Clients have mentioned to me on occasion that they have a hard time searching for things on the Internet. It’s no wonder — the Web is such a vast mass that it sometimes elicits that needle-in-a-haystack feeling. And sometimes it seems that no matter which search engine you use, you can’t find any matches, or at least not the right ones.
This is a common problem, because it's not like you're searching for the world’s most obscure objects or knowledge; it’s that you just don’t know how to conduct the search in the most effective way possible.
Granted, there are many search engines out there; I reference Google in this article because it is the one I use most often. You can use a number of alternative search engines like Twitter and Yahoo.com. An interesting one is dogpile.com, which fetches you all the results from the major search engines into one bundled pile.
6 Tips to Narrow Your Search:
The Power of Punctuation — Using quotation marks and plus signs in your search phrases allows for exact wording to be searched, rather than individual terms. For example, if you’re searching for Major League Baseball merchandise, you should enter it as “Major League Baseball” + merchandise. The last word does not have to be in quotes because it is a single word. Entering the search items as above pulls up for-purchase results for the official goods of Major League Baseball. But if we were to conduct that same search without the words Major League Baseball in quotes, then it would return results for each word. In short, we’d see military results for the word major, organizational results for the word league and all sorts of local and regional and countless other results for the word baseball. Too much.
Pronunciation is Everything — So your child has a project at school involving the famous Impressionistic painter Mary Cassatt. The assignment involves an oral report and your child asks you how to pronounce the artist’s last name. You’re no curator, so what do you do? Just type the name “Mary Cassatt” + pronounced into your search engine, and I guarantee you will get at least one hit that includes the answer: (pronounced ca-SAHT).
Word Spreads — Whenever you are in the market for a new product and you are not sure how good it is, realize that people talk, and the Internet provides the perfect platform for dissatisfied customers to trash an ineffectual product or a company’s rude customer service staff. The best method I’ve found is to type the word “sucks” (again, not in quotes since it’s only one word) after the name of the product. So the formula would be “[product name here]” + sucks. Of course, you can use other words, like “low-quality” or “poor” or anything else you might imagine someone saying about it. If there have been dissatisfied customers, you will see results for chat boards and blog entries and can read through entire pages of complaints. If your search returns no results, then it’s likely that the product works or the company is reliable and you can pull out the plastic.
Sponsored Links — Anytime you are searching on a salable product, you may see some results shaded in another color above the main results. A shaded box denotes sponsored links, or paid-for links to sites that sell goods or services related to your search items. Don’t let these links deter you from finding the information you need. If you’re researching what ingredients in sunscreen fight the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays but type in just the word sunscreen, you’ll return hundreds of thousands of results, from a music video for a song titled by the same name to articles on choosing the right sunscreen to dozens of sponsored links on where to purchase sunscreen. You may also see “Product Search Results,” which list sites where you can buy different kinds of sunscreen. These links oftentimes come across as spam, but have become more sophisticated in their ability to return results based on your location, a feature enticing to local businesses vying for attention in a world where almost anything can be bought online. To make your life easier, type in “harmful effects” + sunscreen.
Searching E-mail Clients — Most all e-mail clients have search functionalities that allow you to search for a person's name or a topic that will allow you to find an e-mail in an instant (no small feat since many of us keep e-mails for years, and so having to search manually can be daunting). I recently used the search field on my Mac Mail to find an e-mail of a script that I had sent to a client. I couldn't remember the name of the document, but I remembered that upon receiving it, my client replied with one word: "Perfect!" So I typed Perfect! into the search field and set the parameters to include my Sent Items and the e-mail appeared! Keep in mind that punctuation always helps — I knew that my client had used an exclamation point so I typed not only the word perfect but also used an exclamation point to locate the e-mail more quickly. Then I was able to view the attached file and see the file name. It's amazing that one well-remembered word can help you locate what you need.
In the Spotlight — If you're a Mac user like me, you likely have an amazing feature called Spotlight, which allows you to search every file on your computer, including e-mails, for a particular word or phrase. Again, even if you just remember one word or phrase that you used in a document, then all you have to do is type it in exactly (no extra words or punctuation) and it will return results. Be as specific as possible, rather than common words that you may have used in other documents. Try to think of the most unique verbiage from that file and it will lead to accurate results every time.
What's your preferred search engine? Any tips that work great for you?
Thanks for reading,
Note: The bulk of the information above was originally written by Carla Rose Fisher for an article published in The Westchester Crusader on April 11, 2008. I updated it and added information to it for this blog post.