Squaring Up With Google

It’s amazing to see all the search engine development that’s been taking place in the last couple of months. It’s like 1999 all over again, in a good way. Google Labs is humming with all kinds of neat stuff. When Google Squared came out earlier this month, I was pretty excited, but I think right now I’m at “It’s … okay.” A little disappointing.

Google Squared is available at Here’s basically how it works. You search for something that will return a lot of things, like planets or cartoons. Google then returns a search result page that looks like a square (surprise!) and which contains items that hopefully fit what you were searching for. Each item has several columns of data, and you have the option to add more.

So I did a search for candy bars. I got a page of results and most of them were candy — not candy bars, but okay. Except for one of them which was for “Ion”, and while the description in the square contained information about a chocolate bar, the picture for the column was of a battery. (And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a chocolate battery.)

Annoyed, I did another search, for monty python, and realized two seconds later that was WAY too general. I did another search for Monty Python cast and this time I actually got a pretty good square, with a list of people affiliated with Monty Python. The first page of information was great, while the second one was starting to go a bit far afield. After a couple of minutes I realized that Eric Idle was missing. Eric Idle! How could you list Neil Innes and not list Eric Idle?!

Feeling topical (and wanting to throw Google Squared a softball) I searched for the Jackson Five. Google Squared actually returned me a front page with six Jacksons (Randy Jackson) and Diana Ross. The first result for this square was Michael Jackson, and it would be easy for someone to view the picture that’s been included as the representation of his person and find it offensive.

Anyway, let’s go back and do another search. If you do a search for candy you’ll get an idea of the kind of thing Google Squared can do. Here’s a screen shot:

Looking at a search result.

Looking at a search result.

As you look at it you’ll see that each result is in a row, and each row has several columns of data. My candy searches seemed to default to price data. You can remove any column and add more columns if you like. As you can see in the next screenshot Google will make suggestions for the columns. As you also see some of these suggestions don’t make any sense.

Google Squared Suggestions

Google Squared Suggestions

Google does say that if you don’t like the squares that Google is offering you can start with an empty square. I was still thinking about candy bars, so I started with an empty square and entered Baby Ruth and Almond Joy and Chick O Stick. My idea was that I could enter the kinds of things I was looking for, and then Google Squared could complete the list for me with similar items.

What was I REALLY thinking of? That’s right, Google Sets, which may be my favorite Google Labs product that never graduated. That’s what I wanted. And Google Squared doesn’t do that. It’ll make suggestions once you’ve started your square, but it won’t allow you to enter a few suggestions and then automatically build a square for you…

.. at least, not in a way that’s easy to find. Google Squared actually has the Google Sets functionality built in, but the way I found it was to mess up. If you enter a query that Google can’t easily square (I liked wombat inarticulate milkcan), Google will give you an error and prompt you to enter a few items upon which it can build a square:

Getting Google Sets in Google Squared

That way I was able to enter a few candy bar names and get an actual square that I liked.

One thing I noticed is that I was never able to get full nutritional information for any of these candy bars. It was always ordering information.

So on a whim I went to Wolfram Alpha and entered in a bunch of candy bar names, separated by commas. WA gave me nutritional information for all the candy bars on one screen, even asking me to clarify which version of Twix I meant!

Not placed in a square, and not as slick as Google, but oh-so-handy.

Wolfram Alpha Does Candy Bars

Google Squared is a neat idea. But the squares it comes up with are odd. Sometimes they miss critical bits, and sometimes they just don’t make sense. It would be intensely useful to have some kind of way — a keyword search? a switch? — that allows you to specify what kind of columns you want to see, instead of wading through suggestions. A bit more functionality, and it could be super cool.

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