Google's search, mail, maps, and cloud services are practically de facto public utilities. Fire up your browser, and there Google is. But don't take Google for granted--there's much more to its core services than meets the eye.
With this toolbox of tips, usability tricks, and third-party services, you can rule the Google universe and bend it to your will. The following will help you keep your privacy, fix Google annoyances, and get the most out of automation (so you can waste your time doing other things online).
Search privately: Startpage (also known as Ixquick) is an alternative to Google's search page that lets you use Google's search engine but doesn't send Google your IP address or allow cookies to be placed on your computer. Startpage can also stop embarrassing ads based on previous searches from haunting you across the Web. If you want private results from multiple search engines, also try DuckDuckGo, which excludes Google results but has similar privacy-oriented features.
Block Google tracking beyond just search: The handy service Disconnect works across all websites you visit. Available as a browser extension, it disables tracking by parties such as Google, Facebook, and Digg.
Compared with the Do Not Track features currently built into browsers, Disconnect gives you more protection. Although Firefox, Internet Explorer (9 and 10), and Safari have Do Not Track privacy options that you can enable, website implementation of the feature is voluntary--which means there's no guarantee it will work for many sites. Disconnect, on the other hand, works on all sites no matter what.
Answer questions for lazy friends: The next time a relative or buddy emails a question that he or she could easily answer with a simple Google search, whip out Let Me Google That for You. Simply type the query in the box, and share the link from the text field underneath. Your friend will see how typing the query in Google can yield results without bothering you. It's a learning experience for the disconnected.
Start Chrome in Incognito mode every time you launch the browser: To start Chrome in its private-browsing Incognito mode, right-click the Chrome shortcut icon on your desktop, select Properties, and in the Target field add --incognito to the end of the program path. Make sure to put a space between the final quotation mark in the existing text string and the hyphen you insert, and you're good to go. (See the screenshot for an example.)
Check multiple Google Mail accounts at once: Checker Plus for Gmail lets you monitor your inboxes from a single place, without even having a tab open. Once you install this Chrome extension, it automatically detects Google accounts to which you are signed in. From an icon next to the omnibar, you can then see new email messages at a glance across your accounts. Checker Plus includes sound notifications, and it can even run in the background when Chrome is closed, so you never miss incoming mail. You can read, delete, archive, or mark email as read; when you need to reply or to compose new messages, however, Checker Plus will open a new Gmail window.
Automatically save Gmail attachments to Google Drive: Thanks to the Mail to Drive service, which automatically copies attachments from your Gmail messages to Google Drive, you don't have to store files locally and then upload them to your drive. Once you've installed it, you set up a special label that you assign to messages with attachments you want to copy to Google Drive. The app runs in the Google Apps Cloud automatically every 5 minutes (so you don't need to have your browser open to Gmail) and copies the attachments to a designated folder. You also receive an email message when the transfer is done.
Tame inbox overload: Ever feel like you're drowning in an endless ocean of email messages? Email Game attempts to rescue you. It's basically an alternative interface for Gmail that shows you only one message at a time and challenges you to reply in a timely fashion. You get 5 seconds to decide what to do with each message, earning points for performing each task promptly. For example, if you choose to reply to a message, the interface gives you 3 minutes to do so, though you can add more time if necessary. At the end of the session, you get a tally of how many points you racked up while plowing through your inbox.
Get a bird's-eye view of your inbox: Sign up with your Gmail credentials, and Gmail Meter sends you a report at the beginning of each month with your top senders and recipients, plus charts for the time of the day and week when you receive and send the most email.
Eliminate YouTube annoyances: Watching a YouTube video is getting harder by the day with all the commercial distractions surrounding each video. You can make YouTube less annoying, however, with the YouTube Options for Google Chrome browser extension, which allows you to tweak every aspect of YouTube. Through this extension you can hide ads and annotations, disable autoplay, and hide comments.
Make YouTube videos easier on the eye: Compatible with most browsers, the simple extension Turn Off the Lights dims everything on the webpage around the video. Whenever you see a little lamp icon on your toolbar, you can click it to make the surroundings go dark, turning YouTube into more of a lean-back-and-enjoy experience.
Move quickly through YouTube videos: Keyboard shortcuts can save you a number of mouse clicks. Press the J key to rewind the video a few seconds, or press L to fast-forward a few seconds into the video. You can also use the K key, as well as the spacebar, to pause and resume videos.
Next up: Download YouTube videos Download YouTube videos to your computer: Although many apps and websites claim to help you do this, they can be hit and miss at best, especially since Google is trying to block various services from downloading copyrighted videos. One simple and effective option is the Download YouTube Videos add-on for Firefox, which inserts a download button underneath videos on YouTube and allows you to select the quality level at which to save the file.
Edit photos and videos directly from Google Drive: The Pixlr Express app spares you from having to download photos, make basic edits in a separate program, and then reupload them. Once you install the app, simply right-click an image on your Google Drive to see an option to open it in Pixlrs, where you can crop and adjust the image, as well as add effects overlays, borders, text, and stickers. Once your edit is done, you can save and replace your Google Drive file, or save the new version as a copy, without leaving your browser. You can also try Pixlr Editor for a more Photoshop-like interface with tools for red-eye reduction and drawing. If you'd like to apply the same concept to video, check out WeVideo.
Send and receive faxes from Google Drive for free: Fax machines are almost extinct, but on the odd occasion you need to send a fax or sign a document, turn to HelloFax, a nifty extension that does both. The service lets you send a fax straight from your Google Drive to a fax machine just by entering the number; inbound faxes come to you by email in the form of a PDF, and reside in a special Google Drive folder.
Sign documents and fill in forms from Google Drive: With HelloSign, you can store your signature to sign documents or fill out forms, which you can send via email. The app also lets you assign signature fields in documents and send signature requests straight from a folder on your Google Drive.
Automate mundane Google Drive tasks: Wappwolf connects to your Google Drive (or Dropbox account) and seeks out certain types of files for which you have specified actions. For example, you can ask Wappwolf to convert to PDF any document you drop into a particular folder on your drive. In addition, you can have the tool convert audio files to a new format, send files to your Kindle, or upload photos to multiple social networks at once, as well as resize images or add effects.
Encrypt and safeguard your Google Drive files: A good tool for this job is BoxCryptor, which encrypts files on the fly and syncs them with Google Drive immediately after you save them. Since the encrypting and decrypting happen locally, your password never transmits to third parties, making your file unreadable even if someone breaches your Google Drive. For more, see this tutorial on using BoxCryptor.
Turn Google Maps into a game: Map Cube is an experimental Google Chrome browser-based game made by Google Maps that turns New York, Tokyo, and many other cities into a 3D tilt-labyrinth game (see video below). To play, you tilt a ball through city streets and across bridges to reach landmarks of historic and cultural note.
Undelete events, including the details, in Google Calendar: Whenever you delete an event, that data sticks around for a while before it's permanently gone. The tool Spanning Undelete fetches a list of recently deleted events and lets you choose which ones to bring back from a list of recoverable items.
Record calls with Google Voice: Although Google doesn't allow you to record outgoing calls, you can record calls you receive. Once you enable the option under Settings > Calls > Call Options, you simply press the 4 key at any time to record incoming calls. A voice will note on the line that the call is being recorded, and it will issue another alert when you stop the process. You can access your recorded calls by clicking Recorded on the left side of the page. Different laws apply to call recording depending on location, so check your state's current laws as well as federal regulations before using this feature.