Improve Your Web Search Skills

Paul Mah

I attended a short workshop conducted by Google research scientist Dan Russell at Google's Singapore office last week. Besides helping ordinary users get what they need quickly through Web search, Russell also trains Google engineers on how to search better. Well, you'll be surprised to learn that yielding better search results is not necessarily related to being able to craft the most complex search syntax-or being as smart as a Google engineer.


Keep Pushing Your Limits


I think few will dispute the role that search is increasingly playing in our lives. Whether to research the latest tech gadgets or to establish information about a medical condition, most of us rely on the Web browser these days to tap into the collective information storage repository that is the Internet.


Despite its prevalence, however, Russell shared how many people-even expert users-continue to use bad search methods regardless of the inferior results. Essentially, people who employ bad search methods continue to do so, over and over again. As such, Russell advocates that users push the limits of their skills, and seek ways to improve their skills. Russell noted that the evolving nature of search means that even well-trained users will find their skill-sets becoming stale quickly if not periodically updated. So keep on pushing your limits, and get acquainted with new tools or search syntax in order to keep honing your search skills.


Practice Anti-Reading


We tend to be attracted to words and terms that interest us, or to which we are familiar. On this front, Russell suggests a technique he calls "anti-reading" or the noticing of unfamiliar words. After performing a search, he suggests scanning the page for unknown words and to "go figure out what they are"-probably via another search. The idea behind this suggestion is that the new, unfamiliar words could have the potential to help advance our search towards the solution, or even unlock the answer to our question.


Quick Tips


Russell offered a number of tips on how to search, which I summarize below. In addition, you can also download and print out a very helpful cheat sheet that he put together here (pdf).


The CTRL-F shortcut

The use of the CTRL-F shortcut to find keywords on a page improves search efficiency by a substantial 12 percent, says Russell. This is especially true for longer Web pages, though past research has indicated that a staggering 90 percent of those from the U.S. were not even aware of this shortcut's existence.


Advanced Search Terms

Used together with your usual search terms, the following advanced search terms can help you attain more accurate results in a shorter amount of time:

  • site: Search within specific site
  • filetype: Find a filetype
  • intitle: Find words in the title of the Web page


There are more of course, such as using the "-" and "+" signs to exclude a particular word or tag it as compulsory, respectively. Also, placing a double quote around words will ensure that the search will be done on the exact set of words.


Use Context in Your Search Keywords

Finally, when trying to produce the search results that you desire, use the simplest language possible. In addition, be sure to include some form of context, such as location or type of circumstances (exercise, medical condition, etc).

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