supported.

Awesome Automatic Caching

Items have a “cached” link after their file names. Like Google’s page cache feature, this lets you see a copy of the file as Google indexed it, without opening the file itself.

Each time you view something, a snapshot of what you’ve seen is created. The cached link reflects the number of copies recorded. It’s a fantastic record of what you’ve seen on the Web. Often, I’ve wanted to see how a Web page looked days or weeks ago.

Google Desktop Search painlessly preserves an archive of what you’ve seen, for free. It becomes, as Gary Price wished for last week, a “TiVo for the Web.”

Cached copies of local files provide some automatic backup insurance. Changed a file, then wish you hadn’t? Visiting the cached copy may help retrieve some of what was modified. Data won’t be in the original format (spreadsheets can look especially weird), but it may help.

Google Integration and Search Memory

You can search as described above. I suspect many people will simply search via Google’s online home page. That’s part of the tool’s elegance.

Do a Web search, and any matching content from your PC is shown above Web search results, in a OneBox display, similar to how news, product, local, and book search results are shown.

You can hide desktop results on a one-time basis by clicking on the “Hide” link within the display. Using the Desktop Preferences option, you can also permanently shut off integration.

Integration means you can easily spot any of your email or data files that may match something you seek on the Web. I haven’t found that too helpful so far. But the ability to have relevant, previously viewed Web pages bundled as part of Web search results is fantastic. It helps you find new and previously viewed things.

I’ve written that search memory features got me to use services such as A9 more. Similar features released recently by Ask Jeeves and Yahoo are also compelling.

Now, Google’s gained search memory. A9’s, Ask Jeeves’, and Yahoo’s tools are more mature and feature-rich, but Google Desktop Search is a good stopgap. It makes Google searches more personal and useful and, what’s key, helps tie me into the service. In addition, I can scan files and email on my computer.

The integration feels so comfortable, it makes me think competitors’ desktop search tools will need similar integration. A desktop search tab may become de rigueur.

From Physical to Virtual Desktop

Google Desktop Search is another move toward what I speculated may happen back when Gmail was released.

I suggested Google might cause us to reconsider the desktop. Rather than it being tied to a physical computer, desktops could go virtual, with files located on Google (or competitors), accessible wherever we are.

Google Desktop Search isn’t that. Files still reside on our PCs. Metaphorically, users’ desktops moved to Google. There it is, a little link right above the search box. It perhaps prepares you to trust Google more with that information.

Down the line, Google may offer to mirror its searchable copy of your desktop data on its site, which would be useful. Recovering all your data would be as easy as searching on Google from any browser. Your desktop is where Google is, or its competitors, if they follow suit.

Others may not be far behind. The rumored Yahoo desktop search product might involve file storage on Yahoo. LookSmart’s Furl recently expanded Web page storage to 5GB, and LookSmart envisions allowing file storage and search. Lycos UK launched online file storage. And Microsoft has a long-standing Stuff I’ve Seen research project that could potentially expand this way or be bundled into the planned desktop tool.

A Wish List

Google Desktop Search is a keeper. Having said this, and bearing in mind it’s still in beta, I’ve got a wish list.

Most annoying is you can only view 10 results at once. The tool has a Desktop Preferences option, which doesn’t yet include an option to increase the number of results displayed at one time.

Also missing is an advanced search page. It would be nice to have drop-down boxes, as with Google, letting you limit searches to particular file types, phrases, or date ranges.

You can, however, use some of Google’s search syntax to get around this. To narrow to file type, use the filetype command. For example, “cars filetype:email” would return only email matches with “cars” mentioned.

For email, chat, and Web history, you can narrow by clicking on the count numbers, as described above. As for images, Acrobat, and other files, keep in mind only text in the file names is matched, not meta data or actual text in the files.

Images, Acrobat, Windows Media, and MP3 files are not officially supported as searchable content. Though I did find the tool captured some of this content on my computer, the bulk of it wasn’t retrieved. Why some but not all is unclear. This isn’t promised, so I can’t complain.

Google, of course, purchased the Picasa photo-indexing solution earlier this year. Perhaps Google Desktop Search will evolve some integration with that in the future.

Google Toolbar/Deskbar integration would be nice. Google says this may come in future versions.

A personal wish is indexing content in compressed/ZIP files. None of it is indexed by the tool.

I desperately want the search memory features to mature. I want this tool, or another system, to keep track of what I’ve searched for and track it in association with pages I’ve found. Yahoo’s implementation of these types of features are the best I’ve seen (A9 and Ask Jeeves are great, too).

Finally, password protection and encryption of data compiled by Google Desktop Search are important. I hope they’re added soon. More on why that’s important and other search privacy issues are covered in a recent column. Google provides more information about privacy issues in its Privacy Policy and Privacy FAQ.

In Conclusion

Overall, I love the tool. Any Google user will want to install it, if only because it’s so easy and will likely improve her Web search experience. It’s a great start and another thing to tie some users closer to Google.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer, more detailed version is available to paid Search Engine Watch members.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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