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Google's New Bells and Whistles—Worth Using?

Q: Though I'm a great believer in the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" credo, Google's new bells and whistles intrigue me. If only I could make heads or tails of all the new features—what in tarnation are they for? And are they worth using?

Credit the Google folks for not resting on their well-deserved laurels. The plain-Jane search engine, through which 75 percent of Web queries flow, is a godsend for surfers who eschew obtrusive ads and cluttered design. But with competitors like HotBot nipping at its heels, Google decided to gussy up with a news portal, an e-shopping tool, and a pay-for-wisdom research service, among other nascent features. There are technical foibles to be worked out, and not every extra seems worthy. But for the most part, Google 2.0 looks like it'll wind up a winner.

One minor change to note right off the bat is the new SafeSearch filtering; Google currently defaults to "moderate" filtering, which means pages featuring "explicit images" are ignored. If you think you're mature enough to handle a little t&a, you'll need to click on "Preferences" and select "Do Not Filter." Google will remember your choice, so long as your cookies remain intact.

illustration: John Ueland

Google News (news.google.com), up and running since the fall, is an info junkie's dream—a smorgasbord of stories culled from 4000 global sources. What's missing is a customizable front page, a staple of news sites on other portals. Though Mr. Roboto would be hard-pressed to care less about some Australian golfer's opening round of 64, there's no way to rid the "Top Stories" box of such dreck. A trifling problem, but one that should be an easy fix for Google's engineering squad.

A more recent addition is Froogle (Froogle.com), Google's price comparison tool. Like DealTime and Nexttag, Froogle crawls the Web in search of every possible product listing, leaving it up to you to find the lowest price. The nice part is that each listing is typically accompanied by a product photo; no photo means the prospective vendor should be approached with extreme caution, as anyone running a reputable e-commerce site should've figured out how to post a JPEG by now. The downside—and it's a doozy—is that Froogle has a tough time differentiating between products and their accessories. In Mr. Roboto's trial run, a search for the Canon PowerShot S30 digital camera turned up prices ranging from $31 to $600. Turns out the low-end quotes were for camera bags and the like, a fact not discovered until several precious seconds of life had been wasted on click-throughs. Froogle's still in beta, so the update should be smarter.

There's also the bizarre Google Answers (answers.google.com), a service that lets you post complicated research queries for fees ranging from $2.50 to $200. You set whatever price you're willing to pay, then hope a Google freelancer takes the bait. Depending on the question's difficulty, an answer should be forthcoming in anywhere from two hours to several weeks. Even if you're not in the market for a personal sage, perusing the posted queries is quite the amusing experience. The questions range from the mundane ("How did the Comisiones de Depuración in the Spanish Government of 1939-43 operate?") to the sublime ("Why do we go counterclockwise? Skating rinks, horse races, car races, track . . . "). Mr. Roboto's personal fave of the moment, indecipherable syntax intact: "Written marketing plan for a food product like a meat pie?"

If you're interested in what's coming down the Google pike, check out labs.google.com, which features beta versions of the Next Big Things. Alas, the two latest offerings, Google Webquotes and Google Viewer, are of dubious value. The former lets you see what other sites say about the listees in your search results; the latter gives you a sneak peek at a page. How these improved Mr. Roboto's searches for "chicken-fried steak" and "Antler Subway Records" is unclear; if anything, they slowed the download of the results. The Google Glossary, though, seems promising; definitions are delivered quickly, and are more detailed than those at Dictionary.com. But what's up with the "Sorry, there are no definitions for 'Mr. Roboto' " error message? Google's still the search-engine champ, but a few kinks definitely need ironing.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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