“How do young people find information so fast on the Internet?” a reader wrote us about conducting an online search. “How do they readily find answers to complicated questions? What’s their technique?” Our tech writer, Alexandra Boghosian, addresses the nuts and bolts of online searching. —Ed.
As someone who came of age during the switch from analog to digital, I remember well the skepticism surrounding the validity of Internet research. In computer class, we were trained to critically assess the quality of webpages through assignments we found tedious and repetitive. At the time, there was no Wikipedia, and so Internet researchers were a lot more likely to come across a site of questionable quality.
In these assignments we were given ludicrous search terms, like red rain or fish rain, things we knew were impossible in the physical world. We were first tasked with finding the websites. We noted, for example, that a search for red rain (with no quotation marks around the phrase) was less effective at retrieving results than “red rain” (in quotation marks). Once we added the quote marks we were surprised to find that there actually were websites reporting such strange weather phenomena.
I recall only a few criteria for credible websites. They needed to have an author listed as responsible for the content, and they needed a bibliography for other content cited. Even though crowd-sourced efforts like Wikipedia exist today, I find that I still use some of the habits I learned in that class. So . . . how can you get good at searching?
- If you want a picture or video, do an image search or video search. This option is available to you on the header at the top Google’s website. Click on the appropriate category.
- If you want facts—biographies, history—and your ideal result would be akin to an encyclopedia entry, search Wikipedia. I have found this extremely useful as a general reference, and it’s pretty accurate, too. If it’s truly serious scholarship that you’re after, then use JSTOR or Google Scholar.
- For movies, IMDb.com is where to go. Fascinating history of the site here.
KEY WORDS IN THE SEARCH BAR
- The more words you add, the more precise the search. But sometimes an added word will make the search engine miss the target entirely. Start with few words, then add more.
- Avoid articles, conjunctions, and other non-essential elements of style. Direct questions can be okay, but generally are to be avoided. Using conjunctions might change soon, however, as it looks as if Google has learned to ignore “and,” “but,” “so” and “a,” among others. Other search engines might be following suit.
- Identify the main points of your query. What are the nouns? What are the essential adjectives? That’s basically what you should put in your search. Be accurate. The computer doesn’t know any better.
Say you’re researching the northwest region of China. You’ll want to put into your search bar “northwest China,” at the very least. Maybe you’re looking up the cuisine of the region, so you’ll add “northwest China cuisine.” However, you might not be aware of the fact that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West just named their baby “North West.” You might be surprised to find baby North West showing up in your search. Don’t take my word for it. Google “north west” and see for yourself what you get. Try an image search if you’re feeling adventurous!
- If you’re searching for a magazine article, put in the publication and the date published, if you can remember it. Note: Your string of words doesn’t have to make sense: Search engines basically just match your words to words on webpages. However, as in my example above, you might want to use quotation marks. This tells the search engine to look for those words in that sequence only. This is key if you’re looking up song lyrics, for example.
- To avoid results that bring up information that you don’t want in your search, use the minus sign in front of every word you want excluded.
Continuing with the North West example, try first “North West” on its own. Notice that Kim Kardashian is mentioned in most of the results. Now try “North West –Kim –Kardashian” and see what you get.
RELATED SEARCH TERMS
- There is a list of suggested search terms on the bottom of the Google results page. I suggest taking advantage of those, because they’re often related to the original query.
- Sometimes your search terms just aren’t that good. That’s okay! We’re all 100% human, for now. Oftentimes Google knows what you meant and suggests search terms it thinks are related. Take advantage of that.
- When presented with several appealing options, right-click on the link and click “open in a new tab.” This opens the website in a different tab, without closing the window that contains your search results. You can do this any number of times. It is extremely convenient, since you don’t have to keep re-opening your search engine.
KEEP ON SEARCHING
- If you find something that is closer to what you want, but not exactly what you are looking for, redo your search with words from what you just learned.
- Are you doing some meta-analysis? Using a Google search to learn about Google search? Google Trends is pretty useful for analyzing search terms. Check it out, but be diligent about interpreting the results. Google doesn’t give actual numbers, it basically reports to you in percentages over time.
- And—good news! If you hate that your every Web search is being tracked, duckduckgo.com is a search engine that claims not to gather your clicks into metadata—so you can search anonymously.