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Google Web Elements: Essential as Fire, Water, Earth, Air

"Build it and they will come?" Try "Embed it and they will stay."

Compared to its Wave and Android 2.0 initiatives, Google’s Web Elements seems a little lackluster. (To learn more about all of Google’s recently announced initiatives, read Linux Magazine reporter Matt Scarpino’s firsthand account of the Google I/O Conference.) At first blush, each of the eight Web Elements in the first public release, available now, appears to be nothing more than a Web widget. One Element embeds a site-specific search on any Web page; another plays YouTube videos; and the balance of the software displays a map, customized news, a comments thread, a spreadsheet, a presentation, and a calendar. Each of the latter three widgets are based on Google Docs, so any data you have in a document can be displayed, albeit not revised, via any Web page. Ho hum, right?

Hardly.

While every YouTube video is its own widget and many sites, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, offer gizmos to push news, Google’s Web Elements go further because each tiny portal connects to a rich and robust service via an API, not just a data feed. With Google Web Elements, anyone can now harness many of Google’s prowesses without a lick of code.

For example, the Search Element can produce results for a specific site, or can produce results using an existing custom search engine defined in this eponymous Google service. To demonstrate, type “Darth Vader” into the search box below.

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This Search Element is connected to a custom search engine configured to scan my favorite toy shops around the world. The entire process to create the search engine and connect and embed the element in this page took all of five minutes.

To be sure, some of the features of the Elements aren’t new. Google has long offered code to embed a Google-powered search bar in Web pages. However, what is novel is that all the Google Web Elements work seamlessly amid a surrounding page, all the elements are similarly configured, and all of the elements are a snap to use. You need not be a designer or developer to click-click-click and cut-and-paste a powerful addition to a Web page.

A Sample of the Elements

The best way to find uses for the Google Web Elements is to create some documents and create elements via the online tools. Each tool typically has the same controls: pick the source of the data; pick a size or set other parameters to customize the style; preview the final result; and cut-and-paste the generated code.

Here’s another element, the Presentation Element, designed to display a Google Doc presentation. Click to advance to Slide 2—it shows a screenshot of the Presentation Element editing interface.

Assuming you have published a presentation via Google Docs, enter the URL of the presentation in the first line, press Return, choose a size, preview your masterpiece, and you’re done. Copy the code that appears and paste it into a page.

The Map, Calendar, and Spreadsheet Element are similar. Each has some unique setting to customize appearance. For instance, you must specify an address and in the Map Element and a cell range in the Spreadsheet Element. Here’s a map pointing to my favorite local dessert destination and a (shortened) spreadhseet of the flavors I have tried and have yet to try.



(I’ve omitted the spreadsheet that tracks how much I spend on popsicles.)

One of the most interesting Elements is Conversation. It allows you to drop a simple forum anywhere in a page. Return to the presentation above and advance to the last slide. It pictures the interface to create a Conversation. Again, it’s just a few clicks: choose a size, assign a topic, and pick a scope—either local (to the site) or global (to the Internet). Enter a comment below to try the element live.


Fun, Fast, and Useful

Google has a panoply of services that would make for clever, additional Elements. Imagine a product browser to search Google Base, or a reader to display and search books that have been electronically scanned into the vast Google archives. An Element encapsulates a complex service, and frachises the service to any page on the Web.

I suspect we will see more Elements from Google and many facsimiles from Google’s competitors and other sites that provide programmatic interfaces to services.

Perhaps the adage “Build it and they will come” should now say “Embed it and they will stay.”

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