October 23, 2012

Gaga for Google, Part One: Making Your Search Results More Magical

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Tips and Tricks

By Dan Pinnington

It is amazing how Google can search the Web and find exactly what you're looking for. But by sharpening how you present your search terms, you can improve your Google results still more.

Millions of people around the world use Google on a daily basis. One of the secrets to Google's success, of course, is that it's just so darn easy to use. Simply enter one or more search terms, and almost instantly it seems to be able to magically find precisely the stuff you want it to retrieve.

Yet as amazing as Google is, you can do a few things to help it better find the information you are searching for—read on.


Search Term Essentials

Choosing the right search terms is the key to finding the information you want online. Most people are becoming pretty adept at this, after loads of practice using Google and other search engines. Using multiple search terms helps because, by default, Google will return only pages that include all of your search terms. Thus, there is no need to include "and" between search terms in the search box.

You should try to make your search terms as specific as possible by using terms that you expect will be used on the Web page or document you are hoping to retrieve. And remember, changing the order of terms can change the results, so if you aren't finding what you want, try swapping the search terms around.

Also be aware that Google searches are not case sensitive, and everything will be understood as lower case. For example, john smith, John Smith, and JoHn SmItH will all return the same results, so don't waste your energy typing in the capital letters.

Note that Google uses stemming technology, which means that it will search not only for your exact search terms, but also for words that are similar to some or all of those terms. Thus, a search for "diet" will also include results with diets, dieting, dietary and so on.


The Story on Common Words

To make searches faster, Google automatically ignores various common words (like "the," "of," "its," etc.) and some single digits and letters. And just in case you haven't notice (which I suspect most haven't), Google actually tells you which search terms it used and didn't use to get a given list of search results. On the results page, look on the blue bar at the top, to the right of the hits count summary. All your search terms will be listed, and the words that Google ignored during the search will be in black.

If a common word or a digit is essential to getting the results you want, you can include it by putting a space and a plus sign ("+") in front of it. Here's an example:

Star Wars, Episode +1

Or, you can use a phrase search, as discussed in the next paragraph.


The Fabulous Phrase Search

My absolute favorite trick for finding things more quickly is the phrase search. You do a phrase search by putting double quotation marks around two or more search terms. This little trick forces Google to return pages that have exactly the text you placed within the quote marks (as opposed to all pages that have your search terms).

Phrase searches are particularly effective if you're searching for the following:

  • Proper names (for example, "George Washington")
  • Lyrics (such as "the long and winding road")
  • Famous phrases (like "Four score and seven years ago")
  • Computer error messages (for example, "Maximum_Wait_Objects_ Exceeded")

Negative Terms for Multiple Meanings

If your search term has more than one meaning—"bass," for example, could refer to fishing or music—you can focus your search in the correct direction by putting a minus sign ("-") in front of words related to the meaning you want to avoid. Here are a couple of examples:

good bass lakes in Vermont -music

London Arkansas - England

Note that when you include a negative term in your search, you need to be sure to include a space before the minus sign.


Phrase Search as Answer versus Question

More than a few people are prone to typing questions into the Google search box, but what you really want to do is phrase your question in the form of an answer. Think about it: You don't want Web pages that ask a question, you want pages that answer a question. So do not type "Who decided Marbury vs. Madison?" Instead, type " Marbury vs. Madison was decided by."

If you want to be walked through some of the many options Google offers for controlling search parameters, click on Advanced Search on the Google home page ( www.google.com).

There is just so much in Google to talk about, but I've run out of space for now. So in the next issue, we'll review more things that Google can do to put magic in your searching. And there'll be a full Tips Tear-out with pointers from both issues. For now, get Googling with these new tricks, everyone.