|Google: The Missing Manual, Second Edition|
|author||Sarah Milstein, J.D. Biersdorfer, Matthew MacDonald|
|pages||xv + 446|
|summary||An excellent overview, although understandably going out of date in real time|
Google: The Missing Manual, Second Edition adds two new authors, 151 pages and two chapters, Google Analytics and Gmail, to the first edition. One comment about the authors: Rael Dornfest, one of the two authors of the first edition, is included as an author in the online O'Reilly catalog entry but not in the actual paper book.
The first part of the book presents two related topics: searching and the search box. Because it's cumbersome to distinguish between searching for "blah blah blah" and "blah blah blah" (no quotes), I'll use slashes to delimit the text that goes into the search box: /"blah blah blah"/ versus /blah blah blah/.
The authors mention that a long time ago other search engines had pages that were slow to load, then Google introduced a fast loading search page with almost nothing on it, and partly because of that, it became popular. They single out Yahoo! as having a slow and bloated front page. But now Google has an alternative front page with more content, and Yahoo! has an alternative search page with less content. The comparison wouldn't be fair even if this was a book comparing Google and Yahoo!, and it isn't.
The book covers searching clearly and thoroughly, I'd be flabbergasted if you didn't discover something you didn't know. The book also presents nine other things you can type into the search box, such as /define:syzygy/, or /phonebook:white house washington dc/. You can find a list on the Google Web Search Features page. I think it's great that the authors included this section, although some of the "features" seem more robust than others.
The book explained one thing about searching I should have realized: the order of search terms matters. /red frog/ will give you slightly different results than /frog red/. For that example, the difference is small, but it's greater the more complicated the search. The authors would like more people to use the Search within Results feature: "Google has a great feature for helping you narrow down your results to find the really relevant pages, although almost nobody uses it". Almost nobody uses it because it's not all that useful. All it does is add the new term(s) to the end of your previous search. But to the extent that the order of search terms matters, maybe you want the new search term added to the beginning of the search. Or if you're searching for a phrase, perhaps the additional words should be part of the phrase, inside the quotes.
Here's one hack that's missing from the manual. Instead of enclosing a phrase in quotes, /"to be or not to be"/, you can replace the spaces with periods, /to.be.or.not.to.be/. This example turns out to fail, because Google thinks you're looking for a web site in Belgium, but it works most of the time. As a typing-impaired person I like it because it saves having to find the shift key.
The second part of Google: The Missing Manual is the largest part of the book, and the hardest to categorize. It's almost 200 pages long, and covers all the user features other than GMail and the basic search box. Depending on how you count them, there are over a dozen different services described, including desktop, image, news, and print search, shopping with Froogle, Google Local (which has absorbed maps), Groups, Answers, and the wireless and SMS interfaces. Browser features include searching from the sidebar, address bar, toolbar, Googlebar, buttons and bookmarklets.
When the book was written, the Google Deskbar was a search tool for the web with some useful specialized searches such as UPS and USPS, as well as the data indexed by desktop search. It had a miniviewer which I quite liked for looking at search results without opening a full browser window. The miniviewer has since disappeared, and the deskbar has morphed into the Google Desktop, which can appear either as a deskbar or a sidebar, and in the latter incarnation can be configured with multiple pop-out panes. There are other, less significant changes as well. If you have a Google account, your choices for personalized news are stored in your account, and news alerts is out of beta, and they're stored in your account as well. These changes affect the screenshots in the book more than the explanatory text.
Overall, the material in part two is very useful, even as it goes out of date. Just like other parts of the book, I'm sure you'll learn things you never knew, or have forgotten. During an excellent introduction to Froogle, Google's search-powered shopping service, the book reminded me of Google Catalogs, the service for searching catalogs.
The third part of the book is for webmasters, starting with a good introduction to the legitimate ways to structure your site to improve its ranking, as well as using a robots.txt file to hide some or all of your site from Google's spiders. Google: The Missing Manual also explains the two complementary programs for Google ads: Adsense is the service where Google provides ads for your site; Adwords is the service where you can advertise your site on Google, or on sites that have subscribed to Adsense. Finally, Analytics is a service for tracking visitors to your site. It integrates with Adsense but doesn't require it. At the moment, it's available only by invitation. Obviously, these services are of less general interest than the other parts of the book – you can't put Adwords on your MySpace or MSDN Spaces page.
The fourth part of Google: The Missing Manual describes Gmail. As with other parts of Google, there are new features that just don't appear in the book, like mailing lists or the built-in chat, as well as features that have moved around, like the new button for "Delete". Also, you used to need an invitation to sign up for GMail, but now you can sign up if you have a cell phone that can receive a text message from Google with a code in it.
The book mentions the fact that GMail includes a "standard HTML" mode for older browsers, but implies that this mode has limited functionality. I suspect that Google has improved the interface since the book was written, since I couldn't find any significant difference between the two modes, although the book does mention one difference: the lack of a spell checker in standard HTML.
The book confuses new messages, which Google doesn't keep track of, and unread messages, which are counted and displayed in bold.
The authors acknowledge (p 8) that between the time the book was written and the time it was published, Google will have introduced new services, such as Google Finance or Google Pages, as well as changes in existing services. Since it's not realistic to expect the book to describe the features Google put in yesterday, it might have made sense for the authors to mention when the contents of the book were frozen. It's sort of unfair, but a lot of this book will be ancient history in another year.
Despite the fact that some of the material in the book is out-of-date, I think everyone will find this book useful. When we get into a rut using programs and services in the same old way every time, we need a hard push to explore new features, and Google: The Missing Manual is just the thing to help learn more about Google. If you don't use Google, you should read it to find out all the neat features you're missing out on. If you DO use Google, you should read it to find out all the neat features you're not taking advantage of."
You can purchase Google: The Missing Manual, Second Edition from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.