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Search party: 10 tips for better searching on Google and beyond

by Alex in | | |

The Internet in 1990.

July: John Perry Barlow and Mitch Kapor found the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). You really want to read the story of how EFF started.

September: Alan Emtage's Archie is announced on Usenet, providing the Internet's first search engine.

Once upon a time, before Google became a verb, people used to do this thing called “searching”. Searching was similar to googling, except that instead of getting a list of links to information you wanted, you would get a list of links to information that might or might not have anything to do with what you were actually looking for.

The first search engine on the Internet was a tool called Archie, created by McGill University student Alan Emtage back in 1990. (By the way, if you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, it turns out lots of aspects of the Internet — from IRC to Usenet — were invented by students. Go, higher education!)  Archie allowed you to search for file names across the various file servers connected to the Internet; it didn’t actually search inside the files.
Archie search query form
We’ve come a long way, baby. Thanks to the search revolution that began with Archie, there are now thousands of ways to search for content online. How good you are at searching now determines how good you are at school, at your job, or at marriage.

Being good at search goes well beyond punching in a few keywords and hitting the “Google Search” button. It encompasses:

  • knowing which search tools to use
  • constructing queries using advanced search syntax
  • refining and selecting from search results
  • saving and tracking recurring searches

Here are some of my favorite tricks for using search to work and play more efficiently:

  1. Learn advanced syntax. If you’ve never used (brackets) or an OR  or a “site:” or a minus sign in a search query, then it’s time for you to get cosy with Google’s advanced search syntax and advanced search operators. Use Google’s advanced search form as a crutch until you learn the search operators yourself.
  2. Go Boolean on your inbox. The same syntax you use to be a smarter searcher can also help you manage your overflowing inbox. Use advanced search syntax to construct Gmail filters that help you pay attention to the emails that matter most.
  3. Add additional search engines to your browser. If you find yourself regularly searching a single site like Wikipedia or the New York Times, you can add it to your browser as a search plugin and choose it from the dropdown menu in your search bar. Or you can roll your own plugin if you want to be able to easily search your own website (or any other site without a pre-fab plugin).
  4. Think like your target. If I’m searching on a broad topic where I want to find a specific kind of story or type of information, I try to imagine the phrases I might find in my ideal search result. For example if I want to find people talking about the impact that search has had on them, I might search on google “changed my life”.
  5. Don’t google, delicious. If you are searching on a really really big topic like best google search tips you may do better looking on delicious instead. That way you’re seeing the web pages that have been frequently bookmarked: a great sign that they are useful.
  6. Find the perfect URL (or company name or blog post title). OneLook is an online dictionary on steroids: in addition to the usual options for dictionary and thesaurus search, it also lets you do wildcard searches or search for phrases that include any word you enter. We chose the name Social Signal after searching OneLook for phrases that included the word “social”. I got inspiration for my URL shortener domain (http://alexlov.es/) by using One Look to search for common words ending in “es”.
  7. Google your error messages. One of the most efficient ways to solve any tech problem is to Google the specific error message you are running into. This will almost always turn up a blog post or discussion thread in which someone has shared a solution (or different possible solutions) to your problem.
  8. Subscribe to your top searches. Most of my news reading is driven by Google news and blog searches. I do a specialized search, then subscribe to the RSS feed for the search results using Google Reader. This gives me a much more eclectic view of what people are saying about the subjects that interest me, rather than just reading the same top bloggers day after day.
  9. Google sign with a lot of rubber ducks on topFind repurposeable images. You may already know that Google image search lets you focus your searching on images related to your topic of interest, like search engines. But if you want to be able to use that image in a blog post, you need to make sure it’s licensed for re-use. The Creative Commons search engine lets you find images (or text, or video) that are Creative Commons licensed; you can do the same thing with Flickr image search, too.
  10. Encourage better searching. Once you become a true search ninja you’ll be amazed at all the things people ask you instead of just searching for themselves. If you get really impatient you can give them a not-too-gentle hint that they should read this blog post for themselves.
First posted on April 14,2011

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