I use Google all the time but spend a lot of my time scrolling through the results. I feel like I don’t really use Google well and want to know if you have any tips on how to get better and more specific results for searches?
At first glance, it appears that the Google search engine is rather magic; you type in a word or two and it shows you the best results from millions of possible Web pages. For many things, it’s remarkably good, but there are also a lot of queries that fail to unearth the best quality results. The solution to your woes about endlessly scrolling through search results to find the one you want is to learn how to craft better search queries!
To start here’s a really basic one: longer queries produce better results most of the time. If you’re looking for an outfit that you saw a celebrity wear in a movie or on a TV show, a search for “red dress donnelly” is going to be far less effective than, say, “laura donnelly the nevers hbo red dress”. The latter, in fact, will reveal photos and even a few stories about Laura Donnelly, one of the stars of the intriguing HBO series “The Nevers“.
But there’s a lot more to crafting sophisticated searches than just using a lot of words. Let’s have a look…
GOOGLE SEARCH: QUOTES AND LOTS OF WORDS
As already mentioned, one of the best tactics for improving your search results on Google, Bing, etc, is to use lots of words to describe what you seek. If I’m looking for a list of who starred in the terrific 1941 noir mystery The Maltese Falcon, for example, the more information I include, the better the search result. Here’s “the maltese falcon 1941 full cast” (note that capitalization is irrelevant to Google search results):
This is a great example of Google offering up lots of information without you even having to visit a web site at all. Somewhat controversial in the online publishing world, but an increasingly common experience for searchers. Notice that it’s a great info box, however, with names, photos, character names (in grey), and, on the left, additional information about the film including release date, genre, running time and even additional information including Overview, Quotes, Reviews and, amazingly, “Watch movie”.
But what if this isn’t sufficient and you seek more information? Let’s do some more refined searches so you can see the relationship between sophisticated search queries and the number of matching results.
To start, let’s just look for the film by name, a rudimentary query:
As shown, there are a staggering 3.4 million results. That’s a lot of information to sift through and because Google tries to be all things to all searchers, a page that includes the sentence “falcons range from Gibraltar to Cape Town. Well-known ornithologist S’mont Maltese relates that…”. How is that a match? Because the word “the” is removed from the query (it’s considered a ‘noise’ word) leaving us looking for any page that includes both the words falcon and maltese, and simple semantic variations like ‘falcons’ instead of ‘falcon’.
No wonder there are three million matches, right?
To dramatically narrow things down, quote the phrase you want to search. That forces matching pages to have all of those words in order, without any other words between them. In other words, the ‘falcons range’ page is now not a match:
That simple change removed 2/3 of the earlier matches, dropping us down from 3.4 million to 1.0 million results.
BASIC GOOGLE SEARCH OPERATORS
A web page contains a number of elements, notably including the TITLE of the page, the BODY of the page and the URL or Web page address itself. Since having a word or phrase show up in a specific element can be a strong indicator that the match is good, Google offers a variety of search operators that let you narrow down you search further than just “look everywhere” as the default does.
One of my favorites is to check and see if the word or phrase appears in the title of the page. The title is the words that show up in the Web browser tab for the page, by the way, so this page’s title is “How Can I Get Better Search Results from Google Searches?”. The search operator is one of dozens that have a very specific format, as shown in this query:
It’s key to notice the omission of spaces: It’s intitle:word. If I wanted to look for Web pages that had the word “Oklahoma” in the title itself, that search would simply be intitle:Oklahoma. No space before or after the colon. With a phrase, quotes help Google know how to group things, as shown in the above.
Notice that we’ve now jumped from 1.0 million results for “the maltese falcon” down to 26,000 results. That’s a huge narrowing of the results and they should all be really good quality results because we know every single page has the phrase – with words in this order – “the maltese falcon”.
But you can constrain things even further. What if I only want to find pages on educational sites, skipping commercial and other Web sites? That’s a job for the site: advanced search operator. At its most simple, specify a top level domain (or “TLD” in the biz):
Now I’m only looking for pages hosted on .edu domains that have the phrase “the maltese falcon” in the actual title of the page. This narrows it down to 421 total matches. That’s a long way from 3.4 million, isn’t it?
You can narrow things down further if you want with the site: operator too. Specify a full domain, like the University of Chicago’s domain, and you can zero in on just a few possible matches:
Three results. Three! And all really excellent quality matches.
GOOGLE ADVANCED SEARCH OPERATORS: INURL AND FILETYPE
There are a few more search operators worth knowing before I wrap up: inurl:, filetype and intext:. The former is similar to intitle: but instead of looking at the title of the page, it actually looks at the page address itself, while filetype: lets you search specifically for types of files, including Excel spreadsheets, PDF documents and more. The third, intext: is a simple way to force the match to not be any of the special elements of the page but just show up in the regular text portion of the page.
A few quick examples. First off, a new search seeking pages that have the phrase “the maltese falcon” in the text of the page and have the last name of the film’s director – John Huston – in the actual page URL itself:
This search for intext:”the maltese falcon” inurl:huston produced a rather surprising 3,160 results and triggered Google itself showing us the cast and other information about the page. If we look at one of these matches closely, you can see that ‘huston’ does indeed appear in the URL:
[Note: I edited the above to make the page URL visible for illustrative purposes. Usually the page URL would be on the lower edge of your browser window]
And, finally, maybe you want to see if anyone’s produced a PowerPoint slide presentation that references The Maltese Falcon. Surprise, it’s easily queried:
This is a case for filetype: followed by the filename suffix of a typical PowerPoint slide deck: PPT. As you can see, the search query is intext:”the maltese falcon” filetype:ppt and there are 72 results, including a presentation on Classic Film Noir. Other common filetypes to seek include pdf, doc, xls and cvs for PDF docs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and text export in “comma separated values” format from a spreadsheet, respectively.
There’s quite a bit more you can learn about advanced Google search, so one place to keep studying is Google’s Refine Searches page, but there’s a lot of other tutorial information on the Web too if you search for ‘advanced google search’. Hope all this helps!