Do More With Your Keywords

Do More With Your Keywords

Search is harder in 2010 than it was in, say, 2006, even though search engines are better. But we can help the search engines help us!

It’s hard to find good information without wasting too much time, so here are some broad search tips we’ve been using for a couple of years now.

1: Click first, read next.

Often, I'd read a search results page for quite some time, then decide not to read the page. The wasted time would add up... So here's what I do. If I'm looking at 20 search results, I choose a few links and open them in separate tabs. On each tab, I read a few lines to decide if I want to read the page. Soon enough, I'm at the page(s) I want to read. (And then I close all the other tabs!)

2: Stick with what you’re searching for.

When Google Suggest first came out, I realised that I was letting the suggestions modify my search. That was, thankfully, an early realisation. The intended utility of search suggestions is to save time. But the click trails of many a wasted search session reveal that a search suggestion did the damage. My take is that “popular searches” and “related searches” are useful when you have only a vague idea of what you need. They can be downright problematic when it comes to focused research. Say I'm looking for which baked snacks have the lowest calorie count. My search terms are “low calorie snacks baked.” As soon as I type in the first three words, “low calorie snacks,” Google shows me “low calorie snacks that fill you up,” “low calorie snacks on the go,” and more. Going with one of the suggestions is tempting, and more often than not, I end up wasting time. I probably miss out on something by keeping Google's suggestions turned off, but it lets me stay on track!

3: Target your searches using quote marks.

As with most search engines, Google tries to guess what you’re looking for when you don't put quotes around your search terms. With the quotes, you get pages containing the exact sequence of words you type in. I got the idea—in 2006—that Google was getting better at guessing, so I didn't need to type the quotes any more. That turned out to be not the case. Here's why: Suppose you're looking for which foods are highly nutritious. You type in “high nutrient foods” without the quotes. The top results are all long articles; no foods show up immediately. To find something interesting, you’d have to spend quite some time. But you can do a “targeted” search by visualising a page that contains exactly what you’re looking for. Perhaps it has a sentence that says “Food X is packed with nutrients including…” ? Let's try, with the quotes: “is packed with nutrients including". With this, I can see the names of the foods on the results page: “acai,” “watercress,” “wheat seed,” “wheat germ.”

4: Be wary of robots.

It’s more than worth the extra time to figure out the reliability of the source you’re looking at. Many problems here, the worst being “junk pages” or “spam pages.” I don't know the technical words, but there are many pages that seem to be written by humans but aren’t. Then there are sites that suffer from copy-paste: the material looks fine, but it was copied and pasted out of context. Here's what I watch for to gauge whether data is junk or not:

Does the article say where it got its information from? If it does, I check the original source to ensure veracity.

Then I copy a line from the page and Google it. This lets me quickly see what’s what.

If I find that if the author’s e-mail is listed, and if his/her credentials are mentioned, it’s more likely that the content is authentic.

Broken sentences, too many irrelevant links on the page, etc. often indicate copy-pasted content. Genuine information sources are, these days, more often than not, well-formatted.

5: Wikipedia is good, but don’t go along with everything you read.

Because Wikipedia is as good as it is, some people tend to believe everything on it. The good folks at Wikipedia have helped this to a huge extent: Most articles have pointers to the original sources of the information (citations). Sections that don't have citations are clearly marked as “not having citations”; I treat such sections with a pinch of salt. In cases where I need a high degree of accuracy, I actually check the citations.

6: Decide whether authoritative search results are important for your current search.

It’s a really tricky question: does your information need to be accurate? It’s tricky because we'd all say “Yes,” but at the same time, the more you insist on your facts being accurate, the harder your search. Sometimes I need data for a report or a presentation. This is “hard data,” like the population of Japan by year. There are implications: other people might quote me. An error could give my audience the idea that I didn’t know what I was talking about. In such cases, I look at multiple pages that mention the population figures, and judge for myself which to use. But sometimes I'm searching for the calorie count of foods just so I can decide what to have for dinner... in which case I don't bother so much.


Got a tip you'd like included here? Write in!