Yesterday TechCrunch reported that if you make a spreadsheet in Google Drive (Google Docs, formerly), enter and highlight the names of two beers, and pull down on the corner of the spreadsheet cell while holding Option or Control, the app will automatically fill the following cells with the names of other beers. The information is pulled, seemingly, from nowhere.
"Someone at Google really likes beer," the post said, implying that the categories were created by Google employees. Turns out, the lists are pulled from Google's search database using an algorithm that creates sets, or categories, of common words and names. It's essentially Google-powered word association — not a window into the world of Google engineers, but into the internet's collective view of how things are related to one another.
It doesn't work just for beer, car brands, colors, states, and websites, as reported, but just about any category you can think of. The feature was an outgrowth of a discontinued Google Labs project called Google Sets, so it's no longer pulling real-time information.
There are useful applications — it's easy to imagine using the list of states, for example, in creating a survey. "It is also one of those things we do things at Google that's whimsical and just for fun," says a Google spokesperson. "It is a snapshot of words and concepts that are connected to each other on the web." And, in a small but real way, a peek into the giant data-logged brain of the most powerful search engine in the world.