All of us use search engines, most of us on a daily basis. Even so, most people don't know how to search. At least, not as well as you can. This chapter will teach you some powerful new tricks about using Google in particular.
Normally, you type in words and click "Search." What happens when you do that?
Let's say that you type in the words, Introduction to Computers. What will the results be?
First of all, you will probably find web pages with the title "Introduction to Computers." Google places a rather strong emphasis on the title given to a web page.
Next, you will likely find popular web sites which or on the topic of computers. For example, Wikipedia is usually going to be somewhere on the first page of results. You will find that many sites high up on the list are ones which have a lot of visitors (usually referred to as "inbound links"). That counts in the search results as well.
Then you will see words with matching keywords. That is, sites which have the exact words "Introduction to Computers" in the page (especially if used as a section title or other emphasized text).
Lesser in the results may be the words "introduction," "to," and "computers," though not in that order. Maybe even just one of the words, but not the others.
Will results always appear in that order? No. Will they always depend on those factors? No. In fact, Google uses over 200 different factors about a web site in order to determine how high up in the listings it will be. The structure of the web site, the speed which the site loads, how much time people spend on the site, even the "quality" of links to that page (if the linking site is also highly ranked), and so on.
In fact, many web sites out there try to trick Google, and you. They design their web sites specifically in order to appear as high in Google's rankings as possible. It's called SEO, or "Search Engine Optimization." It's one reason why Google keeps its exact techniques for ranking pages secret, so that it is harder for companies and advertisers to fool Google into giving them a better place in the results list.
Google tries to make sure the sites which will be most useful to you come up as high as possible, but they cannot possibly succeed all of the time. Maybe not even most of the time. You have to change the way you search in order to get the best results possible.
How to Optimize Your Search
Using the Right Keywords
First, you should try to find the correct set of keywords to find the information you are looking for.
Let's say that you are looking for information about a motor made by the brilliant engineer Nikola Tesla made in the late 19th century. You type the search terms Tesla Motor into the search engine. However, all you find are web pages about the Tesla Motor Corporation, a modern automobile company that makes electric cars. That's not what you want.
Look more carefully at your assignment. Perhaps it tells you to research the alternating current motor worked on by Nikola Tesla for the Westinghouse company. In that case, a better search might be Nikola Tesla alternating current motor Westinghouse.
Use Quotation Marks
While Google will try to show you pages with your search terms close together, sometimes other factors bring you pages that have your keywords, but not together. In the past, searching for my own name, "Luis Poza," I have discovered web pages about a "Luis Garcia" living in "Poza Rica."
To avoid this problem and strengthen your search results, add quotation marks around groups of words you know will be together. For example, in the previous search, Nikola Tesla alternating current motor Westinghouse, I would place quotation marks so it would look like: "Nikola Tesla" "alternating current" motor Westinghouse. Google will only display pages which have those exact words together.
Similarly, when searching for specific terms made up of common words, such as "white house" or "card table" or "pipe shop" then you should put quotation marks around them, especially when used with other terms in the same search.
Google does a pretty good job today of finding words commonly used together, but that could hurt your search sometimes as well.
Let's say you want to search for information about the fruit called blackberry. You enter blackberry into a search, and you get mostly web sites about the Blackberry phones. A way to avoid that would be to add the word "phone" with a minus in front of it: blackberry -phone. This will get rid of most of the results you do not want.
Even so, you will still get results which show Blackberry phones—these are usually paid advertisements instead of real search results.
Search Specific Sites
When doing research for an academic essay, your teacher will usually tell you to find reliable sources. Teachers often forbid the use of Wikipedia, partly because it can sometimes be unreliable, and partly because students tend to use only Wikipedia and nothing else!
Instead, teachers will say to look in journals (you can use Lakeland's online library resources for that), or to try to find only educational sites. But how do you do that on Google?
The answer is simple: add the word site: (don't forget the colon!) followed by any part of a domain name.
For example, the search Tesla site:mit.edu will only show results which are pages hosted in MIT's web site.
Perhaps better would be to search for Tesla site:.edu which will return a number of web sites which only have ".edu" domains. Since .edu is granted only to accredited educational institutions, the results should be much better.
Even better, Google offers an Advanced Search Page with many of these options built-in, plus several more:
I have bookmarked this page, and always use it when I do a search, even if it's a simple one.
Note that you can specify a language for the search results, or a region where they are published.
More importantly, you can specify a time range to search within, in case you want only recently published pages, or pages published in a specific year.
Even better for non-native Enlgish speakers, you can specify a reading level, from basic to advanced. It is possible that limiting to "basic" could find pages which are much easier for you to understand. No guarantees, though.