Review: Google Apps Hacks

Last week at the Web 2.0 Expo I decided to walk the exhibition floor. Niall Kennedy and I checked out the inflatable Google booth, we gave feedback to the WordPress folks, and we came to rest in the Yahoo booth, where it was nice to see Jeremy Zawodny and catch up a little bit.

After a few minutes of talking, I noticed the O’Reilly booth just a few yards away. I’m a sucker for O’Reilly books, so I moseyed over to check out the selection. Lo and behold, they had the new Google Apps Hacks book by Philipp Lenssen of Google Blogoscoped! I had pre-ordered the book on Amazon a while ago and it still hadn’t arrived at that point. I’d like to think that the O’Reilly folks carried the books straight from the printing presses right to the booth. If so, I was one of the first people in the U.S. to buy a copy last Thursday. :)

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve had a while to read the book. My verdict? It’s really good. Part of my job is to know obscure things about Google, yet several of the hacks in this book discussed tricks that I didn’t know. Google Docs lets you do find-and-replace and use regular expressions?! Yup, and hack 13 gives several handy expressions to use. Very few people know (hack 26) that Google Spreadsheets can magically take cell values such as “red,” “yellow” and “blue” and fill in more colors. Even fewer people know that this “MagicFill” feature is powered by Google Sets. The net effect is that you can start with two words like “seo” and “sem” and get this back:

MagicFill

Search engine optimizers will love hack 27, which tells how to import data from a web page into Google Spreadsheets automatically. The list of tricks goes on and on, from creating new scratch Gmail addresses in two different ways (hack 53) to configuring things so that a right-click with your mouse lets you access either the browser menu or the context menu from an application like Google Docs (hack 125).

What’s especially good about this book?
- A lot of these tips are very fresh, e.g. discussing how to get a Google Site, which just launched a couple months or so ago.
- Search engine optimizers and bloggers will enjoy chapter 12, which includes tips on SEO, using Google Analytics, and how to follow discussions online.
- Most chapters end with a discussion of alternatives to Google products. These hacks serve the reader well by intelligently discussing the pros and cons of other products (e.g. Flickr or Mint).

What’s bad?
- The usage of margins is a little strange. Most pages have a wide blank margin. On some pages, tips and extra tricks appear in the margin. But some pages also have figures in the margin. I’m not sure why figures sometimes appear in the margin and sometimes don’t.
- You always wish for more coverage of your favorite things. The Google Chart API gets half a tip when it really is quite worthy of a tip or two in its own right. But the book has to stop at some point.

One interesting tidbit is that the working title of this book was Google Office Hacks. It rang up with that title on my O’Reilly receipt and that’s the title I see when I enter the ISBN number into Google Books:

ISBN shows a different title

But I think the name “Google Apps Hacks” is not only more accurate but more fun, so I’m glad they changed the title. Another interesting tidbit is that Philipp Lenssen wrote this book using Google Docs.

Should you buy this book? If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’d probably like it. This book would be an especially good match for:
- people that want to run a small business or startup more productively for less money
- hackers and people that like to tinker with web services
- people that enjoyed the original Google Hacks book
- power users or webmasters that want to learn about Google’s products and how to get more out of them

If you’re looking to get a gift for a non-savvy to less savvy user, I’d recommend Rule the Web. But if you’re looking for a gift for a savvy user, anyone with an interest in Google, or someone that uses Gmail/Google Calendar/Google Docs/Google Spreadsheets, then I’d definitely recommend this book.

One of my pet peeves is when a “Hacks” book turns out to be more like a user manual. That’s not an issue with this book — it really does show you lots of cool ways to hack, mod, tune, and tweak Google Apps. Google Apps Hacks is packed full of ideas that can keep you busy for quite a while. I expect this book to be a hot seller at the O’Reilly store during Maker Faire this weekend.

New WordPress version 2.5.1 includes security fix

Read about WordPress 2.5.1 and download the new version here. It includes a security fix, so you’re going to want to upgrade. It’s well-known that older versions of WordPress get attacked by malicious bad guys, so I absolutely recommend upgrading as soon as you can to be safe.

By the way, if you subscribed to the WordPress development blog like I suggested, you’d already know about this security update. :)

Google Hacks: Pacman graph with Google Charts

This link was cool, but it generates a graph like this:

Pacman graph with cyan in the wrong direction

With a little modification, I made this graph:

Pacman graph pointing the right way with light gray and yellow

I like my picture a little better. It was quite simple to make this diagram, and Google provides a free graph-drawing tool that you can use on your own site with a single url — no account or login is needed! Let’s break down how I made this image:

http://chart.apis.google.com/chart? Loads an image from Google Chart

cht=p Chart type is a pie chart

&chtt=Percentage%20of%20Google%20Chart%20Which%20Resembles%20Pac-man Chart title

&chs=550×250 Chart size

&chd=t:10,80,10 Chart data. This is the only tricky bit. The pie chart starts from the “x-axis” of the pie. The “t:” means that the data is in text format with numbers between 0.0 and 100.0. Going clockwise, the pie chart is 10 units of non-Pacman, then 80 units of Pacman, then another 10 units of non-Pacman. The Google Graph API guide adds “Note: For text encoding, scale your data by converting it into percentages of the largest value in your data set.”

You don’t have to scale your max value to 100, but let’s do it for fun. My maximum value is 80, so to scale 80 to 100 I’d multiply my numbers by 1.25. I tried a value of “12.5,100,12.5″ and it generated an identical Pacman graph. You can even make a funky graph using 12.5 for gray, then use eight yellow slices of 12.5 units each (which add up to 100), and then finish off with a final 12.5 of gray:

Pacman graph pointing the right way with light gray and yellow

I like using the values 10,80,10 more. If your numbers add up to 100 then the data points are just the percentage of the pie chart: 10%, then 80%, then 10%. So 20% of the graph is gray and 80% is yellow. That’s easier for me to remember. Okay, I geeked out a bit there, sorry. Back to the graph. :)

&chco=FAFAFA,FFFF00,FAFAFA Chart colors. The non-Pacman bits are the color #FAFAFA, while the Pacman color is #FFFF00.

&chl=Does%20not%20resemble%20Pac-man|Resembles%20Pac-man Chart labels

I really like this graph-drawing service because anyone on the web can use it for free without even registering. For example, I used a Google-o-meter graph in a recent post:

Google-o-meter

I almost wanted to call this post “Stupid Google Tricks.” :) What fun diagrams can you imagine making with the Google Chart service?

Trip report: Domain Roundtable Conference

This weekend I did a Q&A session at the Domain Roundtable Conference. It was an hour and a half of answering various questions. Rand Fishkin and John Andrews both did write-ups of the session. Rand and John were both on an SEO panel after me, which I enjoyed.

This was my first domain-related conference, and the vibe was interesting. It was smaller than a typical search conference, but many people seemed to know each other. I enjoyed seeing a few people in the audience that I’ve read about. People weren’t incredibly eager to volunteer specific sites to discuss, but I can understand that. Overall I definitely enjoyed the conference and talking to a different type of audience.

I kept a mental list of the places that I mentioned, and I remember talking about these Google resources:

  • Google’s webmaster blog. Someone asked about moving a site to a different domain and we had just done a post about how to move your domain.
  • Google Ad Manager lets you sell and manage ads on your site. You can also choose to use AdSense for the ads that you haven’t sold.
  • Google’s webmaster portal. Someone bought a domain that they thought might have been bad in a former life. I told them that they should file a reconsideration request using the form in the webmaster console.
  • Google’s DMCA Policies. In case you want to report copyright infringement to Google. The person already knew how to do a DMCA complaint to the webhost that was serving up infringing content.
  • Google’s quality guidelines. Someone said that they had 800 links on a web page. I recommended that they keep it to under 100 or so, as we mention in the technical part of our guidelines.

One point that I wanted to make is that lots of people seem to buy domains for the joy of finding a “diamond in the rough” — a nice domain name at a good price. And plenty of people are into domaining as a way to make money. But only one person in the audience raised their hand when I asked how many folks really got into the domain business to build out and develop the content on domains. To me, that means there’s some opportunity there. For example, suppose you bought dullest.com for $1000 (full disclosure: I own dullest.com, but I paid about ten bucks for it.) If you’re not doing anything with it, you could make a deal with a blogger or web designer. The blogger could create content for the site, and if/when dullest.com was sold, the blogger would get a fraction of the profit from selling the domain. You probably wouldn’t do that with every domain in your portfolio of course, but if you had some good domains and they were just sitting around empty, it might not be a bad way to demonstrate the value of a domain. It’s Earth Day today, and both earthday.com and earthday.org are parked. If someone could develop one of those sites, that might be worth a cut of the sale. Who knows, maybe this is a stupid idea — or maybe someone is already doing it — but I liked the idea of giving an aspiring writer/designer/programmer/blogger some equity if they could improve the selling price of a domain.

Next up, I’m speaking at the Web 2.0 Expo this week. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I’ll be participating in a Speed Q&A: 5 tables, 5 experts, and the experts rotate to a new table every 10 minutes. The Web 2.0 Expo costs money, but I think you can get into the Speed Q&A part of the conference for free. If you decide to stop by, please bring questions that everyone would be interested in, not just “Can you critique my site for me?” :)

I’m also doing a short keynote (ten minutes) on Friday speaking about “What Google Knows About Spam.” I’m struggling with what exactly to say. On one hand, Google knows a lot about spam, as illustrated by this graph:

Google knows a lot about spam.

On the other hand, I don’t want to disclose things that would benefit people that try to spam. I’m sure I’ll come up with something by Friday. By the way, that danger dial-ish diagram above is a Google-o-meter graph. :)

Recording an IRC channel on Linux/Ubuntu

There are a ton of Interney Relay Chat (IRC) clients for Linux/Ubuntu, e.g. Gaim (now called Pidgin). One IRC client that makes recording an IRC conversation pretty easy is Irssi. Install Irssi on Ubuntu with a simple command:

sudo apt-get install irssi

Then run the program “irssi” from the command line.

Now suppose you want to record what’s going on in the #iphone channel, which runs on the IRC server irc.osx86.hu. Pick a nickname for yourself such as “notanewbie” and run the following commands:

irssi
/set nick notanewbie
/set autolog on
/connect irc.osx86.hu
/list
/join #iphone

Then just leave the terminal running or type “/quit” when you’re ready to exit. The IRC chat log will automatically be placed in ~/irclogs/osx86/#iphone.log . The chat log includes messages when people join/leave the channel, so you can use this command to peruse what people are actually saying:

cat #iphone.log | egrep -v ‘has quit|has left|has joined’ | less

That should get you recording an IRC channel. For example, if you wanted to record the Webmaster Radio channel from webmasterradio.fm, you’d type “/connect irc.webmasterradio.fm” in the “/connect” line above, and then use “/join #webmasterradio” to join that channel and record it. So the commands would be:

irssi
/set nick notanewbie
/set autolog on
/connect irc.webmasterradio.fm
/list
/join #webmasterradio

If you join multiple channels, you can switch between them with -#, where # is a number like 0-9

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