Google may indeed be the path to nearly everything a human being could possibly want to know. All you have to do is ask - and know how to use the right key words.
But maybe the real question is: what do I want to know?
And not just what do I need to find out on an occasional basis - when I can't remember exactly where a country is located, or who played in a movie, or where my mother's friend is moving when she retires. That's all basic Google search stuff.
Google, though, is more than simply a search engine. Another Google service, the personalized home page, confronts the user with a more challenging question, one that requires not only thought, but also planning: what is it that I need or want to know or to see on a daily basis?
Joel May speaks on "The Many Faces of Google" on Monday, August 13, at 7:30 p.m. at a meeting of the Princeton PC Users Group at the Lawrence Library. Visit www.ppcug-nj.org for more details.
May grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the son of a radio announcer, and attended Albright College in Reading, earning a bachelor of science in economics in l957. He then moved to the University of Chicago, where he received a masters in business administration and a doctorate in economics and statistics, and stayed on as an instructor.
In l977 he joined the faculty of the School of Public Health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Later he took on the presidency of the Health Research and Educational Trust in Princeton, until his retirement in l995.
In a combination quest to create my own home page while testing out some of May's suggestions, the reality of information overload hit me like a jackhammer. I'm happy with the result, for now, but I'm also not sure that I have honed the available news and information into a menu that is useful rather than simply amusing.
I love the light green hue and the sun rising or setting over a lake and pagoda that serves as the header for my page (click "select theme"). Also fun are a "photograph of the week" and another picture from National Geographic as well as a daily quote from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.
My home page also boasts current business news from several sources, weather, a sticky note, and a translation box. It will do for now. (To learn how to create your own home page, select "about Google," then "help with creating, organizing, and sharing your stuff," then "web search help center," and then you can read the entries under "Personalizing iGoogle.")
But even as I'm at least temporarily comfortable with my home page, I can still feel overwhelmed by the continual new search possibilities offered by Google. The problem is remembering how to find available information when I need it, which is probably not daily. Even for techniques I've already absorbed through consistent use of Google, I'm sometimes missing crucial details on employing them most efficiently.
Here's some of what I've learned from May and the Google Help Center (click "about Google," then select "Google Web search features"):
Wider searching capabilities. People use the verb "to Google" with abandon, but they may not realize that a Google search is not what it used to be - it's much more. May points out that now we can search not only websites and images, but can surf among videos, blogs, and even discussion groups.
Current news. By selecting the "news" tag and entering a key word, you can instantly find the most current news articles on a topic of interest.
Music. If you can't quite name all of the singles and albums by the Beatles, type "music: Beatles" and you'll get a list, and if you keep clicking on those entries, you will have a long read ahead of you.
Movies. If you're in the mood for a flick, type "movies," a space, and then your zip code to find out what's playing nearby, at what time, and whether reviewers like the film. To get these details for a particular movie, type its name in the search box.
Maps, directions, and more. Nearly everyone now knows that Google maps will provide maps of varying degrees of specificity and directions, and will even display satellite pictures of our old neighborhoods, if they're still around, and certainly of our current ones.
But probably many of us don't know that for many cities Google offers traffic congestion maps as well as street scenes. For now the street scene feature is limited to the five cities - New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, and Miami - in which Google has driven a vehicle through the streets with a 360-degree camera on its roof and taken pictures throughout the city.
May explains that the Google user can choose any point on the city map and see what was going on when the camera rolled by. Although most people think this is a hoot, others - including the ACLU - have been complaining that this is an invasion of privacy. For example, says May, people caught jumping over fences or coming out of adult book stores may not be happy to have their pictures on the Internet for all to see. (It is possible to ask Google to remove an inappropriate picture.)
Businesses and services. Enter a keyword like "pharmaceuticals" or "grocery" followed by a city name or a zip code or just use "find businesses" under "Google maps." I found 14 establishments with a Princeton address that sell pizza!
Books. Click "more" and then "books"). For many books out of copyright, Google makes available the whole book for your reading pleasure online.
Scholarly reviewed journals. Click "more" and then "scholar." Google Scholar enables a search of scholarly reviewed journals. As we spoke, May typed in "stem cell" and got 1,510,000 hits.
Phone numbers. I have found that when I'm looking for a residential phone number, sometimes Google comes through, and sometimes it doesn't. Try typing "phonebook:" and then using combinations of first name or first initial, last name, city, state, and zip code.
Google alerts. Select "about Google," then "Google services and tools," then "alerts." This capability allows you to use Google as a roving pair of eyes, checking over millions of words to find current news about a topic of concern to you.
You provide one or more search terms per alert and your E-mail address and specify where you want to search and how often you want to receive alerts. Alerts allow you, for example, to get the most current information on any stock you own, find out whether your Congressman has done anything noteworthy, or hear about the latest wrinkle in your favorite technology.
Some quickies. Enter a stock symbol to get stock and mutual fund quotes. Type an airport code, a space, and the word "airport" to find out about weather and delays. To check the status of a flight, type the airline name, a space, and the flight number.
Translating web pages. Google allows you to access web pages in languages other than your own and translate them into your own language. Currently, Google offers the following translation pairs: English to and from Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese; and German to and from French.
Numbers. By entering certain numbers, you can retrieve information. For example, you can track a package sent via United Parcel Service, FedEx, or the United States Postal Service by simply entering the tracking number. Or you can get information about a paten by typing "patent," a space, and then the patent number. You can also enter a telephone area code to find out its associated geographical location.
Defining words. Just type "define," a space, then a word or words, and Google will provide a list of definitions it finds on the web.
Although in many ways Google can feel overwhelming, the best way to learn about it is to play with it. Whenever you hear about a capability that would be useful to you, try it out.