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February 25, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Getting good at Google Getting good at Google (February 25, 2004)

Local computer scientist reveals the secrets of the search engine

by Elizabeth White

Google is one of the most popular search engines on the Web, but many people do not know its full potential, merely employing it here or there to look up an address or a fact. For even the savviest Internet users, the ins and outs of Google often remain as mysterious as the inner workings of a computer are to non-geeks.

But one woman, with the help of a new book and online tutorial, is trying to change that.

"I think most people are only using a fraction of Google," said Nancy Blachman, coauthor of "How to Do Everything with Google." "A lot of people aren't aware of these little things that can make their lives easier."

Blachman, a Palo Alto native and Mountain View resident with a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University, started delving into the intricacies of Google in the fall of 2002. In response to guides she thought didn't do the Web site justice, Blachman wrote an online tutorial called "Google Guide" (www.googleguide.com).

In April 2003 she posted the material, which features a number of exercises on Google's more specific and powerful functions. Google users can find addresses and maps without having to type in difficult coordinates; they can access definitions without searching for a dictionary or thesaurus site; and they can find stock quotes with a few keystrokes.

"What I try to do is give people a tour of the whole thing so they know what's out there," said Blachman, whose only affiliation with Google is through her husband, a company employee. "Using Google without reading a help page is like driving a car without reading the manual: You can use it, sure, but you're not going to be using it to its full power and its full capabilities."

Blachman even used a Google feature she teaches about, Google Answers, to help her with the guide. Google Answers lets users set the price they'll pay an expert to research the answer to a question. If they're satisfied with the answer they're offered, they pony up the cash. Blachman paid $50 for someone to copy edit "Google Guide." She also put the guide under a creative-commons license, which means that anyone can use and republish the content from the guide, so long as they give Blachman's site the credit.

Once the guide appeared on the Web, it started getting hits from all over the world -- it's had more than 250,000 hits since the beginning of this month -- and Blachman decided to parlay her efforts into a more substantial undertaking. She had seen other books on Google and thought she could do a better and more comprehensive job. Working with Google employees Fritz Schneider and Eric Fredricksen, she authored "How to Do Everything with Google," a book that promises better and faster search results and the ability to discover more multimedia content.

"I don't expect people to read the whole thing," Blachman said of the 361-page work. "But if you do take the time you'll learn that Google is packed with things you weren't aware of ... and experienced users can jump to sections of interest."

Writing the book was essentially a full-time job for Blachman, a mother of 3-year-old twins. But the book and tutorial were by no means Blachman's first foray into teaching others. From 1990-97, she taught problem solving to Stanford graduate and engineering students using Mathematica software. She also worked as a technology training manager at VA Linux Research for a few years, but got out when the dot-com bubble burst.

Blachman said she loves teaching and thinks this book, along with the Google Guide, on which she holds seminars at her home, can inspire people to learn.

"I want to lead people to discover things themselves because I think it's fun for people," Blachman said.

For all her enthusiasm, getting the book written presented Blachman with some challenges. She, Schneider and Fredricksen had just a few short months to write it, between June and October 2003. They also had to navigate the sometimes difficult dynamic of working as a trio.

"You may paint things in a different way," Blachman said of the three different writing styles. "I tend to explain things very concisely. Fritz (Schneider) is very detail-oriented."

Fredricksen, a software engineer at Google for the past 3.5 years, said he was initially reluctant to spend so much time on the book, but "eventually just couldn't resist."

The three authors split up the book into chapters on Google's different abilities, each writing a few chapters on topics that interested them. Blachman, for example, wrote Chapter 9, "Search Discussion Forums with Google Groups," and helped with Chapters 2 through 5, which lay out the basics of a Google Web search.

For Blachman, most of the research for the book was done simply by spending endless hours on the computer actually searching to see what Google can and cannot do.

"I had questions about things and then I was able to answer them by exploring," Blachman said. She looked at Google's help files, grabbed computer-screen frames as illustrations for the book and documented countless examples.

The other authors, with their inside knowledge of Google, added sidebars about engineers at the company to break up the chapters.

The book, released last November, had an initial printing of 10,000, and more have been printed to meet the first-year projection of 15,000, said Bettina Faltermeier, publicity manager at publisher McGraw-Hill/Osborne.

Faltermeier said the book is sold in all the major brick-and-mortar and online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble Booksellers and Amazon.com, where it has received nine reviews with an average 4.5 out of five stars.

Blachman's hoping Google management will be interested enough in the book, and the guide, to create a formal affiliation with her. She's certainly been sold on their product.

"I love teaching but I like teaching having good material. Teaching is my passion but I want to teach well. Now I have this resource," Blachman said.

Blachman will hold a book signing Thursday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Books, Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View. (650) 428-1234. Editorial intern Elizabeth White can be reached at lwhite@paweekly.com.


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