Google just announced two cool new applications as part of its experimental Labs area today — an improved Image Search that helps you find similar images, and a new timeline for exploring stories in Google News.

Google hasn’t released much information about how Similar Images works under the hood, but the interface is pretty slick — you just run a normal image search, and then click the “similar images” link underneath. This is particularly useful when a search term can mean several different things — for example, “apple” the fruit versus “Apple” the corporation. After pulling up a particular search result, the tool also provides alternate searches in the upper right corner, letting you change your query quickly. Of course, not every search term or image has enough results to create a “similar images” option, which is why a vanity search for “Anthony Ha” turned out to be rather unsatisfying.

This could turn out to be quite significant. Since this feature is still in Labs, it’s too early to know if Google has a long-term plan here, but it’s certainly poised to shake up the landscape for companies attempting similar results. Visual search engines like GazoPa (which we covered here) and Like.com have already built tools for similar image searches and descriptive image searches (i.e., “red, snappy shoes”). It’s easy to see the avenues Google could go down with this kind of technology for online shopping — after using it to find a product you want, you could easily search for others just like it.

As a news junkie, I’m even more excited about the timeline feature. If you were a nerdy kid like me, you probably remember timelines in books and encyclopedias. They essentially showed what was happening in different areas of the world or different segments of history in a linear, easily understandable fashion. Google’s hi-tech take on timelines is built using sources in Google News, so you can see relevant Time magazine covers and Wikipedia entries about, say, “Barack Obama” for the past 10 years. The timeline doesn’t do a good job of balancing multiple sources yet — for example, when I added VentureBeat to a general Time Magazine and Wikipedia timeline (without a specific search query), this blog drowned out everyone else, since we post so much more often.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that these features are part of a revamped Google Labs program. The company says it has moved Labs onto Google App Engine, its initiative for building and hosting web applications, which could help demonstrate that apps built for App Engine don’t have to be frivolous and light. Users can receive notification as new apps are released to Labs through the new Labs RSS feed.