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Web Watch by Leslie Walker
Google Improves Searches In a Number of Ways


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By Leslie Walker
Sunday, January 18, 2004; Page F07

Google added five features last week that boost its numerical smarts, providing specific results in response to particular numeric searches.

Enter an airline flight number -- for example, "united 80," -- and the popular search engine will provide links to reports on that flight's status at and, including maps showing its progress.

Type an area code into the search box, and you'll be pointed to a map of the general region that area code covers. A U.S. Postal Service package tracking number yields a link to a delivery-status page at the Postal Service's Web site. A vehicle identification number will call up a page describing the car's year, make and model type.

Or you can type in a universal product code number -- minus the dashes, but including any tiny numbers appearing to the far left or right under the bar code -- and Google will look up the product's full name, then generate a list of Web sites selling the item or providing other information about it. This can spare shoppers from trying to guess which search keywords would bring up the same information.

(See for details on these features.)

The idea here, as with Google's other search shortcuts, is to spare users the trouble of going to other, more specialized Web sites to get this kind of detail. But they also serve to drum up more advertising business for Google, which makes its money showing ads related to queries.

Hollywood's Idea of Ownership

Internet movie rental service CinemaNow touted the "download to own" feature it rolled out last week as the first online service that allows people to keep a "permanent copy" of a movie bought online.

But a couple of important details should be noted. Only 23 movie titles are available this way (because, a site spokeswoman explained, Hollywood's movie studios are still skittish about electronic piracy and want to test the idea first). More important, while each of these $14.99 titles can be burned to DVDs, those discs use a copy-protected Windows Media 9 format that will play back only on the computer on which the movie was first downloaded.

Given those two complicating factors, you might do better to buy "The Endless Summer" -- an old surf documentary CinemaNow mentioned in its press release -- at, where the DVD retails for just $11.24.

Custom News to Go

An electronic news subscription service debuts tomorrow from NewsGator Technologies that delivers updated information on selected topics to subscribers' cell phones, handheld organizers, e-mail programs and Web browsers. The service costs $5.95 a month and requires purchase of the $29 NewsGator news reader software.

It will also synchronize subscribers' news feed accounts on various computers, so they can get the same set of feeds at home, work or on mobile devices.

Users can also buy the software but not the service, which will provide customized news feeds inside Microsoft's Outlook software.

Both the basic and subscription services rely on an increasingly popular Web-subscription format called RSS (short for "really simple syndication").

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