Internet searches? Simple enough, right? Just type in the topic you’re interested in and instantly pages and pages of links appear. In this age of information, “enough” never seems to be the problem anymore. Rather, gathering information is a case of finding too much.
So then, how can you arrive at a shorter, more relevant list, on the first go? First it’s important to understand how search engines work.
How search engines work, and work for you
A search engine locates matching words in its index and returns results. But this “common denominator” approach only gives the broadest range of results unless you narrow it. Some search engines like Google help with the function of “autocomplete” by suggesting what you might be searching for even as you type it.
This even means spelling corrections in the final suggestions show up. For example, if some people type in “LadyMarmalade” as a single word, all those searches still influence “Lady Marmalade” being suggested — and as two words. Words that should have punctuation can also get corrected. Type “ben and je…” and it will be “Ben and Jerry’s” that gets suggested, even if many people forget the apostrophe.
What’s good about this function is that it presents searches you are most likely to be looking for. But electronic intuition is not in play, only previously recorded search results.
These include most popular searches, suggestions by region (e.g. “Georgia” will turn up different results depending if you are located in America or Eastern Europe), personalised searches previously done by you, and the so-called “freshness layer” that shows results that suddenly spike in popularity – for example, an event in a region (London marathon) or celebrity news (celebrity marriage).
Of these, personalised search history always has the greatest weight in defining autocorrection and search results.
But even with these functions, a search engine is often too smart for its own good – delivering millions of technically correct, but practically useless, results. For precise searches, it helps to know some tricks to use in the search window to save time.
Tips for defining better searches
- Use multiple words. Define what you’re after with more words, e.g. “chicken rosemary onion recipe,” as these words are too general when used separately.
- Qualify words. Putting a plus sign (“+”) in front of a word will ensure you only see pages that include that word. Putting a minus sign (“-“) in front of a word will eliminate pages with that word.
- Specify a site. This proves useful if you want results from a specific website. For example, enter “tablet PC site:hp.com” if you are interested in learning more about tablet PCs if you know that hp.com is a central source of information. That way, cluttered results from outside that URL will be left out.
- Search within your results. Suppose you are less certain about what you’re after, and need to progress from the general to the specific (for example, news on a world event with constant developments like the Olympics). Type in the keywords that broadly define your topic. You will then get a long list of results of which some are relevant. Refine it with a further search by adding more keywords to your original search phrase.
- Use unusual words. For topics, use words that are linked but rarely appear together in other contexts, e.g. “spin” and “doctor,” if you’re researching politics.
- Use quotes. Using quotes directs Google to search for an exact phrase that you enter, for example “breakfast in bed.”
- Use Advanced Google operators. By adding key symbols to your search terms in Google, you can gain far more control over the results that are returned to you.
For example, adding an asterisk in the middle of a search term will allow any “wildcard” word to be included there. Searching for “HP * notebook” would bring back results for multiple HP models or terms, such as “HP performance notebook,” “HP commercial notebook,” “HP Envy notebook,” and so on. This is especially helpful if you don’t recall the full phrase you are searching for.
You can also search for values separated by two periods with no spaces to bring back search results within a set number range. For instance searching for “HP notebooks $400..$1000” would give you all HP notebooks within that price range.
Further search operators of this kind are defined on the Google support page.
Better searches mean clearer information
In the age of information, chances are what you’re looking for is out there, you just have to know how to find it. Always remember that a site like Google works by returning searches by popularity.
But, of course, searches are done by individuals, so yours might need finessing to deliver exactly what you’re after. Use these clever tips to make your online searches more precise – and get the information you need faster.