Google on Wednesday released a new version of its toolbar software that makes it easier to use the search engine's features without having to go to its Web site first.
The toolbar enables users to directly search any page on the Web, and send a rating of that page back to Google for use in its indexing. It is able to block pop-up ads, automatically fill out Web forms, and link the page being browsed to the user's Web log. Users can also limit their toolbar searches to a particular country.
It provides access to other Google features, such as the search engine's built-in calculator, which returns a result when a user types in an equation, or converts imperial quantities (such as 9 yards) into metric (8.2296 metres).
Google's toolbar, compatible with Internet Explorer versions 5 and higher, works by using simple URLs to control the search engine's features or execute scripts back on the site. Changes to the toolbar settings are made via a URL such as "http://toolbar.google.com/command?(changes here)", and scripts can be executed at "http://toolbar.google.com/command?script=(any script)".
But the process does not come without risks. In August 2002, an Israeli security firm discovered a security vulnerability in the toolbar that could allow an attacker to run malicious code on a user's PC, read private files, and carry out other intrusions.
According to GreyMagic Software, a flaw in the Google Toolbar versions 1.1.58 and earlier allowed an attacker to embed code in any Web page that fools the toolbar into executing the attacker's commands. These commands included altering the toolbar's parameters, which allowed the attacker to hijack searches, alter the appearance of the toolbar or uninstall it completely. It also, more dangerously, allowed the attacker to execute code on the user's PC.
The toolbar can also be put to more constructive uses. In March 2002, Google invited 500 people to try out a version that let Windows users donate their computers' otherwise unused processing power to the Folding@home project at Stanford University.
The Stanford project seeks to figure out how genetic information is converted into proteins, complex molecules whose three-dimensional structure is key to everything from fighting off a cold to transporting oxygen around the body.