The Internet is, in a word, vast. There are not millions but billions of pages out there, and at least one of them must have just the piece of information you’re looking for. So how do you sort through all of that overwhelming bounty of information to get just the information you’re looking for?
Enter Google. Used well, the search engine with the plain white homepage can quite literally bring a world of information to your fingertips. Used poorly, though, and Google can make you yearn for the days of card catalogs and harried librarians.
We’ve all had the experience of entering a search term into Google and being informed that Google found 2,684,541 results for our search – and, page after page, none of them are what we’re looking for! It’s important to keep in mind that, no matter how friendly those googly eyes in the logo look, at its heart, Google is just a machine – however well-designed, in the end Google has no human intuition or judgment to help it decide what, precisely, you’re looking for.
Keeping that in mind can help improve your search results drastically. Let’s walk through a simple search to see how. Perhaps you’re interested in the ’80s New Wave band, The Cars. Enter the word “cars” into Google, though, and you’re liable to get all sorts of links to car repair sites, auto dealerships, the recent animated movie “Cars”, and so on. The first link even remotely related to the band appears on the ninth page of results in the search I just ran – deep enough in to try the strongest patience.
Fortunately, Google gives you plenty of tools to help you better target your search. The first and most useful is to enclose a search term in quotes. Putting a phrase in quotes will only return pages where that exact phrase appears – those words in that order. So let’s try “the cars” in quotes, and see what happens… (Here’s a tip: Google doesn’t pay attention to capitalization, so save a couple keystrokes and use all lower-case letters.)
Ah, now we’re talking! The first four results I get are directly related to the band – not too shabby! It is more likely that a page about The Cars would use the phrase “the cars” than a page about automobiles or movies. Using quotes is incredibly useful when you remember a line from a song and want to find its title, or when you’re trying to remember what movie a line was from. I use it for tech support when I have a problem with my computer; if Internet Explorer won’t start, I figure someone out there who might have written up an answer for me probably included the phrase “Internet Explorer won’t start” in his or her article. (Here’s another tip: Google is so friendly, that it will even put the closing quote on for you, so you only have to put a quote at the beginning of your search phrase.)
Another way to narrow down your search results and make them more relevant is to include more search words. Instead of putting The Cars in quotes, we might have added another term, or two, or more – again, think about what words would be likely to appear on a page about whatever you’re looking for. So I might add the name of the lead singer to my search and enter “cars ocasek” (without the quotes, this time); again, the first few results are directly related to the band The Cars, although they are different from the results I got with the last search. By the way, you can mix and match these techniques, piling up terms and phrases, like this: cars “my best friend’s girlfriend”.
There are dozens of more complex ways to fine-tune your Google searches: you can use “or” to search for pages including one term or another (e.g. “cars OR blondie” will return all pages that include either word), you can use various wild cards to replace words in phrases (e.g. “she’s my * girlfriend” will return pages with “she’s my best friend’s girlfriend” but also “she’s my favorite girlfriend” or “she’s my neighbor but I wish she was my girlfriend” and so on), you can use the minus sign to exclude words from your results, and on and on. Google is a powerful computing tool, and it’s possible to build search strings that look like formulas from a theoretical physics textbook. But for almost all of the things we look for on a day-to-day basis, the techniques above, combined with a little bit of savvy about what the page you’re looking for is likely to include, will bring you exactly what you’re looking for.