This is the first of a three part series on my thoughts about the search giant Google. I definitely have a love/hate thing going on with them. I thought it was appropriate to start with love. Parts two and three will be published within the next couple of weeks.
My first experience with Google came in 1999 or 2000. I was working at Dell and one of my coworkers made the statement “Just Google it” in response to a question, and I didn’t know what that meant so I searched Yahoo!. It took several more years for them to become my primary search engine because at that point I was already very familiar with Yahoo!. Now they ARE my primary search engine.
In fact, there are a number of Google products that I use on a daily basis.
Search. This is what got them started, and its still their salient product. The search results found within Google are still better than those of the other major players, in my opinion. I also love the simplicity and white space. I never use the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button because I like seeing all the options and selecting myself. I don’t really know what else to say about search, it’s been my home page for years now, and I use it at least 30 times a day. Seriously. And even I don’t know all of the commands that can be used to make their search results more targeted. Define, site, omit, and, or… I know there’s a list, but I’m not sure I’d use them all so I never look them all up. And did you know that Google is also a calculator? 32,874 divided by 4.
Mobile. How often have you been out and wanted to know the start time of a movie, but couldn’t get to a computer? Or wanted the answer to a question right away? If you have a smart phone that’s no trouble. If you don’t there’s Google Mobile. Send a text message to their servers with your search query and they’ll reply via SMS with your answer. This is awesome. I don’t use it every day, but I do use it, and it works exactly as you expect.
Gmail. When Gmail was announced my feathers were ruffled because the media played up the fact that Google servers scan your inbox for keywords that prompt advertisements. Then the service was launched and you couldn’t get an account unless you were invited. I think I bought my invite on eBay for $1. I’ve never looked back. There is no other email application that can compare with Gmail. Threaded email history, categorizing via labels instead of folders, filters, IMAP/POP/SMTP support, ever increasing storage capacity, fantastic search capabilities, easy archival, excellent spam detection… no one else can hold a candle to Gmail. My Gmail account has been my primary email address since the summer of 2005, I very rarely delete anything (and I send myself files all the time), and today I’m only at 20% of my total storage capacity. And, every once in a while I learn of another feature that I’ve never heard of. This is definitely the product that sold me, I may have never become a Google fanboy were it not for this product.
Maps. Before Google Maps I used MapQuest. At first I didn’t think that there was a significant difference between the map providers, it was just a matter of who you were familiar with. Then I realized that you could switch between map, satellite and terrain views. And you can email maps to people as a link. Then they published their APIs and you can embed their maps in your own web pages. Their directions are super easy to work with, they give you a couple of routes to work with, and if you want to alter one (to avoid a toll road, for instance) you just drag the route and the travel time and distance update automatically. Whoa! With street view came the ability to look at the buildings you’ll see when you arrive, before you even leave. Just a month ago I realized that you can search within Maps and it’ll show businesses in your area. Type in Austin, TX pizza and you’ll get a number of dots on the map. I’m not a map expert by any means, but if anyone else has brought in this many features without bloating the application, I don’t know about it.
Reader. If you like reading blogs, there are a couple of services that make it a snap to handle the RSS feeds of all your favorite publishers. I used Bloglines for years, and then finally succombed to Google Reader. I can’t say that Reader is hands above any of the other online RSS readers, but the truth is that it works perfectly and is very easy to use.
Goog-411. Do you ever have to dial information? If you call the phone company it costs. If you call Google its free. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and there have maybe been only two times that it couldn’t find the number that I was looking for. Just like the phone company, once you find the number it’ll dial and connect you, and you even have the option of having the info texted to you.
Voice. This service is newer, but man did they get it right. Once you have a number (currently by invite only, and not all areas are being served) you can easily forward that number to any or all of your other numbers, home, office or cell. You can also send or receive text messages using that number. Here comes the good part, you can arrange your contacts just as you would with your email addresses, work, family, friends, etc, and route them accordingly. Want all work contacts sent to your work number and all friends sent to your cell? No problem, either way, they all dial the same number. This service also converts your voice messages to text, and you can either listen to them or read them (or both) online. Phone companies, please pay attention.
Analytics. If you have a website, and you like monitoring the traffic that it receives, Google Analytics is a fantastic service. How many visitors, how long they spend on your site, how they found your site, their geographic location, etc. Its advanced features allow you to filter out your own visits, create and track campaigns, segment the traffic any way you choose and more. I have tried many other traffic monitoring tools, and I would recommend this over all of the others, free or otherwise.
Documents. Ten years ago it was pretty tough to get by without having a copy of Microsoft Office on your computer. As much as I hate the way Microsoft treats their customers, Word and Excel are some of the most useful programs available, I use them daily for work and in my personal life. Today there are plenty of free options. Google Documents is one of the best. Through this tool you can create letters, spreadsheets and presentations. They don’t offer the same amount of features as their Microsoft counterparts, but that’s one of its salient points, they’re generally much easier to work with because they aren’t bloated with options that you never use. Plus, you can use this service to create PDF files. If you used Microsoft Office you should at least check this service out.
Calendar. When Google launched their calendar service in 2006 I thought it was janky at first. Now I like it very much. The only reason that I don’t use it on a daily basis is that I’m required to use Exchange at work and its just easier to handle everything there. When I had a Blackberry, Google Calendar was my main calendar. Its a snap to create appointments or recurring meetings and invite anyone. You can share your entire calendar or just certain portions of it, and you can even publish portions of it on the web. Its very easy to use.
I haven’t even covered all of the tools that I wanted to talk about and I’ve already gone longer than I thought I would. I’ve also used and recommend Picasa, Google Earth, Google Finance, Google Desktop, Android, SketchUp and others that elude me at the moment. I’m also very excited to play with Google Wave when it launches.
Each of the services that I’ve mentioned above isn’t just great, they’re best of class. I don’t want to handle email without Gmail anymore. Phone companies, I’m paying you, please give me all of the features that Voice gives me for free. Is there anyone on the planet that still prefers MapQuest to Google Maps? Google doesn’t offer services, each time they launch something new it changes the way people think about the service. When you bring them all together in one account, it changes the way you use the web. Seriously. Sergey and Larry certainly don’t get all the credit, but their commitment to excellence shines through in everything this company touches.
Dear Google, I love you. Keep giving us the good stuff.