Google is offering a test version of an application designed to let users search for information stored on their desktop computers.
Google Desktop Search will let users search for information stored in their PC files, local e-mail inboxes, archived chat sessions and list of websites visited.
Considerable progress has been made in recent years in internet search, as sites from companies such as Google, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo improved their technology to index more content and deliver more relevant results.
But finding information in users' desktop PCs has been hampered by a lack of efficient tools to do this.
Although there are companies that already provide desktop search tools, Google now rises to the top of the pile by virtue of the volume of users it commands, Gartner analyst Allen Weiner said. "You have to put Google in the lead by sheer numbers. Its position in the marketplace puts it ahead by default because of the number of users it has."
Google Desktop Search can be downloaded for free. The application can search for information stored in users' Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail applications from Microsoft, in Microsoft Office files from applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, in the list of visited websites kept in Microsoft's Internet Explorer and across stored instant message chat sessions from America Online's AIM service.
Google Desktop Search is also integrated with the Google.com internet search engine, so that queries run through Google.com are also run simultaneously in a user's Google Desktop Search application. Results from Google Desktop Search are added to the Google.com results.
However, for the sake of privacy, the desktop results are not made available to Google.com without the user's permission, said Google. Users can also configure Google Desktop Search to search certain files and not others.
Google Desktop Search has been designed to refresh its index of local desktop files continuously so that it can search e-mail messages seconds after they are received and files seconds after they are created, Google said.
"Users don't really have an understanding any longer about what's on their hard drive and what's on the network," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer web products. They remember a piece of information but often they cannot recall whether they saw it in a Word document, a web page, an e-mail message or an AIM chat, she said.
"The theory is: if you've seen it on your screen, you should be able to search for it and find it again quickly."
In this way, Google Desktop will in fact index e-mail messages a user views from his web mail account, even when those messages aren't physically stored in the user's hard drive, Mayer said.
Google Desktop Search can find multimedia and PDF (Portable Document Format) files based on their file names, she said.
It doesn't currently search the metadata of multimedia files, such as images, MP3s and video clips, nor does it index the full text of PDF files. That support is expected to be added in the future, along with the ability to index instant messaging chats from services other than AIM, she said.
When a user only searches his desktop using the application, no sponsored search ads are served up, she said. However, when the user searches both his desktop and the internet, the results from both searches are combined and sponsored ads accompany the query results.
No information from the user's desktop is transmitted to Google; the ads are triggered only by the query term or terms.
Google Desktop Search is available now for Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above. It is available in English now, and there are plans to support other languages in the future.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service