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Friday, 05 June 2009 04:08

A close encounter with Google Squared

Google Squared is supposed to collect and organise facts that can be found on the Web. But does it deliver on this promise?

There's clearly some commonality between Google Squared and Wolfram Alpha, in that they're both intended to deliver a set of information assembled from multiple web sources.

With Alpha, you get what you get (though you can apply mathematical operators to the results); Google Squared presents the results in spreadsheet form and lets you add or remove rows and columns.

But as Alex Komoroske, associate product manager for Google Squared admits, the technology behind squared "is by no means perfect."

As an example, I tried building a Square to display some basic facts about Australian capital cities. Squared realised that I was talking about places in Australia for most of them, but even though Darwin was the last on my list (which you might expect to provide some sort of context), the information I got related to naturalist Charles Darwin, not the Northern Territory city.

The texts selected for the automatically-generated Description column mostly came from Wikipedia, and were not always very useful. Adelaide and Brisbane fared quite well (eg "Brisbane (pronounced /ˈbrɪzbÉn/) is the state capital of the Australian state of Queensland and is the largest city in that state").

The texts for Melbourne, Perth and Sydney were little more than disambiguations, eg "This article is about the metropolitan area in Australia. For the local government area, see City of Sydney. For other uses, see Sydney (disambiguation)."

Given the high ranking that Google gives to Wikipedia, it isn't surprising that data from it often appears in Squares. The exceptions can be very surprising, though.

Hobart's description presented a copyright notice from a company in the food service industry, while Canberra's comprised press release headlines from a company of that name in the nuclear measurement industry.

What about the numbers? Please read on.

The population figures looked about right, though strangely Google Squared was unable to find a value for Perth. That's odd, because it can be found in the Wikipedia paragraph following the one used in the Description cell.

But things fell apart in the Area column. That's understandable, as different sources will deliver numbers for cities with and without their surrounding metropolitan areas.

But Perth's area was said to be "Perth and Kinross" (every other entry in this column was numeric) and the value for Hobart applied to Hobart Township, USA.

Melbourne sounded a little small at 1.9 sq km, but that turned out to be the area of East Melbourne. And 75 sq km is the area of the electoral division of Adelaide, not the city or its metro area.

The good thing about Google Squared is that it reveals the sources of the data it presents and - at least with numeric values - usually provides some alternatives. But in my trial, there seemed to be little intelligence in the selection of that data. Even though the Description column had correctly homed in on Perth, Western Australia, the four choices for Area were limited to Perth, Scotland, and Perth Amboy, USA.

Even though offers to search for more values, clicking on that link merely performs a Google search in a new window, with no apparent way of incorporating the selected data into the Square.

If you have (or are prepared to open) a Google account you can save your Squares for later use.

Anyway, Google Squared clearly has a lot of potential, but for now you can easily see why it comes under the Google Labs banner rather than being described a beta.

At this stage Google Squared is worth a look, but you wouldn't want to rely on it. With a bit more development, it could prove very useful as a way of quickly assembling tabular data - especially if the result could be moved into a Google Docs spreadsheet for further manipulation.



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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.


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