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A Look at Google Web Accelerator

by Jake Ludington
05/31/2005

Anyone who remembers dial-up (or still uses it) certainly knows the agony of waiting for a page to load. Numerous tools aimed at speeding up page loading have come and gone over the years, most providing only incremental improvements. Some, such as the web acceleration built into America Online, make the browsing experience worse by compressing image files as part of the speed enhancement.

The recent beta launch of Google Web Accelerator brings renewed attention to the concept of improving page load times. Speeding up web browsing may be the goal of this new free Google tool, but it's also stirred up some controversy over what Google may be doing with the data it collects in the process. The Google beta is currently closed to new users, but if you didn't already download Google Web Accelerator, you can still watch from the sidelines in a dedicated Google Group.

Google Web Accelerator, shown in Figure 1, works a manner similar to that of other web acceleration tools. Rather than your computer relying on the DNS servers provided by your ISP, Google Web Accelerator redirects all domain lookups to Google servers, using Google as your proxy. The theory here seems to be that because Google is already caching a great deal of information about sites into memory on tens of thousands of computers at data centers, why not take advantage of all those lookups while caching your own surfing habits in the process? Copies of pages you look up are cached by Google's servers, downloading new data if the page has changed since your last viewing. Some additional pages linked to the site are downloaded to your machine in the background to beef up the experience. Compression is also used to further boost speed, although it doesn't seem to be the image-crippling experience AOL delivered. One thing Google doesn't speed up is the download of large files; for that, you still need a download accelerator like the very capable LeechGet.

Configure Google Web Accelerator from the Toolbar preferences
Figure 1. Configure Google Web Accelerator from the toolbar's preferences

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The Google Web Accelerator cache is separate from the standard browser cache. If you are in the habit of frequently clearing your cache for privacy reasons, this is another item you'll need to empty. Google offers a "Clear history" option and lets you specify sites to exempt from caching as part of the preferences. Secure pages are not cached, although early beta results have indicated Google Web Accelerator incorrectly identifies some cached pages as logged in under another username.

Pulling down pages associated with other usernames isn't the only potential privacy violation associated with an app that caches your surfing habits while being affiliated with one of the world's biggest advertising networks. Google specifically indicates that Google Web Accelerator does not cache ads. One plausible reason for that might be to better target the results of Google Adwords ads on pages you view. It obviously wouldn't do Google any good to display an ad from a campaign that is already out of money, so on the one hand it's smart business to keep the old ads from coming back. On the other hand, if there were already technology in place to store versions of the pages you surf for faster loading, how hard would it be to track all the pages surfed on a specific computer, targeting ads not only to contextually relevant information on the page but also to individualized surfing habits? There's no indication that this is part of Google's plan, but it's not an impossible stretch to think such a level of targeting might increase the price of Google stock.

If you don't happen to be one of early adopters of Google Web Accelerator, you can still improve your download performance with one of the numerous other download accelerators. One that I find to be handy is FastCache from AnalogX, shown in Figure 2. FastCache runs as a DNS caching proxy on your local machine. The first time you access a site, FastCache hits the DNS servers provided by your ISP to resolve the location of a domain, just like your browser normally would. FastCache then writes the location information about that site to a file. The next time you visit the site, your browser contacts FastCache, which returns the information locally, saving you a few milliseconds of lookup time. Granted, a few milliseconds may not seem like much at first, but they add up over time.

FastCache provides a days worth of time saved annually
Figure 2. FastCache provides a day's worth of time saved annually

The FastCache approach is slightly different from the approach Google Web Accelerator uses. Google Web Accelerator examines pages for changes and delivers the page either as is or with incremental alterations based on what's already in the Google Web Accelerator cache. FastCache merely caches the DNS location information of pages you visit, which saves lookup time. For something closer to the Google Web Accelerator experience, TweakMASTER from Hagel Technologies comes closer. TweakMASTER includes a DNS caching tool like FastCache's and also bundles an app called LinkFox, which is designed to preload pages in the background, similar to what Google Web Accelerator does by preloading linked pages. In addition, TweakMASTER includes several network monitoring tools that are nicely unified in one place but deliver features widely available in a variety of freeware and open source alternatives. Of course, if you are a tabbed browsing fanatic, a shell like Maxthon or IE alternative Firefox do an excellent job of downloading pages behind the scenes on a new tab.

Google Web Accelerator may ultimately be a faster way to browse. In the meantime, using existing tools incrementally improves page loading and easily saves at least a day out of every year in waiting.

Jake Ludington is the author of the best-selling guide Converting VHS to DVD. He publishes audio and video tips at MediaBlab.com.


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