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Making the Most of Google Search [Grind Skills]

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Creative Commons License photo credit: TheGiantVermin

Background: the Importance of Search

Excepting the ability to read and write, perhaps the most important skill in our modern digital life is the ability to search the Internet. Using search engines has become an integral part of our day-to-day existence. It’s hard to remember how we got along without the ability to find the most obscure answers to our questions by merely typing a few words into google.com.

Though there are competitors to Google Search, Google is so pervasively used that you’ll often overhear someone responding to a spoken question with, “Did you google it?” There’s even a snarky website that generates queries to send to apparently clueless Internet noobs: check out “Let me google that for you.” Yahoo search comes in at a distant second place whereas Google search dominates: some 72% of U.S. searches went through Google in January 2009.

Of course, we so frequently google to find the information we need that we hardly think about how we could be doing it better. Thus, the grind skill (What are “Grind Skills?”) of the day is maximizing Google Search.

Confessing Ignorance and Requesting Help

Before I explain how I make the most use of Google search, I need to reiterate the purpose of discussing grind skills. Grind skills is about show-and-tell: by blogging what I know, you see both what I know and more importantly, what I don’t know. I blog about “grind skills” to encourage a collaborative effort of knowledge-sharing, the end goal of which is to save everyone time by spreading the best practices about the mundane tasks of everyday life.

If there is a Google search technique that you find particularly useful, please tell me about it in the comments to this post or email me at [email protected] I’ll make updates to this post as any new google search grind skills are suggested!

How I make the most of Google Search

  • Site specific searches — Perhaps one of the most useful Google search features is the ability to restrict search results to a single site or even a single folder on a site. You do this by typing your normal query and then following it with site:[the domain name here].

    For example, let’s say you wanted to find every post on proteinpower.com that has the words “evolution” and “carbohydrates.” You’d run this query: [ evolution carbohydrates site:proteinpower.com ]. At the present moment, that query returns about 130 results — that’s not terrible but perhaps we can do better by narrowing down our query even further.

    A quick scan of the top 10 results tells you that proteinpower.com can be divided up between the forums at www.proteinpower.com/forum/ and Dr. Michael Eades blog at www.proteinpower.com/drmike/. Let’s say you only want to see the results on from Dr. Mike. Just change your query to be: [ evolution carbohydrates site:proteinpower.com/drmike/ ]. Suddenly you’ve reduced the results from 130+ to only 56! Even better.

    Staying on the subject of nutrition, I often use site search to quickly consult my go-to health gurus — i.e. doing a mash-up site search on [ insulin sensitivity ] for [ site:proteinpower.com ], [ site:marksdailyapple.com ], and [ site:freetheanimal.com ] all at once by using the string [ insulin sensitivity site:proteinpower.com OR site:freetheanimal.com OR site:marksdailyapple.com ] (Note: “OR” needs to be capitalized!). Pretty nifty, huh?

    Google powered site specific search is incredibly useful. It is a rare day that I ever use a website’s built-in search feature instead of just doing a custom [ site: ] search through google. There are widespread applications of site search and if you have any neat tricks for using site: queries, please do tell!

  • Making use of google’s cache — You may have noticed a link that says “Cached” at the end of your search results. Google frequently caches the websites it indexes. This caching can be useful for two reasons.

    The first is that if you click on the “Cached” link to retrieve Google’s saved version of the page, you’ll find that Google uses bright colors to highlight the terms you were looking for in your search. The cached, Google-highlighted page makes it easy to quickly scan for relevant information without having to use your web browser’s clunky internal search feature (I.e. the one triggered by pressing [ctrl+f]). For an example, let’s say you employ the above-explained site search for [ stochastic site:justinowings.com ]. From that search, you click on the second hit, which is my post titled Contrarian advice on passion. See if you can find the word “stochastic” in two seconds. Did you succeed? Now use Google’s cached version of the page and try again. How long did it take? Using the highlight feature through Google’s cached pages can save an immense amount of time scanning, particularly on pages where there are hundreds of user comments and discussion.

    The second use of cached pages is that sometimes sites either go down or site owners take down material. Art De Vany had a wealth of public information that I would often search within to find his thoughts on a particular subject. However, around early- to mid-2007 De Vany started changing his site layout, which ended up taking from public view the gross majority of his blog posts. Thanks to Google’s cache of his site, however, I was often able to still get the material even as the original post was no longer being hosted at arthurdevany.com.

  • Math, conversions, and definitions — You may not realize that not only can you type in math equations into google to have them be calculated [ 25*13658945 ] = 341,473,625. You can also have google do conversions between different units: [ 170 lbs to kg ] = 77.1107029 kilograms, or up-to-date currency conversion [ 50 USD to euros ] = 38.1417347 Euros.

    Math and conversion can both be useful, but I use google to define words numerous times a day. To do this, just type [define: (the word) ]; for example, [ define: anthropomorphic ]. Google define can also be successfully used for phrases or idioms: [ define: penny for your thoughts ]. I like using google for word definitions because it typically consults numerous sources and lists the results in a neat, ad-less fashion.

  • Who’s talking about you? — This one is mostly for folks who have their own websites. If you want to find out what other websites are linking to a particular domain, for example [ link:justinowings.com ]. Like site search, you can get granular and search for specific URL, too.
  • Modifiers you should keep in the back of your mind — You can subtract words from your search by putting a minus sign directly in front of the words you don’t want in your search like [ justin owings -implode ]. Alternatively, you can use an asterisk to signify a wild card such as [ obama site:*.gov ] or use quotes or a plus sign to make sure google doesn’t search synonyms (By default, google will search for synonyms). Good to know in the off chance you’ll need them, these modifiers are all covered in the Google search basics link referenced below.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion there are other techniques I employ with Google search that I’m neglecting to enumerate here. As I think of more, I’ll be sure to update this post.

Are there google search techniques you love but I apparently don’t use? Do tell.

Additional reference documents on Google Search

Grind Skills Reading

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Google Friend Connect

Just installed Google Friend Connect, which is a social networking application from Google (Hat tip to Feed Growth). I wasn’t entirely sure what I could use it for, but it allows you to become a member of my site.

And why would you want to do that? For one, a member can comment on my little sidebar wall, which I encourage any of you to do. Any feedback on the site is appreciated or you can just say “hi!” Also, there’s no real “sign up” to become a member — particularly for all you gmail users, but also for some others too (I.e. open id).

Blogging to a silent audience is oh so lonely! Join up and show your support!

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Homebuying Tools (We’re looking to buy in Atlanta)

As I recently mentioned, my wife and I are moving back to Atlanta. Our “move,” which is a mere shifting of clothes into a temporary living arrangement until we find something permanent, is actually commencing this weekend.

So what’s this about buying a house?

Despite the ongoing housing bust (we haven’t reached bottom yet in my opinion), the time is right for us to take the plunge into homeownership. Something I came to accept over the past few months is that putting your life on hold indefinitely due to exogenous events (such as an imploding economy) is no way to live. Unlike many homebuyers in the boom, I don’t believe in flipping properties. I see a house as the embodiment of a fundamental human need — that of shelter. I don’t want to grossly overpay for a house, which is why I pushed back on all the “You should buy now!” friends and family over the past few years.

It finally makes sense for us to buy, so we are actively looking for a home. I don’t want to get into too many details as to where we are looking and certainly not which houses we are looking at because the internet makes the world a much smaller place. Suffice to say that we are looking for a home preferably close[r] to the city, meaning inside-the-perimeter by a decent margin, that is north of I-20. Is that vague enough?

To date, we’ve got a handful of viable options though we are still in the early stages of our search. Since we have no home to sell and are working around temporary living arrangements in ATL, we can afford to be patient — patience may even pay off big as home prices are likely to fall further. I expect real estate to be a relatively ho-hum asset class for the next decade.

And now a word from our sponsor: I encourage anyone out there to stay abreast of ongoing economic events via any one of my company‘s Implode-O-Meterslenders, home builders, banks, or funds.

Having explained “why,” here are some useful tools for the would-be homebuyer

The following websites frequently used in concert have been particularly helpful in our quest for housing. In no particular order:

  • Zillow.com — zillow is a satellite-interfaced housing search tool that allows you to find properties by doing any sort of locational search. You can search by zip code, city, or street name. The results will turn up on a satellite map and you can zoom in and out of whatever area you are interested in, pan across the map, etc. For example, see the results of a search for 238 Peachtree Cir 30309.

    What makes zillow so useful is that it combines data on both active listings as well as listings for properties recently sold. Typically, this results in the zillow page for a certain property for sale displaying relevant pictures from the official listing if they are available. Whether a property is for sale or not, it has a listing page on zillow.com that typically provides public tax data on the property. This typically means square footage, how many beds/baths, the year the house was built, what the house sold for last and what the most recent taxes on the property were.

    Trulia.com has a similar service to zillow — sometimes if I didn’t find the data I needed I’d check trulia for it. Trulia also lists the last two sale prices per the tax records — perhaps useful for a deep dive on a particular property.

    One zillow.com tip for you mobile users, check out mobile.zillow.com. It allows mobile phone users with data plans to search for property information. Good for checking stuff like square footage while out checking out properties.

  • Google maps and streetview (and to a lesser extent, google maps real estate advanced search) — periodically you come across a listing that has no picture of the exterior of the house (never a good sign, mind you). Google streetview comes to the rescue. What is fantastic about streetview is that it enables me to get a real sense for what the surrounding houses look like. Thanks to streetview, you can pan up and down the street to look at would-be neighbors, get a sense for the width of a street, and even guess at the demographics of traffickers if any cars are parked or happened to be driving by.

    For an example, return to 238 Peachtree (Where we used to live in Atlanta):

    Some streetview tips: streetview utilizes the following hot keys (there may be more, these are just the few I’ve discovered by accident): up/down arrow keys take you up and down the street. Left/right arrow keys allow you to scan around your current view. WASD all work as well, except the W and S function as looking up or down. Finally, the + and – keys allow you to zoom in and out.

    Streetview is one of those things you don’t realize is awesome until you suddenly find that Google missed a street — or worse, an entire area!

    One seemingly obscure function in Google Maps is that you can do an “advanced search” on real estate. Google seems to be crawling the various real estate listings and then mapping them for you. To see this in action, check this link. Here are the results of that search:

    To access Google Maps real estate search, search for a location or area. Then click “show search options.” From the dropdown menu, select “Real estate” and click “Search Maps.” Voila!

    Sometimes Google Maps finds properties that Zillow misses, so it can be useful that way. It also has search parameters you can use to narrow down the search. Finally, the interface on google maps is smoother than zillow, so it has that going for it, as well.

    Final Google maps tip, be sure you have the latest mobile app for Google Maps as it now incorporates streetview (Works well on my Blackberry 8320)!

Zillow and Google Maps serve as my primary artillery. I use both in concert using multiple tabs in Google Chrome.

One site I’ve had mixed luck with is realtytrac.com. I signed up for a free seven-day trial of realtytrac.com and initially thought it was the cat’s pajamas: I could see properties that were entering into foreclosure or bank-owned (REO). However, come to find out, the data in realtytrac.com can be dated, and if you already have a resource to look up MLS listings, they are able to pull REO properties already.

Realtytrac may be useful for taking snapshots of how an area is doing with regard to foreclosures. Similar to zillow, you can employ a “map view” that lets you see REO and foreclosed properties in an area. Therefore, if you see a ton of foreclosures in a certain spot, that helps give an indication of what house prices should be doing there (in that case dropping like a rock). The only thing about realtytrac is that it costs $50/month to maintain your subscription. Thus, it aint cheap for such questionable value (or maybe I just haven’t discovered its great uses!).

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Even when our realtor sends us MLS reports, I still use zillow and Google maps to flesh out missing details on the MLS listings. Score one for technology making homebuying a much more informed process (and maybe eventually eliminating the need for realtors almost entirely).