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Google Hacks
Author: Tara Calishain & Rael Dornfest
Pages: 329
Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates
ISBN: 0-596-00447-8
Summary: A comprehensive guide to the king of search engines.
Review Date: 24 Mar, 2003

Few of today's web-savvy would contest Google's superiority among search engines. Behind the austere and simple interface lies a wealth of information just waiting to be tapped. Until now however, tapping all that information and power would likely require scanning dozens of websites hunting down tips for making the most out of Google. Fortunately, Tara Calishain, Rael Dornfest and their colleagues have done most of the legwork for us in O'Reilly's Google Hacks.

Google Hacks is another in O'Reilly's Hacks series, "Industrial Strength Tips and Tools". In this case, 100 recipes for just about every imaginable use for Google. O'Reilly uses the term 'hack' in a positive way, meaning a clever technical feat or trick, as opposed to the negative connotation associated with those blackhats who break into computer systems for fun and for profit. Each "hack" is a stand-alone recipe demonstrating some aspect of using Google to find just what you're looking for. Most hacks also contain cross-references to other relevant hacks in the book, so you really don't have to read it from cover to cover. You could start with whatever interests you, and go from there.

The book is divided into several chapters, each of which contains several hacks. The first few chapters are targeted at the general end-user, describing in detail all of the various syntaxes you can use when searching with Google, as well as introducing the various topical collections (U.S. government, Linux, Mac, etc.), and other tools (Google Groups, Google News, etc.,) available. The authors are careful to point out where the various syntax pieces are incompatible, and which syntax features are available with which services. Also covered are various tools you can use to (legally) 'scrape' Google search results for further analysis. These chapters will be useful for just about anyone who uses Google. Some of the material (such as directly manipulating URLS to tweak search results and custom HTML forms) may be beyond the reach of some newbies. A general understanding of URLs, HTML and CGI scripting will be helpful in making use of most of the book.

The next few chapters are targeted more to developers and propeller-heads, describing the Google Web Service API, as well as providing dozens of scripts (mostly in Perl) for manipulating Google's index via its XML interface. Newbies and the casual user might find all this a bit overwhelming, but anyone with a Perl interpreter could potentially use these scripts to their advantage. One chapter also provides examples of using the API in various other languages including PHP, Java, Python, C#/.NET, and VB.NET. There are enough examples here of using the API in various fashions to get anyone with a sense of programming plenty of starting off points for whatever project they may imagine with Google's wealth of information.

The next to last chapter involves a handful of pranks, games, other oddities you can do with Google. Fool your friends with 0-result searches, let Google write poetry or a recipe for you. Draw pictures with Google Groups, or see just how good you are at Google-Whacking. This is the chapter for all of you who have way too much time on your hands ;-).

The last chapter in the book is targeted towards webmasters and offers several tips not only on getting your website well-placed in Google's search rankings, but general help on getting traffic to your site in the first place. The authors also discuss strategies for using Google's AdWords system to the advantage of your business.

Overall, the book is very readable, and easy to move through (well, for a geek anyways). Each hack is self-contained, and can be read in a few minutes. Read it near your computer, as you'll likely be wanting to try some of these hacks out as you read them. As for its usefulness, I'm already using things I learned in the book on a regular basis to my daily advantage. However, if you're not more than a casual user of Google, all the scripts and API-speak might be overkill for your needs. The first few and last chapters probably justify the Amazon price for most users, however.

The book isn't perfect, though. I did find a few typographical errors scattered through the text, but they weren't prevalent enough to be too distracting. Also, with coverage of such a moving target as a major Internet property like Google, there will likely be links and even certain hacks that may not work, and features that change with time. Finally, the idea of narrowing down your search results to a manageable number surfaces often. In my opinion, what's important is not so much how many search results are found, but rather, whether or not Google can get me what I'm looking for within the first page or two of results, which it usually does, and which is why I use Google in the first place. The real value of the book shows itself on those occasions where Google doesn't necessarily get you where you want to be on the first shot.

In summary, true to its cover graphic, Google Hacks will provide you with a large number of tools to get the most out of Google, whether for serious research, casual browsing, procrastination activities, or just plain old fun.

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Daniel Hanks

I'm a system administrator working for Omniture

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