Google Desktop Search — A review via an EXCLUSIVE interview!

google, grab bag, search engines, technology, tips

I was able to score an exclusive interview with Adam Lasnik, supreme geek, Google connoisseur, and Google Desktop Search expert, and I’m very pleased to offer the full transcript below.

Adam, thanks for coming today. To start, why don’t you give us a quick overview of what Google Desktop Search (“GDS”) does?

It’s delightful to be here!

Well, GDS enables any personal and business user to search their computer’s hard drive much as they would search Google… typing in a search term using Google’s general search syntax and getting a results page in under one second.

Specifically, GDS searches both the filenames and contents of the following: Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail, AOL instant messages, Internet Explorer (Web page history), text files, and also files from Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

Do note that GDS only works on Windows XP and 2000 at this time.

So is this all pretty easy to use, or is it a tool just for geeks?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, GDS is quite user-friendly from end-to-end. It installs very quickly (it’s 400K) and it politely uninstalls just as easily. And actually using the tool is a snap: When you click on the GDS icon in your system tray, a browser window opens; you simply type in a search query, and BOOM, Google lists results are shown, formatted very similarly to regular Google searches.

Whoa… regular Google searches… does this mean other people can search my hard drive? Or can Google see what I’m searching for or what’s on my hard drive? I better start removing those porn…er, confidential business plan documents!

No, no… unlike with Google Web Search, the index of your files remains on your computer. While you have the OPTION to let Google learn about your search stats (not terms!), Google doesn’t peek into your hard drive contents or examine what you’re personal searching for. So if you’re looking for a big ass barbeque to grill a fluffy bunny, you don’t have to worry about Google notifying the ASPCA (I
hear rabbit meat is tasty, though… but I digress). In a nutshell, Google’s GDS privacy policy should make you feel better.

Okay, so GDS is easy to use and it’s not going to get me in trouble. So far so good. How about a few more techie details?

You got it! First, let me say that — while GDS isn’t a power tool yet — it performs well on machines of power users like myself.

I have a decent rig (2.4 ghz Pentium with 512 megs of RAM), but it’s loaded down with other file indexing programs, numerous Outlook plugins, more than a dozen apps in the systray, two routers (one wireless, one phone adaptor), a firewall (XP SP2-based), a virus checker (AVG), and many general programs running concurrently (Trillian, Dreamweaver, Outlook, and so on… and GDS has worked flawlessly. No install problems, and no noticeable slowdown of the system during indexing. Furthermore, searching with GDS is LIGHTNING FAST… both on my rig, and on the machine of a less-geeky friend of mine who’s sadly cursed an older machine. The downside of that, understandably, is that GDS is pretty conservative. It initially indexes quite slowly in the background (you’ll need to leave this puppy on overnight to get a full index!), and overall the product doesn’t try to do too many things for too many people.

Hmm… well, tell us a bit more about the limitations of GDS, then

GDS provides ease-of-use at the expense of power-tool complexity. Whether in the interest of not overwhelming non-geeks or simply due to the fact that this is still a version 1 (0.9?) beta release, Google has chosen not to offer much functionality customization or ANY UI customization.

In some cases, this is a mere minor annoyance. We can’t opt to have the system go into a turbo mode (using more processor cycles) to get everything indexed quickly.

There’s no way that I can see to have the system wholly refresh the index without doing an uninstall and reinstall.

Some holes are a bit more frustrating. GDS doesn’t monitor e-mails and files after it indexes them, which can result in an inability to pull up items, or a duplication of listings in search results. Additionally, while you can tell GDS not to index certain sites or folders, you can’t block it from indexing specific Outlook folders. Luckily, it does ignore (perceived) spam folders by default.

From a UI perspective, GDS is generally streamlined and will please folks who are looking for an experience that matches what they’re used to with general Google search results. Power users, though, may be a bit disappointed.

The key issue is that GDS doesn’t yet offer search results in a contextual way. For instance, when you’re searching for an image on your hard drive, you probably want to see image thumbnails. When you’re searching for a particular e-mail, you likely want an easy-to-scan list of mail-related headers. However, GDS treats all search results alike, except for a little icon next to each search listing. In a way, this is understandable. In order to offer more strongly contextual search results, GDS would have to do one of the following:

1) Show only one type of results per screen, which would require extra navigational clicks.
2) Divide up results by column (e.g., e-mail results on the left, image results on the right), which could be problematic when there are more than 2 file types returned or when someone’s browser window space is limited.
3) Limit search queries to one file type at a time.

As you can see, none of these options are particularly desireable. Furthermore, many folks might find it disconcerting to see a shifting UI with search results.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that Google has decided to go with a more generic but consistent results UI at this point.

So GDS is sounding like a useful and effective, if not revolutionary product. How does it compare to existing desktop search solutions?

It’s easier to install, it behaves more nicely, and it returns results faster than any other desktop search program I’ve seen.

And speaking of other solutions, here’s a list of other desktop search programs I know about, with an asterisk by those I’ve tried:

X1*

Seemingly one of the most popular desktop search tools, X1 distinguishes itself in several ways: it displays search results as you type each letter, it shows previews of documents, it offers special fields for different searches, and it supports a ton of different file formats. Downside? It’s pricey, it can be a resource hog. [See license giveaway; still some left as of 10/15/04 2:46pm PST]

LookOut*

Recently bought out by Microsoft, this program integrates into Outlook, but searches many different types of files. It’s more flexible and powerful than GDS, but it’s not as fast… and it’s not useful for those who don’t have Outlook.

Enfish*

Big, pricey, and highly customizeable, with an especially useful saved-searches feature and decent integration with ones Outlook data overall.

Copernic
dtSearch
80/20
Superior Search
Wilbur

Wow, that’s a lot of competition for Google. So what makes GDS so special and important, then?

Several things:

1) Speed, stability, and ease of use.
2) The trusted and liked Google brand.
3) Integration with Google Web searches (you can configure the program to show desktop search results when you do a general Web search)
4) Potential later integration with existing popular Google tools (toolbar, Gmail, etc.)
5) Perhaps somewhat controversial… but there’s also the possibility that Google could — at the user’s option — use desktop search fingerprinting to steer or filter that individual’s Web results.

Okay, I can see why GDS may be particularly noteworthy for consumers, but what does it mean for Google?

It will enable Google to take over the world, though not all at once.

But seriously, folks… I think GDS suggests several significant ramifications for Google (and yes, its shareholders):

1) This may increase the frequency and quantity of Google Web (or integrated Web + GDS) searches, thus augmenting ad revenues.

2) As many others have noted, it’s a clear strike-ahead at Microsoft, who is building desktop search capabilities into their future operating system. Why does this matter from a revenue standpoint? GDS will help insure that more people remain loyal to Google (and its advertisers), instead of defecting towards the possibly-OS-default MSN search feature.

3) Each foray into Windows tools allows Google to build up an aggregate competency in this area, strengthening not only each individual tool, but the broad set of desktop-based tools overall (Picasa, Deskbar, etc.).

Well, I’m pretty sold on Google Desktop Search at this point, I must admit. But how do I know if it’s right for me?

I’d suggest that you simply give the tool a try. But if you’re really gung-ho about this space and have some extra time, you may want to give the other desktop search program a look-see as well. It’s notable that all of them are either free or offer free trials, so you have little to lose. Just remember to fully un-install any desktop search programs you decide not to use to insure that their likely-sizable indexes aren’t continuing to clutter up your hard drive.

And in the meantime, here’s my humble list of what to look for in a desktop search tool:

1) Ease of install (and, indeed, uninstall!)
2) Comprehensiveness of indexing (how many different file types does it support?)
3) Speed of indexing (initial and ongoing)
4) Load on computer (during initial indexing, ongoing indexing, searching)
5) Speed of searching (how long does it take for it to deliver search results?)
6) Power of searching (Boolean expression support? Ability to search particular fields?…)
7) Usefulness of search results (relevance, completeness, formatting)
8) Cost of program
9) Support from company (FAQs, e-mail support. etc.)
10) And I almost forgot the most important thing — does it work on your system (platform, necessary specs, etc.)

Adam, thanks so much for all of this information and for taking the time to stop by here today

Absolutely a pleasure. It’s always been my dream to appear on BLADAM, and I thank you for the opportunity to address your wonderful, smart, and attractive readers who will no doubt eagerly link to this page and share it with all their friends. But tell me one thing: Why has it been more than four months since you posted anything in this blog?

Ahem… um… well, I was in the process of changing blog software, but never got around to actually finishing the transition, plus I started two new jobs recently and…

Ah, no worries! Just glad to see BLADAM back up, even temporarily.

:blushing: It’s nice to be back.

Relevant and cool links:
A Net Takeway examination of the desktop search space
Excellent overview of GDS from SearchEngineWatch
SearchEngineWatch – Privacy and Google Desktop Search
John Battelle’s take on GDS

Edits: (Times are Pacific Standard Time)
– 10/14/04, 21:45: Actually linked to the product. What a revolutionary idea, eh? [smacks head]
– 10/15/04, 14:46: Added x1 license giveaway link (not likely to be applicable for long!)

[P.S. — Please feel free to leave a comment with any corrections, or suggest any additional aspects of GDS to cover. Thanks!]

2 comments… add one
  • Omigod!  You’re BACK!!!

    (*falls over in dead faint*)

    😉

  • SEO Florida Aug 19, 2008

    If some one asked me a question about Google desktop, than i would have replied…

    “IT’s an Amazing Tool”

What do you think?