SiliconFilter

Google Now Personalizes Its Maps with Your Rated Places and Recommendations

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Google today announced that it will start personalizing your Google Maps experience with your ratings and personalized recommendations. For now, Google is keeping these new features very subtle. Indeed, unless you look very closely, you may just overlook the new symbols. Places you have already rated will now appear with a number of dots underneath their respective symbols, corresponding to the star rating you gave them. Recommended places now feature a slight orange glow around their symbols.

Here is what the new symbols look like:

delicatessen_small_ratings_google_maps

recommendations_in_google_maps

For Google, of course, this is yet another way to get people to actually rate restaurants, shops and other local businesses in the first place. Unlike services like Yelp, few people explicitly come to Google Maps to leave reviews. The company’s place pages have increased the emphasis of reviewing businesses over time, though, and while most reviews on Google Maps and Place Pages are still aggregated from third parties, the number of native reviews seems to be going up now.

With Google Places, the company tried to get its users to leaving more reviews (and hence feed Google’s algorithms with more data), though I doubt most consumers are even aware of this service.

In an effort to bolster its recommendation services, Google also acquired Zagat earlier this year, though we haven’t seen any integration of Zagat’s ratings into Google’s own products yet.



6:15 pm


Making Circles Smarter: Google Acquires Katango to Improve Google+

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Google just acquired Katango, a service that can automatically organize your friends on social networks into groups. Katango only launch its first product, a Facebook-focused iPhone application, this July. At the time, I already thought that Katango was really more of a feature than a product and that “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody like Twitter, Google or Facebook would take an interest in buying the company.” Clearly, Google thought so too. Indeed, when I first talked to Katango’s VP of product Yee Lee, he pointed out that his company was already talking to the “big two” players in the social networking space.

At the time, I assumed this meant Twitter and Facebook, but Google was clearly also interested in that company’s product. After all, Katango makes grouping your friends automatic – a feature that would fit in perfectly with Google’s philosophy behind Google+.

The Katango team will join the Google+ team. The financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.

katango_acquired

Chances are, it won’t be too long before Google+ will offer some kind of automatic circle creation tool. In its current iteration, Katango, for example, discovers who you went to school with, who may be part of your soccer club or who your family members are and then creates groups for you. In my tests, this always worked extremely well.



10:10 pm


Google Launches Interactive Google+ Badges for Publishers in its Platform Preview Program

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Just a few days after the launch of its business and brand pages for Google+, Google today announced the availability of a set of dynamic badges. These new badges allow publishers and brands to allow their readers and users to subscribe to their new pages directly from their own websites without sending them to Google+ first. For now, this is a limited release, however. Only users who are part of the Google+ Platform Preview group can create these interactive badges for now.

Google, of course, is working on hard an making Google+ as ubiquitous as possible – even in the face of stories that already decry its impending death. Besides releasing these new badges today, for example, Google also announced that it is adding Google+ buttons to image search results.

Here is the badge for this site. Feel free to add us to your circles if you haven’t done so already:

So how do you get one of these fancy new badges for your Google+ page? First, you have to join the Google+ Platform Preview group. Then, head over to the  configuration tool for the new badges, choose the one that fits the size of your website and copy and paste the code into your site. There are two parts to this: one piece of code has to go into the of your site and another is the actual badge, which goes wherever you want it to appear on your pages.

Perk for Those Who Install the Badge: You Now Qualify for Direct Connect

One perk of having the badge installed is that this qualifies you for inclusion into Google’s Direct Connect program, which means potential visitors to your site can now search for +your_site_name on Google and immediately find your Google+ Page.



8:03 pm


Google+ Finally Launches Brand Pages – Now Open For All (Updated)

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Ever since the launch of Google+, businesses have been wondering when they could finally open up their own outposts on Google+. After a long delay, Google finally pulled back the curtains from its product for brands today. These new so-called Google+ Pages look pretty much exactly like regular Google+ profiles, but with a ‘page’ icon next to the page’s name, a +1 button and the ability to share a page with your friends. While Google isn’t ready to just let any brand onto the service yet, it is launching a number of pages with well-known brands like H&M, Toyota and Pepsi.

While you can’t create a brand page yourself yet, Google notes that it wants local businesses, brands, products, companies, arts and entertainment organizations and sports teams to set up their own pages on the service.

Update (1:15pm PT): Google just announced that the rollout is now complete and that anybody who wants to can now sign up for a Google+ Page. 

What Took Them So Long?

The Google+ Pages themselves aren’t really that exciting. Indeed, looking at them now really makes you wonder why it took Google so long to release this feature. The Google+ team regularly noted that it wanted to get this feature right and hence wasn’t ready to release it yet. I gather designing a ‘page’ icon and putting a +1 on a page doesn’t quite account for the long delay.

The only major difference between regular profile pages and Google+ pages is that they feature a cumulative +1 count that adds up all the +1s on a given site.

Direct Connect: More Interesting than the Pages it Powers

More interesting than the pages themselves, then, is the second new feature Google announced today: Direct Connect from Google search. The idea here is that you can now search for [+], followed by a page and Google will immediately take you to that brand’s page. This doesn’t work when searching for regular people, but it does work for Angry Birds.

According to Google, a page’s eligibility for being included in the Direct Connect program “is determined algorithmically, based on certain signals we use to help understand your page’s relevancy and popularity.” Publishers should also ensure that their content is linked to their Google+ pages.

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6:29 pm


War of the Halloween Videos: Google Goes for Cute, Microsoft Bets on Horror

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I guess there are three ways to approach Halloween: you can go for cute, scary or sexy. Every year, both Google and Microsoft like to produce something Halloween-themed and this year is no exception. As in so many other areas of their competing businesses, the difference between their attempts to bring some Halloween fun to the Internet couldn’t be more different: Google produced a family-friendly video-doodle of its employees carving pumpkins and Microsoft went all out to produce a short horror video featuring a deranged Killer and the popular Kinect controller.

Google’s Pumpkins

Here is Google’s pumpkin video:

(Bonus: here is the behind-the-scenes story of how the video was created)

The Kinect of Horror

When you think of Microsoft, horror and video, chances are you are thinking about the infamous Songsmith video, but its Channel 9 team actually made good use of the company’s in-house video-production facilities and put together a respectable little horror video(YouTube version via WinRumors):

Bonus: One More Microsoft Video to Give You Nightmares

If that didn’t scare you, here’s the old Microsoft Songsmith video (which is almost guaranteed to give you nightmares tonight):



6:41 pm


Google Tweaks Its Daily Deals Service With New Partners and Personalization

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Microsoft’s Bing has been aggregating daily deals from Groupon, LivingSocial and the plethora of their high- and low-end niche clones for months now. It looks as if Google, which runs its own Google Offers service, too, is moving more towards aggregation now, too. Starting in San Francisco, Google Offers now aggregates deals from Dealfind, DoodleDeals, Gilt City, GolfNow, HomeRun, Juice in the City, kgbdeals, Mamapedia,Plum District, PopSugar Shop, ReachDeals, Active.com Schwaggle, TIPPR and zozi. This, according to Google, will allow its users to easily purchase deals from all of these services with just one account (using Google Checkout, of course). Google plans to roll this service out to more cities “in the months to come.”

An End to Irrelevant Deals

In addition, Google is also adding some personalization features to Offers. After taking a short quiz (asking you if you want to get offers related to pets, for example), you will never have to see another offer for a portrait session or glass blowing class from Google Offers again. Google Offers is currently available in 17 cities.

Indeed, the fact that most of the offers I’ve been receiving lately have been completely irrelevant to me (really? another massage with aromatherapy?) has made me unsubscribe from quite a few deals services lately. Adding personalization – especially now that Google is working with more partners – simply makes sense and may just make daily deals a bit more relevant to many users as well.

Are Daily Deals Slowly Fizzling Out?

Overall, it feels as if the daily deals market is slowly contracting as the novelty wears off and users start to get tired of the daily barrage of emails with offers for cheap yoga sessions, weight-loss packages, mattresses and pizza (that’s the last five days of LivingSocial deals in my area right there). Maybe by targeting offers a bit better than others, Google can reverse this trend for a while, but I doubt we will ever see a return of the Groupon mania of early 2011.



4:59 pm


Major Gmail Update Coming Soon: New Look With Better Search and Updated Conversation View

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A few months ago, Google launched a preview of a new look for Gmail that is more in line with the general redesign of all of Google’s products. Today, a Google employee mistakenly made a video demo of the other changes that are coming to Gmail available on YouTube (sounds like a familiar story?).  That video has been set to private again now, but you can find a copy here and at the end of this post. Chances are, Google will make this update official very soon.

So what’s coming for Gmail? Besides making the current preview theme the default, Google will also roll out updates to its other themes. According to Google, the idea behind the new look is to “make it as clean, simple and intuitive” as possible.

new_gmail_1

The conversation view now also looks a bit more like the “preview pane” Gmail labs experiment the company introduced earlier this year. Among other things, the conversations view now features profile picture to, as Google says, to make your message threads more “like a conversation.”

Other updates include a redesigned advanced search menu. Instead of having to type in relatively arcane commands like “subject: Google,” the new search box gives you separate fields for searching for specific subjects and for emails from specific contacts  and with certain keywords. You can also now create new filters right from the search box.

The whole site has been redesigned to fit better on any size of screen, too. The new default theme features a lot of white space that brings the information density of the default view down by quite a bit. For those who prefer to see more messages by default, Gmail will allow users to tweak these settings.

 



5:58 pm


Google Reader: It’s Still Alive and Getting a Facelift, But Will Lose its Social Features

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Google Reader, the company’s popular feed reader, long looked like the forgotten stepchild of Google+ and other more recent products at Google. As the company continued to update the look and feel of many of its products in the last few months, Reader looked like it would be left behind. Today, however, Google announced that Reader will soon get a facelift as well. At the same time, though, it looks as if Reader will also lose some features, as Google is moving all of its social efforts to Google+.

Among those features that will soon be retired are “friending, following and shared link blog inside of Reader.” According to Alan Green, a software engineer on the Google Reader team who wrote today’s announcement, Google thinks “he end result is better than what’s available today, and you can sign up for Google+ right now to start prepping Reader-specific circles.” Google Reader will, however, get support for Google+ sharing and Google notes that “many of Reader’s social features will soon be available via Google+.”

Alive, But on Life Support?

It’s worth noting that for a long time now, the development of Google Reader looked like it had come to a halt. There haven’t really been any major updates to Reader in more than a year and according to some of the people I have talked to at Google, most of the original team has been disbanded and was working on other products. Google+ itself offers a feed reader-like feature with Sparks, though this currently remains one of the least developed parts of the service.

It’s not clear if today’s announcement heralds the beginning of renewed development of Google Reader, or if the new design is simply meant to bring the product’s look up to date but won’t extend beyond that.



5:20 pm


HTTPS: Google Wants to Make Search Safer

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Google just announced that it will soon redirect all of its users who are signed in to their Google Accounts to https://www.google.com. Over the last few months and years, Google has slowly moved towards making more of its services, including Gmail, available through the secure and encrypted SSL protocol. In mid-2010, Google also made https://encrypted.google.com available for users who wanted to ensure that their search sessions would stay private while they were on public WiFi networks, for example.

Now, Google is moving toward making the secure version of its search site the default for all of those users who are signed in to their Google Accounts. This change will, according to Google, go into effect “over the next few weeks.”

Even if you are not signed in, though, you can now go to https://www.google.com and start searching from there as well. Another useful tool in this context is HTTPS Everywhere for Firefox, which forces the use of a secure SLL connection whenever possible.

Good for Consumers, Potential Issue for Online Publishers

While this is a great move for consumers and should definitely be applauded, many online publishers won’t be too happy with this news. By using SLL, they will lose the ability to see which keywords their visitors used to find their pages. As Google notes, webmasters will now have to go to the Google Webmaster tools to get this aggregate data, but analytics tools like Google Analytics won’t be able show this information anymore.



6:28 pm


Google Docs Presentations Get Real-Time Collaboration, Transitions and Animations

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Just about a year and a half ago, most of Google’s productivity apps in the Google Docs suite received major overhauls that brought real-time collaboration and a number of other new features to Google’s online document, spreadsheet and drawing tools. One tools that was left out of that refresh at the time was Google’s online PowerPoint rival Google Docs presentations. Today, Google is changing this by bringing real-time collaboration, animations, rich tables and about 50 more new features to the presentations application.

While the apps feature set obviously can’t quite compete with Microsoft’s PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, making easy collaboration the focal point of the product gives it a competitive edge. As Google notes, “the best presentations are made together, collaborating with others to build a compelling story that captivates your audience.” Now, with Google Wave-like character-by-character real-time collaboration, that should get a bit easier for Google Docs users.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft, with its Office Web Apps is also now making online collaboration a focal point of its web initiatives and that the online PowerPoint app does offer a number of features (and great document fidelity) than Google.

image

Here are some of the other new features that Google highlights: [list]

  • Transitions: to move between slides with simple fades or spicier 3D effects
  • Animations: to add emphasis or to make your slides more playful
  • New themes: to create beautiful presentations with distinct visual styles
  • Drawings: to build new designs, layouts, and flowcharts within a presentation
  • Rich tables with merged cells and more options for adding style to your data

[/list]

Getting Started

Google notes that these new features were designed for modern browsers. Anything newer than Firefox 4, Safari 4 and Internet Explorer, as well as Google’s own Chrome browser should work fine, though.

To get started, head to the “Document settings” from your document list and check the box next to “Create new presentations using the latest version of the presentation editor.”

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3:52 pm


Ford to Demonstrate Google-Powered Smart Electrification Technology Later this Week

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Earlier this year, at Google I/O, Ford and Google announced a new project that would use Google’s cloud-based tools to make vehicles smarter. Later this week, at the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, Ford will give its first public demonstrations of the fruits of this work. The idea behind this work is to use Google’s Prediction API to “predict driver behavior in order to optimize vehicle control systems and improve vehicle performance attributes such as fuel or hybrid-electric efficiency.”

In Ford’s vision, this technology will help drivers to save gas, find the best times to drive a specific route and maybe even set your cars performance settings to optimize your vehicle for the route you are about to drive. Using historical data – where and when a driver has traveled and at what speeds, for example – and real-time information about current traffic flows, this system will be able to turn these predictions into actionable recommendations for drivers.

Until now, most of the cloud-based technology that has made it into cars was about navigation, real-time traffic and infotainment. Now, says Ryan McGee, technical expert, Vehicle Controls Architecture and Algorithm Design, Ford Research and Innovation, “this technology has the potential to empower our vehicles to anticipate a driver’s needs for various reasons, such as optimizing a vehicle’s powertrain efficiency.”

In the demonstration that Ford has planned for this week, the company will show how “a prototype Escape Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) could use a combination of cloud-based and proprietary technology to learn when to switch from being gasoline-powered to all-electric upon entering a lower emissions zone. Cities such as London, Berlin and Stockholm already have such zones.” Thanks to being able to predict when exactly you will enter such a zone, the car, says McGee, “could optimize itself to comply with regulations and at the same time optimize energy usage over the total distance of the route by switching the engine to all-electric mode at specific times.”



6:30 pm


Google Brings the Dead Sea Scrolls Online

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Between 1947 and 1956, after a chance discovery by a Bedouin shepherd, archaeologist found hundreds of ancient texts written between the third and first century BC in caves near an old settlement not too far away from the Dead Sea. These so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” feature, among other texts, some of the oldest surviving copies of numerous biblical texts. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, they are preserved in a highly secure building in Jerusalem where only a few of the scrolls are ever exhibited at the same time. Now, however, Google, in cooperation with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is putting some of the rolls online.

This new project is similar to Google’s work in getting the Yad Vashem Holocaust photo collection and collections at the Prado Museum in Madrid online. One interesting twist here is that Google is also making these texts searchable. If you search for phrases in the scrolls (Google’s example is: Dead Sea Scrolls “In the day of thy planting thou didst make it to grow”), a link to the scrolls may appear in your search results.

Google_dead_see_scrolls

The scrolls were scanned with a resolution of up to  1,200 megapixels by Ardon Bar-Hama, who also worked on digitizing documents from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the New York Public Library and is currently working with Google on digitizing the journals and archival documents of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.



5:18 pm


Going Local: Google Crowdsources More of its Map Making Process

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Google just announced that it plans to crowdsource a large part of the review process that currently brings user-generated map edits to Google Maps and related products. Thanks to Google Map Maker and the ability to suggest edits and notify Google of mistakes in Google Maps, the number of potential edits was apparently threatening to overwhelm Google’s internal reviewers. Instead of expanding its internal team, though, Google has decided to give “distinguished mappers” from around the world the ability to review and approve edits in their respective regions.

These Regional Expert Reviewers, Google says, are users who have made “an impressive number of high quality contributions to Google’s base map” and are active on Google’s Map Your World discussion forums.

By bringing on local experts (who, as far as I can see, are not being paid), Google can rely on these users’ expertise to enhance its maps more accurately and quickly. Chances are, after all, that a local user will be more likely to recognize a necessary edit than somebody sitting in Mountain View with little to no knowledge of the local geography of a remote country.

 



6:43 pm


Dart: Google’s New Programming Language is Coming Next Month

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Next month, at the Goto software development conference in Aarhus Denmark, Google is scheduled to reveal Dart, its new programming language for “structured web programming.” Just a few days ago, Google registered a number of Dart-related domain names, so it was already clear that the company had something in the works for this. The announcement of a Dart-focused keynote at Goto marks the first public announcement of this new language.

“Structured Web Programming”

Obviously, we don’t know a lot about Dart yet. Given that Google already launched another language – Go – that is very C-like, we can safely assume that Dart will be something different. We can get some clues from the biographies of the keynote presenters: the two people who are giving the keynote are Gilad Bracha, who worked on Smalltalk in the middle of the 1990s and then on the specs and implementation of Java at Sun, and Lars Bak, who works on Google’s V8 JavaScript engine today, but also worked on Smalltalk and Java.

As ExtremeTech’s Sebastian Anthony rightly notes, given the two presenters’ background and the idea that this will be a language for “structured web programming,” chances are that the two will present a “Smalltalkesque” in-browser language similar to JavaScript or Python.

So far, Google’s attempt at launching new programming languages hasn’t been met with a huge success. Go, while stirring some interesting among some programmers, has remained a niche product and Dart – if it is indeed the kind of language I expect it to be – will go up against incumbents that are supported by massive ecosystems already. The same, however, could have been said about those languages when they first appeared, so it will definitely be worth keeping an eye on this next month.

Image credit: Jake Sutton

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7:10 pm


Google+ Now Lets You “Ignore” People You Don’t Like

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When it comes to dealing with annoying people on social networks, the options are usually pretty limited. You either deal with them or use a blunt “block” feature that virtually every social network today  offers. Google+, however, just added a bit of nuance to its block function. Instead of just having to cut off people completely and ensure that they will never see any of your posts, you can now also choose to just “ignore” people. While Google+’s “block” feature makes you practically invisible to those folks, the new “ignore” feature is slightly less dramatic and takes a different approach. It basically just ensures that you don’t have to deal with these people, won’t see their posts and won’t get notified about their activities on the service, but still lets them see your content and interact with it.

Here is how Google explains the difference:

The Ignore option is available from multiple places on Google+. And importantly: we don’t notify people that you’ve ignored them. Let me show you how it works: [list]

  • you won’t see any of their posts in the Incoming stream
  • you won’t get notifications about their activities
  • you won’t see them on your Circles page[/list]

Overall, this looks like a good idea that brings a useful real-life metaphor to social networks. We don’t, after all, always just completely block out all the people we don’t really want to deal with – we just ignore them.



4:40 pm