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Google: The Missing Manual Sarah Milstein and Rael Dornfest
Published by Pogue Press/O'Reilly
ISBN:0-596-00613-6
311 pages
£ 13.95
Published: May 2004
reviewed by Damian Counsell
   in the September 2004 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

All prospective purchasers, expert or novice, are likely to sympathise with the back-cover ``Missing Manual'' logo. It shows an wide-eyed and bemused customer shaking a large, open software package with one hand and holding a single, lonely CD in the other. He waits vainly, like many of us have done, for anything else to drop out of the box. The ``Missing Manuals'' series looks like O'Reilly's attempt to abseil down from the cold, geeky peaks whence it sells tomes on programming embedded systems in C or administering Sendmail servers. Under its new ``Pogue Press'' imprint O'Reilly can release popular books and compete on publishing's lush, lay-reader lowlands, where beginners graze on ``The Complete Idiots Guide to Windows XP'' or ``Rugby Union for Dummies'', and it can do so without affecting the good and exclusive reputation that the parent O'Reilly brand has earned with the computing elite. Hungry Minds Inc., the publishers of the ``For Dummies'' series was recently acquired by Wiley, so O'Reilly's creation of the Pogue Press is probably the first strike in a proxy war between technical publishing giants. It might turn out to be ugly, but ordinary book-buyers should benefit from the clash of the Idiots, the Dummies, and the Missing.

You are reading this review in the UKUUG magazine so it's likely that you are comfortable climbing those geeky peaks of technical knowledge. You probably started using Google long before your friends -- if you have any friends. You probably think you are pretty Google-savvy anyway. You probably think (as one of my coding colleagues exclaimed when he saw this book) that ninety percent of what you need to know about Google could be crammed onto two sides of A4 paper, never mind extended to 300 pages. And, if you picked up this volume and browsed the folksy language -- describing interfaces as being ``trippy'', for example -- you'd probably toss it aside in lofty disdain. You'd be making a mistake.

Even if someone else writes another, longer book about how to use Google, it will have to be outstandingly good to beat this one. Though partly obscured by the ``Ned Flanders'' prose, there is so much information laid out here about the search engine and its offshoots that readers will wonder how they ever managed without some of the features it describes. If, when you read that previous sentence, you didn't know who Ned Flanders was, and were near a networked computer, you probably thought about googling his name. But this book will also teach you that Google can be used to search for phone numbers, survey ranges of digits, use wildcards for words you can't remember in the middle of phrases, filter your results on document type, and ask questions of real people. The Missing Manual not only covers this last (socially fascinating) feature -- Google Answers -- but it also describes every spin-off that I've heard of from what the company brochures probably call the ``core functionality'' of Google: Google Ads, Google Groups, the Google Toolbar, the Google Directory, and the book even claims that the ``Missing Manuals'' online companion site (http://www.missingmanuals.com/) will preview the relatively new Gmail (``unlimited'' Web-based email) service, though, when I searched this resource, I couldn't find anything about Gmail myself. Further, the book covers third-party, non-Google, googling accessories and has the good sense to recommend alternatives for tasks for which Google would not be the best tool.

From my scanning of the bits at the beginning of the book and the bits at the end of the book, there was no mention of direct assistance being given to the authors by occupants of the famously secretive Googleplex (Google's global headquarters), but I suspect Sarah Milstein and Rael Dornfest had friends on the inside. When it comes to what might be considered the more technical side of Google: getting indexed, removing yourself from Google, making money from and paying to advertise via Google, this book has still more to offer. I was particularly impressed that www.missingmanuals.com even offers a spreadsheet for you to download to calculate how much you should be prepared to spend on advertising via Google. It would be a shame if über-nerds missed out on the later, more specialised advice in the book because they were dismissive about the earlier more general stuff.

Despite all this, ``Google: The Missing Manual'' has, I must admit, the worst first line of any O'Reilly I've read: ``By now there's no way to have missed the Internet.'' The content that follows the inauspicious start probably contains mistakes. My approach to reading it was to skim through explanations of familiar things (like a description of what a 'Blog is, for example) and then pay close attention to the segments where new information lay, but I was so busy noting down new snippets of advice that, if there were any errors or typos, I didn't notice them. The structure is logical and the design tasteful. It's divided into sensibly chosen parts and chapters and illustrated with lots of worthwhile screenshots. The words are set in clear, unshowy fonts and arranged on each page in a pleasing way.

I was surprised to see this week that Google, the near-undisputed king of the search engines, has been around now for a gob-smacking six years -- in Internet time that equates to something like two decades. What with that relative maturity, the emergence of Gmail, and Google's successful listing as a public company in the United States, this book is well timed. It deserves to sell by the shelfload. Ironically, the people who could most benefit from it probably won't buy it. I do scientific research, program computers, and run a 'Blog. Google is part of my life. I thought I was quite an expert, but this book, which at first looks like it is intended for people who live on the plains, where non-technical users are at home, is extremely useful to those who think of themselves as residing high above the world of the ``For Dummies'' and ``Missing Manuals'' series. There are always greater heights of Googling to ascend (and probably there will continue to be). This book is a superb guide to anyone who wants to tour them.

If you are a heavy user of Google and would like to be a better user of Google, you should buy this Missing Manual. Google, after all, is still free.

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