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Some of Google's more ambitious projects richly deserve their "beta" tags or Labs status. Today's example: the long-rumored and highly anticipated Google Squared feature in Google Labs, which looks like Big G's answer to the Wolfram|Alpha upstart.
I think this one should have stayed behind locked doors a while longer.
Squared takes your simple search query, and presents a list of results with some facts in a spreadsheet-like format. Google's servers do all the hard work of trying to find useful categories of data to present, then pull that information from various sources across the Web.
This sounds like a great idea in theory, but doesn't work all that well today. A search for "Dow Jones constituents," for example, returns some useful data by default, including operating income, total equity, and industry classifications. It's dead easy to add more information like number of employees or company founder, and it's all presented in an easy-to-read table, where you can add or remove columns and rows as you wish.
But two large problems make Google Squared less than useful in its present state. The Dow search should give me at least 30 rows of results -- more, if you include former index members. I get Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) , American Express (NYSE: AXP ) , and General Motors -- and that's it. Furthermore, Google can't tell me Caterpillar's operating income, despite including that data point as a default column. Even Google's own example searches include obvious mistakes, like including the movie Ghost Rider in a list of roller coasters.
In other words, this puppy should have stayed in training, behind closed doors, until it was ready for the "big dog" show of harsh critics and high user expectations. The release may have been rushed by Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) high-profile Bing launch, more than by the polished but less ambitious Wolfram|Alpha project. Either way, it's less impressive than any of its presumptive rivals.
If and when Google figures out the correct algorithms for this kind of web-trawling information search, Squared could become a real force. Microsoft, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , and IAC/InterActive's (Nasdaq: IACI ) Ask.com should shudder at the thought. But until them, I'm doing my data collection through traditional search, thank you very much. This product lives in the development labs for very good reason.