Google Inc. released a free tool today that lets people simultaneously search the Web and their personal computers for information, a move analysts described as a potential blow to rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. in the race to woo searchers and dominate the hottest area of online advertising.
Google's new "desktop search" software offers what Microsoft has been trying to develop for more than a year -- the ability to let people enter one search term and see files relevant to that topic from both their computers and the Web displayed together.
"This gives Google a huge first-mover advantage in desktop search," said Charlene Li, principal search analyst for Forrester Research, a market research firm. She predicted the tool would be especially popular with heavy computer users, who store many files on their machines and need help sifting through them.
"It's ironic that until now, it's been easier to search six billion documents on the Internet than it has been to find a single file on your hard drive," Li said.
Google's new software, available as a free download at http://desktop.google.com, not only indexes the full text of e-mail messages and word processing documents, but also gives people the option of creating a searchable archive of all Web pages they visit and all instant messages they send and receive with AOL software.
"The goal for the application was for it to behave like a photographic memory for your computer," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. "So in addition to being able to search all of the files on your computer, it also indexes the Web pages you have seen."
Mayer said Google's research shows that computer users want to find information swiftly, but they typically do not remember where they saw it, leading the company to develop a product that searches the Internet, e-mails, Instant Messages, and desktop files stored on a personal computer simultaneously.
The new Google product is the company's first major innovation since its initial public offering in August, when it sold shares to investors for $85-a-share. Yesterday, Google stock closed at $140.90, up $3.50.
Analysts who tested the software say it is simple and fast, partly because it operates the same way Google does on the World Wide Web, by creating an index of the files it finds in advance and then searching that index when someone enters a query. That makes it speedier than the approach used by the search tool built into Microsoft's Windows operating system, which does no indexing and must inspect the original files each time it gets a query.
Google's new product is "very, very good," said Danny Sullivan, editor of searchenginewatch.com, an online newsletter that tracks the search engine industry. Sullivan said he has been testing Google's search tool and found one of its most useful features to be the way that it stored a copy of all the pages he visited online and then made that personal Web surfing history available to him.