Article, July 2005
Search Engine Tips and Tricks
by Richard Johnson, TUGNET, Granada Hills CA
Part 1: Google
I don't have to tell you about Google, which has for many years been the search leader. Aside from the quality of its searches, a big plus is that all Google's paid listings are clearly distinguished, and do not even appear in the same part of the page. This is unfortunately not the case with other search services such as Yahoo, which intersperses undifferentiated paid and unpaid listings.
Newbies will want to know they can initiate a Google search at http://www.google.com. All the services I'm recommending here, most of them from Google but a few from other sources, are entirely free.
If you don't already use the Google Toolbar, you're missing a terrific navigational aid. Its features are really too numerous to detail here, but I find especially useful its ability to readily:
- bring up a parent Web page,
- search within a website,
- find pages similar to what you're looking at,
- find sites linking to that page,
- translate a page into English,
- browse by name (if you don't know the URL),
- highlight search terms on the page,
- find on the page your search terms or any other terms (more handily than with your browser's “Find” function),
- fill forms, and
- block pop-ups.
(There are better pop-up blockers and form fillers, but Google's may suit you fine.)
The toolbar enables most of the standard Google tasks, including some described in the next section. Not only are all these tasks easily accessible, but also you won't have to re-type your search terms (for example, when you search for an image after a standard search).
I strongly recommend version 3, which adds many useful tools, the best of which will allow you to:
- spell-check what you've typed on a Web form by clicking a toolbar button,
- bring up a map page (using the impressive new Google Maps--see below) just by clicking on an address, and
- track a delivery by clicking on its tracking number.
Since it's still in beta, version 3 is not publicized, and won't automatically replace your present Google Toolbar. To get it, go to http://www.toolbar.google.com/T3.
Other Google Goodies
Google Maps and Google Local
Google has recently introduced its own map system, that's head and shoulders above the competition. It's available as a stand-alone service at http://maps.google.com and as an adjunct to the more established Google Local, at http://local.google.com.
Compared to other online maps, the area of a Google map is huge, taking up more than half the screen, and expanding to fill any additional space (for example, if you move to a full-screen view). Zooming (in or out) is very quick, and re-centering is instantaneous. A new feature brings up a birds-eye view if you click on “Satellite.”
Google Maps and Google Local are now pretty much the same service: A page brought up by Google Maps has a link to “Local Search,” which provides the local data on the same page; and a page brought up by Google Local includes the map (which, although smaller, can be expanded with one click). The local data includes the names, addresses, phone numbers, and websites of businesses, and, often, third-party reviews (like restaurant reviews).
You can now get to Google Maps by typing a location in the standard Google search bar. And you'll find a link to Google Local at the top of every page of Google search results.
The best of the rest.
The following are, in my experience, the most useful (or most interesting) of Google's non-standard services. You do not need the Google Toolbar to employ them:
- Google's image search at http://www.google.com/imghp, touted as the Web's most comprehensive, indexes (according to Google) over 880 million images.
- Google will give you a business address and phone number. The easiest way is through the ResearchBuzz! form at http://www.researchbuzz.org/archives/001408.shtml.
- Google will bring up one or more definitions for nearly any word. In the Google search box just type “define:” (without the quotes), followed by the word of interest. This service is now multi-lingual.
- Reverse phone directory. In the search box type the area code and phone number (with a space between them), and there's a good chance you'll bring up at the top of the results page not only the person or company name for that number, but also the address.
- Google offers special searches, limited (for example) to U.S. government or to Microsoft. Go to http://www.google.com/options/specialsearches.html.
- For those who like to purchase through the use of catalogs, Google's catalog search is at http://catalogs.google.com.
- Google will enable you to view a page that's been removed from the Web. Look for the “Cached” link after the description of the page in a search result. (Or click the Page Info button on the Google Toolbar.) This function will give you access to many closed-down sites not yet available via the Internet Archive. (The Internet Archive -- not a Google service -- is at http://www.archive.org.)
- The Google Directory at http://directory.google.com combines the Open Directory Project (the Web's largest human-edited directory) with Google's proprietary ranking system. Use of the directory is helpful to narrow down what might otherwise be an overly broad search. (This tool is also available from the Google Toolbar.)
- Google Answers at http://answers.google.com/answers is a paid research service--but users are free to browse previous answers, which can be quite helpful.
- Weather forecasts are easily obtained by typing in the Google search bar the word “weather” followed by the city of choice (for example, “weather canoga park.”) The forecast will speedily appear at the top of a page of search results.
- Froogle, a comparison service for online shopping whose listed vendors pay neither for inclusion nor placement, is at http://froogle.google.com/froogle.
- Google Print gives you access to books' contents and lets you search within those books. Look for the “book results” entry in standard search results, accompanied by the Google Print logo.
- Google Suggest, at http://www.google.com/webhp?complete=1&hl=en, appears and acts like the standard Google search, except that as you start typing your search request, Google types its own suggestions. These could save you time and also point you to related searches.
- Google Desktop, to search files on your own computer, can be downloaded from http://desktop.google.com. Unfortunately, it's available only for users of Windows 2000 and Windows XP.
- Gmail, which on March 31 started offering rich text formatting, has as of April 1 doubled its storage capacity to a whopping 2 gigabytes. Gmail is not yet open to the public, but invitations can be obtained from various sources, including this writer.
- Note that without re-typing you can extend your standard Web search not only to Google Local but also to Google Images and Froogle (as well as to Google Groups and Google News), by clicking on links at the top of every results page. Or you can skip the Google entry page and go to Xtra Google at http://www.xtragoogle.com for a selection of twenty Google tools, all tied to one search box.
Use Alt-G to enter search terms in the search box. For your news search, don't enable the separate news button, but instead use the Search News option in the drop-down Search the Web menu. That way you'll be able to use the Alt-G shortcut to enter your news search query, and to use the same query for news and general Web searching, without retyping.
When using the word-find function, hold down the control key to find the exact whole word, and similarly use the shift key to move backwards.
Other Google tips
For academically oriented results (often the most useful), try typing site:edu either before or after your search terms. This will eliminate commercial sites, and limit results to those from educational institutions.
Although Google now implements “stemming” (automatically searches for variants of words as well as the words themselves), you can cover still more bases by using the tilde [~] symbol right before a search term (leaving no space). This will tell Google to use synonyms as search queries. For example, a search for ~food ~facts will turn up cooking information.
Don't worry too much about misspelled words. With any search engine, a search query with a misspelling might get you some good results that you wouldn't see otherwise! Google will suggest a corrected spelling along with its search results, but if the initial search comes up empty will correct the spelling on its own and re-run the search. Google will ignore some common short words (like a, on, and by) in your queries. The best way around these so-called stop words in most cases is simply to enclose the phrase in quotes, which will force Google to search only for the phrase as given. (A phrase search will of course come in handy on other occasions as well.) Otherwise, you can precede a suspected stop word with the plus sign (for example, +on).
Google recognizes the OR operator, or, in its stead, the vertical line. So if you're seeking search results concerning cats or dogs (but not both), you could type “cats OR dogs” or “cats | dogs” [without the quotes]. Use the minus sign right before a search term for “not.” (“Animals -dogs” [without the quotes] would ignore dogs in the search.) For complicated queries, you can if necessary group search words within parentheses.
Instead of clicking on the main link at the top of each Google search result, try clicking on the word Cached. The page that will come up will now have your search words highlighted. (Don't use this technique if you need to see the most recent page revisions.)
Google supports word wild cards. That is, you can in your query use the asterisk [*] as a stand-in to represent any word. (This won't work in Google for parts of words.)
Next month: Beyond Google.
Richard Johnson is a writer and editor, and founder/administrator of FREE FOR ALL The Skills Pool, a 29-year-old membership organization (http://theskillspool.org). He is a volunteer with TUGNET HelpContact for assistance with Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Gmail. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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