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January 5, 2006

Web Search 101: Walt Mossberg, the world's best tech writer, offers a free introductory course


Bad news, good news.

The bad news is that you have to read the Wall Street Journal to get the information.

The good news is that I do this for you and pass it on.

Without further ado then, the December 28 story.

    What You Should Know About Web Searches

    A Guide to Hidden Features Of Google and Yahoo Engines; Avoiding the 'CHiPs' Links

    Doing a search in Google or Yahoo seems as easy as falling off a log.

    You just type in a word, and almost instantly you get a page of links to Web sites that bear some relevance to that search term.

    But too often your search results aren't exactly what you'd like.

    Irrelevant links can clutter the page, especially when your search term is ambiguous.

    If you type in "chips," the search engine has no way of knowing whether you mean computer chips, potato chips or chocolate chips.

    In fact, when I tried searching Google for that term a few days ago, the top result was a reference to the old "CHiPs" TV show.

    A few simple tips and tricks can help you get much more out of a Web search without becoming a professional researcher.

    Some are better techniques for general searches, others are simple ways to do more-targeted searches, which can often yield answers, rather than merely links.

    For instance, most people don't know that Google and Yahoo (the biggest, most-popular search engines) can perform math calculations and currency conversions, look up addresses based on phone numbers, and more.

    The easiest way to get better search results is to use two or three words, every time, instead of just one.

    Search engines do much better when they have a little context to help narrow the results.

    If you're thinking of going golfing in Scotland in the summer, a search on "Scotland" is a waste of electrons.

    But using three words -- "Scotland," "golf" and "summer" -- is much more on target and takes only a few seconds more.

    Similarly, typing in "chocolate chips" or "computer chips" yields a results list on which that old "CHiPs" TV show is nowhere to be found. (You don't have to type the word "and" between your search terms, because Google always assumes it's there.)

    Another great tip is to surround your search terms with quotation marks if you're looking for an exact name or phrase -- say a song title made up of common words.

    When Google or Yahoo (or most other search sites) see words in quotes, they interpret the words as an exact phrase and look only for instances where the words appear in their entirety, in the order you entered them.

    Combining these techniques is even better.

    If you're looking for lyrics to the Bob Dylan song "I Want You," the best thing to do is enter the title in quotes, followed by the words "Dylan" and "lyrics" not in quotes.

    You can also sharpen searches in Google by instructing the search engine to exclude certain topic areas that might clutter the results.

    This is done by following your search term with a space, then a minus sign followed by the topic you want to exclude.

    For instance, my search for "chips" would have excluded its very top listing, for the old TV show, if I had typed "chips -TV."

    Or, you can focus your Google search on a certain topic area by using the "+" sign.

    A search for "Washington +mountain" is very different from a general search on "Washington." (You'll get narrow info on mountains in the state, rather than links ranging from the University of Washington to the Washington, D.C., transit authority.)

    Other search-sharpening methods can be found on the Advanced Search pages of both Google and Yahoo.

    These are essentially forms you fill out that let you customize your search in numerous ways.

    Both Google and Yahoo also are packed with hidden search tricks that make getting information faster.

    They aren't foolproof, but they will frequently turn up an answer right on the results page, without requiring you to click on a link.

    Here are some examples:

    In both search engines, typing in a stock symbol gets you the company name, latest price and a price chart, right at the top of the results page.

    Typing in a U.S. street address in Google gets you a link to a map of the location.

    Yahoo goes one step better -- it actually shows the map on the results page.

    Entering a U.S. land-line phone number in Google or Yahoo gives you the name and address of the person to whom it belongs.

    Current weather conditions for U.S. cities can be displayed in Yahoo by typing the city name followed by the word "weather."

    In Google, you type the word "weather" first, followed by the city name.

    In Yahoo, if you type in the name of a sports team and the word "scores," you will get the current score of a game in which the team is involved.

    In Google, you can type in certain fact-based questions, like "population of Boston" or "birthplace of Tom Brady" and you get the answer, not just a link to the answer.

    If you type simple math problems, like 5x8.1999, into the search boxes of either search engine, the sites act like calculators, spitting back the result.

    Both sites will also perform conversions of weights and measures, and currency conversions, right in the search box.

    In Google, you just type in questions like "37 centimeters in inches" or "7,000 yen in us dollars."

    In Yahoo, you begin such questions with the word "convert," as in "convert 7,000 yen to dollars."

    Both sites will let you type in certain kinds of numbers, like package-tracking numbers, to get immediate information.

    A vehicle ID number will get you links to basic information about the car and an offer to buy more detailed reports on the vehicle.

    If you want to dig further into these hidden features, Google has a guide at: www.google.com/features.html.

    Yahoo has a similar guide at: tools.search.yahoo.com/shortcuts/.


A few thoughts and additional tips from my crack research team, for what they're worth (certainly not close to what I'm paying them...):

1) Don't waste your time on Yahoo or MSN or AOL search: they're useless compared to Google. Every single time I read some story about how one of the pretenders is "almost as good as Google" in one area of search or another, I do a comparison test: Google destroys the others — overwhelmingly.

2) The "Preferences" feature on Google's home page is worth customizing to your needs; it's got lots of things you can tune to your particular frequency — even if your name's not Kenneth.

3) The "Cached" link — which appears below most Google search results in light blue — is an invaluable feature. Quite often a page is unavailable for one reason or another yet can be retrieved, albeit with your search terms in colored blocks, via this route.

4) Putting an item's catalog product or model number into the Google search box will, in a surprisingly — and pleasantly so — large number of instances take you right to a page featuring that item.

January 5, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I offer a counter opinion to the statement that Yahoo is useless. Although I use Google 99% of the time, there is still a difference in the Yahoo and Google report information. I was getting very different results from Google and Yahoo when trying to return my own blogs in a search.

I did a couple of posts on it at one of my own blog a while back:
Web Rankings: http://hhollick.com/v-web/b2/index.php/istm/2005/04/03/web_rankings
Web Rankings Update: http://hhollick.com/v-web/b2/index.php/istm/2005/04/13/web_rankings_update


Posted by: Heather | Jan 6, 2006 2:09:08 AM

Useful tips. I agree with you that most of the time Google results are much more relevant than the other search engines.

Also, check out some examples of How Doctors Use Google:


Search engine use in medicine seems to be the hot topic this month - both BMJ and NEJM have editorials about it.

Posted by: Clinical Cases and Images | Jan 5, 2006 8:14:25 PM

The most useful Google shortcut I learned:

If a site does not have a search engine, make your own via Google. (This is the same shortcut bloggers use to create a search engine for their blog.)

If you type in

site:www.bookofjoe medspeak

then all the medspeak entries would come up.

If you type in

site: www.bookofjoe.com +medspeak -anesthesiology

all of the MedSpeaks that don't have anesthesiology included will come up. (And you can use all of the other Google qualifiers to narrow the options too.)

Also,if you type in


you can find all of the sites that are linking here.

Two other useful search tools, besides Google, Topix.net and Rollyo. Topix.net only searches postings (news, Web sites and blogs) from the last 24 hours, so I have had better results when searching for up-to-the-minute information. Rollyo, at www.rollyo.com, lets you create a "searchroll" of up to 25 sites that you want to search simultaneously. It's fun to play with and useful for work too. (And it's free - one of my favorite things.)

I've created searchrolls of open-source texts (including Shakespeare), movie databases, Mississippi newspapers, online coupon sites, shopping sites, etc. It uses the Yahoo search engine. Here's a link to my Rollyo page: http://www.rollyo.com/szlea/

Click on Show All under Searchrolls on the right and you can see all that I've created. (Warning: It's as addictive as blogging. Don't go there until you have a chunk of time to kill.)

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Jan 5, 2006 5:23:11 PM

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