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Google thinks I care about the Orioles

Google Desktop 2 is trying to get to know me, but it still brings me chocolate when I really want roses.

If Google Desktop 2 were a guy I was dating, I'd be enamored with his style and determination, but annoyed by his forgetfulness.

I've been cozying up to Google's latest desktop search software for five days now, and despite all the time we've spent together I feel it doesn't quite know me as well as it should.

We got off to a great start. It was fast to download and simple to use. Before I knew it my hard drive was indexed and the Sidebar news personalization feature was dutifully bringing me all sorts of RSS feeds, stocks, weather and other tidbits from the Web it thought I would like. But I've been disappointed by some of its moves since then.

For instance, it was easy to see my preference for any information about, well, Google. And it was clear I'm a sucker for Salon.com and Jon Stewart. But right now it's boring me with sports stories. I don't care why the Orioles' first baseman lost his job or who will be the starting quarterback for Oklahoma State on Saturday.

I asked around and discovered I'm not alone.

"There's a lot of miscellany in there that's not particularly relevant coming from the sites I've been to," Greg Sterling, managing editor at The Kelsey Group, said Monday. "For instance, there's a lot of stuff on Fox News, which I really don't care about...Over time it will get better. I would give it a six on a scale of 10."

Brad Hill, author of "Google for Dummies" and writer of the Unofficial Google Weblog, was similarly disenchanted with all the generic news he seemed to be getting.

"The upshot is that I get a lot of general news in Sidebar," he wrote in an e-mail in response to questions. "The news panel is less useful than Google News when I want general news, and less useful than my newsreaders when I want topical news."

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner was having better luck. "From my couple of days of trying it, I thought it was pretty powerful in its recommendations," he said.

There's a lot of stuff on Fox News, which I really don't care about...Over time (Google Desktop 2) will get better. I would give it a six on a scale of 10."
--Greg Sterling, managing editor, The Kelsey Group

Admittedly, the beta of Desktop 2, released a week ago, has a lot to offer. In addition to how quickly it scours all the types of files on my desktop when I type in a keyword search, it discreetly and conveniently gives me other useful information. It displays a running inventory of my latest Gmail and Microsoft Outlook e-mails and frequently used Web pages and files, provides a scratch pad, photos from Web sites viewed and a quick search for files that offers an easy way to open up applications. It doesn't serve ads to match the content, like Gmail does.

I was a bit shy about signing up at first, but security concerns that critics had after the initial release of Desktop last year appear to have been mostly resolved.

Now Desktop doesn't index or store secure Web pages or password-protected files, and the index can be encrypted. The corporate version also allows administrators to restrict the indexing of specific files.

None of the desktop search data is sent back to Google servers unless the user enables the Advanced Features required for the news personalization in Sidebar, in which case Google will know which Web sites the computer visited, according to the Google Desktop Privacy Policy.

"From everything I've read, Google has done everything they can to make it clear that they have no intention of leveraging that store (of information) at all," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk.

None of the information Google receives is personally identifiable, the privacy policy states. However, some privacy advocates were still concerned that just because Google isn't currently linking Web search data to specific users doesn't mean it won't in the future or that law enforcement can't, especially if Google knows more about consumers who have signed up for Gmail and other Google accounts.

"I'm worried about data leakage," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security and the author of several books on computer security. "It's frustrating because I want to use a good desktop search program."

"Having a third party know all of the news you read is troublesome enough," said Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It gives away key details about your beliefs, your opinions and your interests."

Google declined to comment. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET News.com reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)

I took a risk with Desktop 2. I divulged information even my mother doesn't know about me: that I use an online calculator and I can't stop reading about Jennifer and Brad's divorce. If things don't improve, I guess I can always start up with another desktop application, like Yahoo's Konfabulator.