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There's Google. Then There's Google Desktop


The logic behind Google (GOOG) Desktop Search is simple enough: Why shouldn't the best tool for finding things on the Web do equally well at helping people search their own computers? The product demonstrates that, as computer scientists have long known, a local search is a world apart from a Web search. It requires different tools and approaches.

Like just about everything Google has done lately, Desktop Search is controversial, with some privacy advocates and competitors warning that the software poses a grave threat. Charges that the new Google product exposes your private searches to the world are grossly exaggerated. The truth is that, while Google does a reasonably good job of finding things on your computer, it presents the results in a way that is not terribly useful.

Bear in mind that Google Desktop Search, available for free download from desktop.google.com, is a "beta," or test, program and will probably remain so for many months. Some of its shortcomings, such as the inability to search the contents of Adobe (ADBE) Acrobat files, will be fixed. But there are fundamental problems in using Google's Web query and results formats for local searches.

GOOGLE'S GREAT STRENGTH IN SEARCHING your PC is the same as in Web searching: It's terrific at finding the copies of Web pages you have visited that Internet Explorer stashes away on your hard drive, including Web-based e-mail such as Hotmail. Enter a search term, and you get back listings that look exactly like Web search results -- 10 or so items consisting of a title and a couple of lines of extracted text that includes the search term. This is fine for locating the Web page of that hotel in Antigua you looked at six weeks ago, but it's a terrible way to locate the e-mail Aunt Millie sent you last month.

In a local search, you generally know what sort of file you are looking for. So it ought to be easy to restrict the search to e-mail messages, Word files, and the like -- but it's not. Most desktop search programs, such as X1, Copernic, or Enfish -- as well as the test version of MSN desktop search due from Microsoft by yearend -- let you limit the search with a mouse click or two. With Google, you must use geeky filtering commands, such as filetype: e-mail, as part of each search. What's more, the competing tools typically present results in a window with multiple panes -- one giving file names, or in the case of e-mail, the subject and the sender, and another giving at least a partial view of the contents. Google gives you a thumbnail image of some Web pages, but it is too small to be of much use.

Google Desktop Search is bound to improve before it is officially released. For example, the list of searchable file types will be expanded. And the restriction that keeps more than one person from running searches -- on a Windows XP or 2000 computer -- will go away.

Despite critics' warnings, Google users need not worry that their desktop queries will be shared with the world, saved in a giant Google database, or used to unleash a flood of ads on their PCs. When you use the Desktop Search form, no keywords leave your computer. If you use the regular Google Web search form, you'll get results from both the Web and your PC, and your search terms will obviously be sent to Google. The company insists that the information is not saved and the only ads sent are the sort that accompany every Google search.

Your decision to use Google Desktop Search should be based on whether it meets your needs, not scare talk. If you mostly search for Web pages and use a Web e-mail program, it might be just the ticket. But if, like many business users, you need to search a variety of document types and use a mail program such as Microsoft Outlook, you'll probably be happier with a different search tool.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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