my google-fu sucks: wat do?
July 8, 2013 8:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm always impressed lurking around here by the expertise of folks when it comes to finding sources/answers. Obviously, there are a lot of librarians and information specialists whose jobs involve research, but still it's clear many of you are much better than me when it comes to using google. So, how can I better? What google search strategies do you use? What resources would you all recommend?

Needless to say, googling this brings up a lot of hits; hence, I'm hoping for suggestions which ones to start with and where to go from there. Fwiw, as far as my general background: in U.S., college educated, deal mostly with humanities/public affairs topics, fine with basic computer stuff (read a lot on line), use google regularly but intuitively, etc. Thx.
posted by 5Q7 to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
The major thing you can do to improve your search queries is to use the various search operators. Some you're probably aware of -- like "putting strings of words in quotes" to search for them verbatim and in that order -- but there are some other very useful ones, like prefixing a word with "-" to exclude that word from your results, which is really useful for filtering out the items you obviously don't care about when you have an ambiguous search string.
posted by invitapriore at 9:08 AM on July 8, 2013

One of the things I tell my 17-year-old son when he's dealing with research papers is to start deep. Instead of cruising the first page for info, go deeper in. Pick page 7, for example, and scan that. Here's where you'll find off-the-beaten track info that's not readily found (and repeated over and over again) on page 1 results.
posted by zagyzebra at 9:09 AM on July 8, 2013

Adding "site:" followed by the domain or domain suffix will restrict your search to that domain/suffix, and adding "filetype:" followed by the file extension type you want will restrict your search to just that file type. Those are two really handy ways to avoid just getting a bunch of SEO crap pages in your search results.

Meanwhile, if you are searching for something and getting a lot of hits for something that really isn't the thing you are looking for but shares keywords with the thing you are looking for, adding a - sign before a keyword that is specific to the thing you DON'T want will filter out results containing that keyword.

Explore the Google sub-site results as applicable. Like if you are trying to find a product, click the Shopping tab. If you're trying to find academic publications, click the Scholar tab. Sometimes you need to click the "More" tab below the search bar to see all the sub-sites that have search results.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:10 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The best piece of advise that I've ever received regarding this is, before you start a search, try to imagine what form you want your result to take. This helps you to think about how the answer to a question, or a piece of information will be on the page, and lets you start assembling as many keywords as possible to put in to a search.
posted by codacorolla at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

As an adjunct to Google, I've found the citations at the bottom of Wikipedia articles to be useful, though a fair number of them end up being stale links.
posted by jquinby at 9:12 AM on July 8, 2013

Oh, and one useful and under-documented fact regarding the use of double quotes: if you want Google not to search for synonyms and variants of a single word (e.g., if you specifically want to search for "ate" and not "eat" or "eating" or "consume" or etc.) you can just put a single word in your search string in quotes like so:
billy "ate" the bear
...then you'll only get results containing "ate" and not any of its variants.
posted by invitapriore at 9:14 AM on July 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

Google offers a couple different self-paced "power searching" online courses that are pretty helpful; I took them last year and picked up a few new tricks.

I also frequently refer to this excellent graphic.
posted by anderjen at 9:18 AM on July 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

Here's some advanced operators that also come in handy - in addition to those already mentioned in the links above.

They're not hard to learn, and have honestly changed the way I search.
posted by matty at 9:20 AM on July 8, 2013

Two resources that I use, both as a librarian who needs to find weird stuff and an instructor who teaches others how to find weird stuff:

Power Searching with Google (video tutorials from the search gurus at Google)

Google Guide (everything you could possibly want to know about search operators, refining a search, etc.)

Also, the synonym search operator (~) is a great way to expand a search when you're iffy on keywords.
posted by 2or3things at 9:22 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Familiarize yourself with the alternate search areas available from Google, like uploading or linking to an image in Google Image Search, or searching the Google News archives or Google Books archives. If I'm trying to identify a blue bowl with no markings, entering "blue milk glass bowl" into Image Search and scanning the images is the quickest way. Similarly, Google Books has background info that won't come up in any other way.

Also, try other search engines -- Google Maps and Bing Maps have similar but non-identical geocoding algorithms etc. and sometimes one or the other is better for a particular application. Similarly, StreetView (Google) and Birds Eye View (Bing) will show different and complementary information about given areas.
posted by pie ninja at 9:37 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I disagree. If you're finding what you need on page 7, your search terms are bad.

My general rule is to type in my first thought on search terms. If nothing on page 1 looks good, I start rolling through synonyms. Normally, I'll find something that's close-but-not-quite. The magic is to read through that close document and look for the expert language that others are using to describe what you want, and start adding in those search terms.

So the basic idea is 1) generate query terms until you find a worthwhile result, 2) read the worthwhile result and use it to grab additional terms to refine your search, relying on that author's expertise with the domain-specific language, 3) find results you want.

I solve lots of IT problems this way.
posted by bfranklin at 9:53 AM on July 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Also, know where and what you're looking for. So many people I see searching just use one word that could describe almost anything, and they'll just go to plain old Google for all answers. If you think you know what something looks like, go to Google Images. If it's deeper research you want on academic materials, Google Scholar (that works somewhat for legal documents as well). Recent events? works for those.

Also, if you don't find what you're looking for the first time, try synonyms and different phrasings. You may try writing out the full question into Google (this goes for other search engines, as well).

Don't be afraid to search within searchable websites that might contain the information you're looking for, as well. If I have a business question, I'll go to business sites and search within the sites, rather than a generic Google search.
posted by xingcat at 10:10 AM on July 8, 2013

Write it out exactly how you say it. People write on the internet just like how they speak, so search using "spoken language" instead of "written language." I had a friend who for the life of him couldn't find a bug he'd seen in his garden that looked like a creepy little baby. So I typed in "bug that looks like a creepy little baby" and I swear the first hit was what he was looking for. (Potato bugs, FWIW.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:19 AM on July 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

I also use variations in spelling-sometimes the most interesting stuff contains mistakes.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:48 AM on July 8, 2013

I've always had luck by brainstorming for as many key words as I could think of, and entering them all. I once was tasked with trying to find out contact information for the estate of the playwright William DeMille, about whom all I knew was that he was Cecil's brother and Agnes' father. I think I ended up putting "agnes cecil william demille family address contact information estate" as my search string - and that's what brought me to the contact information for this obscure economics think tank which Agnes DeMille actually founded, and they had the contact info for her son -- William's grandson - and passed it on. I would NEVER have found them without throwing all those buzzwords at the problem.

Basically, the more details you can throw at Google, the better.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Using American spelling (anesthesia, humor, color, etc) or British English spelling (anaesthesia, humour, colour, etc) will also open up different avenues to travel down.
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:07 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The "site:" operator mentioned above has been quite useful because google can search some sites better than can the site's provided search engine. (For instance, rockpapershotgun has a pretty terrible search engine, but google has helped me occasionally ferret out older reviews.)
posted by Going To Maine at 11:23 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Peripheral information can really help. For instance, I was trying to confirm the full name of a particular musical performer. I tried searching the full name I was given in quotes, and not much was turning up. So then I tried searching her name alongside the musicians she typically performed with, and that pulled up some social media accounts that were potentially hers. I then searched for her full name + other musician's name + social media username and found a confirmed account with the full name.

Basically, if you know anything else about the topic you are searching for, try adding it in. Firstname Lastname Company City Emailaddress. [Vague song lyric identification] + "lyrics" + genre + year. And so on.
posted by capricorn at 11:31 AM on July 8, 2013

I also start a lot of my searches these days here at AskMe (either via the site's own search and tags or using the site: filter in Google search) since so many questions have been asked and answered here before.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:29 PM on July 8, 2013

When I google for things, I try to think first in terms of how it would appear in context, on the types of websites I'm searching for. Google gives greater weight to words that appear near each other in the same order as you typed them in. So if you search for vietnam airlines you'll get many more results for the airline called Vietnam Airlines, whereas if you search for airlines in vietnam, you'll get better results for airlines that operate in Vietnam.

It also helps to use more specific words, especially if you're looking for scientific or academic sources. Recently, I had much more success searching for menaquinone content than I did searching for Vitamin K2 content.
posted by WasabiFlux at 2:00 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Instead of trying to memorize all the fiddly things about Google searches, bookmark this search form and learn to use it. But when Google runs the search you specify in the form, it will also show you the syntax to use for that search in the normal Google search, so you can also use the form to teach yourself how to use Google search syntax.

For example, if you type weasels ripped my flesh in the this exact word or phrase box, and in the site or domain box, and then click Advanced Search at the bottom of the screen, it will run a search for all instances of weasels ripped my flesh at and you will see
"weasels ripped my flesh"
in the search box at the top. Now you have your results and you know how to specify an exact string (use quotes) and how to limit your search to a certain site (use site:).
posted by pracowity at 2:31 AM on July 9, 2013

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