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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