eBiz Book Review: "Google Hacks"

A comprehensive guide to the inner workings of Google that provides information you can use to optimize your site.
Remember how novel it was the first few times you saw a URL in a movie trailer, or at the end of an ad? How people fumbled around with the whole "http://" thing, and whether you really needed it? Or if "www" had to go at the beginning of every URL? My memories of that time are sort of fuzzy, too, and it doesn't matter these days: If you need to have any presence at all, a Web presence is a key part of that.

There's a corollary to that requirement as well: If you need to have a Web presence, the search engines need to know about you. And there's no search engine people worry more about, or spend more time tracking to an almost obsessive extent, than Google.

Search engine optimization (SEO) specialists spend time comparing notes on how Google's sorting results, whether its engineers have changed how it computes their sites' popularity, whether they've gained "Google juice," or lost it, or what they can do to get it back. But for all the concern people have about just what Google thinks about them (or their sites, anyhow), the search engine is still treated with a bit of superstition.

Google Hacks, 3rd Edition
By Rael Dornfest, Paul Bausch & Tara Calishain

Book Price: $24.99 USD
PDF Price: $12.49

The Good: Comprehensive overview of Google, from end user, developer and webmaster perspectives that almost belies the "Hacks" branding.

The Bad: So comprehensive that you probably won't read all of it, or use everything in it.

Recommendation: If you have a small site you need to promote, or if you just want to know how Google ticks, pick it up. You won't regret it.
Part of that might be the almost unintuitive way in which Google's simple interface produces very good results, without a lot of the "boolean dance" old hands with older search engines remember. Part of it might be Google's corporate reputation as the Big Rock Candy Mountain of the genius employment world. Part of it is probably tied to Google's somewhat secretive nature about what, exactly, its spiders are looking for when they size up a page. Its PageRank algorithm is the company's secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. By necessity, Google's key function is shrouded in some secrecy.

And part of the Google superstitiousness is, no doubt, just the fact that when Google's ranking algorithms shift a little, or something about your site changes ever-so-subtly, you stand to lose some ranking and a lot of page views. It's a modern, Web-based version of an angry pagan god making all the rain go away, blighting the crops. Faced with an angry search engine god, who can blame a small business trying to get itself noticed on the Web for offering up a few goats?

Invest in Yourself
Not everyone sacrifices goats (or files frivolous 'libel' suits) when Google doesn't go their way. Some people hire SEO consultants who charge a lot of money (and occasionally pull shady stunts) to get more notice from Google. Sometimes, the SEO consultants are actually just going out back and sacrificing the goat out of their customers' sight.

The thing is, search engines and the Web are going to be a fact of life for a while, and not everyone has the money to make hiring specialists to navigate those milieus a good idea. This is especially true for many small e-tailers.

In that case, the best thing you can do to raise your profile with the likes of Google is to learn how it works. That's where O'Reilly's excellent Google Hacks fits in.

Not every book in the "Hacks" series has been an unqualified success. Some are more simple than their apparent target audience might have any use for, some look like ways to get a book out the door without having to worry about all its pieces having any real coherence as a whole. When books in the series do work, though, you get a concise guide to the topic. And, you get information on more than just "hacks," a word that's degraded in usefulness since the term "hacker" enjoyed its late-'90s resurgence, you get a deeper insight into the topic on the whole.

The Big Picture and the Small Picture
Google Hacks definitely works, both as an interesting guide to how to use Google from its simple Web interface to an in-depth look at how to build a site that works well with Google. As Google has added services, the book has adapted rapidly, too, offering more and more content in each of its followup editions on services such as Google Mail and Google Maps.

As with the rest of the "Hacks" series, Google Hacks provides 100 nuggets that seldom go over four or five pages apiece. It progresses from the very basic: how to best structure a query and special operators that improve your search results; to more sophisticated stuff, including scraping Google search results and programming against its Web services API in a variety of frameworks, from Perl's SOAP::Lite to C# and .NET.

Among the latter hacks is a concise run-through of what Google most wants to see in a site, and how you can best accommodate it. Though chasing search engines is never a good idea in terms of the core content you're providing, structuring your site to let the search engines get an understanding of what's on it is very important. This brief guide gives you a good start on that.

It also offers a fairly mellow attitude about dealing with the importance of PageRank, which is something a lot of the panicky folks frequenting SEO boards could profit from, even if it's just in the savings they see from taking less heartburn medication.

A Little Something for Everyone
If you're a habitual book-buyer and you're trying to figure out how Google ticks, Google Hacks is a good buy. You probably won't profit from reading it beginning to end, but the traditional short-attention-span format of the "Hacks" series doesn't require that, anyhow.

If you're not interested in coding at all, a substantial (but not overwhelming) part of the book will not be of use to you. At the same time, anyone operating an online business will benefit by reading the introductory pages related to Google's APIs. As with the rest of the book, even if it's not information you'll want to apply directly, you will definitely pick up some ideas about how Google as a whole works, what the aims of the company are (and hence what you can expect its products to do), and why there's such overwhelming loyalty to Google from a lot of the people driving the Web in new directions.

When it comes time to create a site, or optimize your current site, you'll have a much better understanding of how to do that if you've spent some time with Google Hacks.

Michael Hall is managing editor of EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet.com.

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