A friend was looking for an old post on Open Salon. I wrote some remarks on how to use Google to search for it. I find a lot of people don't know these little tips, so I figured I'd share them here.
The first thing to know is that you don't have to search the whole Internet when you have a problem like this. You can narrow your search to a particular site, even when that site doesn't have its own search box—or even when it has a search box but that box is really bad at search—by just going to Google and adding “site:” followed by the site you want to search for—with no space between “site:” and the site name.
We were looking for an article about a painting, so it just goes in with the other search terms, like this:
Before we go on, let's look at a few other useful details.
The word “painting” isn't terribly rare, so you'd expect a fair number of pages to match. If there's some unusual or unique aspect in the thing you're searching for, try to pick a word related to that to cut down on the number of search results.
In the case that started this, we were looking not just for a painting but one with bold colors. And someone recalled it might be about overcoming a “Stepford-like existence.” The “Stepford” reference wouldn't be in nearly as many pieces as the word “painting” might, so adding that to the search request will probably narrow things down.
This search request searches for an article containing both the word “painting” and the word “stepford”:
Searching for two words finds any page that has both of those words anywhere on it, not necessarily side-by-side. For example, this finds any page that has both “bold” and “colors” on it, but not necessarily side-by-side:
Note that search engines will tend to give preference to finding them side-by-side anyway, so you may not have noticed. But when more words are involved this is trickier. For example, consider this:
In this case, the search engine has difficulty inferring your intent. Are you asking to find the phrase “painting bold colors” or are you looking for “painting bold” anywhere on the page but “colors” elsewhere on the page?
By grouping them, the meaning is clearer. You do this with doublequote (") characters at the start and end of a phrase to search for that phrase as a unit. For example, this search will only find pages with the word painting anywhere and with the words “bold” and “colors” side-by-side in a phrase:
If you're finding things you don't want, you can exclude matches by adding a minus sign in front of a word or phrase. For example, this is the same as the previous, but pages containing the word “architecture” will not be included in the search result:
It even makes sense to both include individual words and exclude them as a phrase. The following search string will find “bold” and “colors” but not as the single phrase “bold colors”, so they will be only separated from one another on the pages in the search result:
It might be that you aren't sure of a word and want to try several choices. You can use the all-uppercase word OR for this, with no doublequotes around it. The uppercase, by the way, is to avoid confusion in case you want the ordinary English word “or” in your search request. Here's an example:
You might also have written this, but then you'd be searching for the word “bold” anywhere on the page and either “colors” or “colours” anywhere else on the page, but not necessarily together.
I also often use OR to seach for different phrasings, like when trying to find ideas about a problem I need fixed. For example:
Search Engine Choice
It's perhaps also worth noting that search engines differ a bit in the syntax they prefer. I've been talking about Google's notation, so if you want to try another, be aware some of these tips may not work. Read their documentation. The concepts will be similar but the capabilities may not be. Many try to copy Google, though, so probably you'll do OK.
I find Google delivers superior search results, and although I routinely try to use other search engines, I don't think they're nearly as good. Then again, you might wonder why if I like Google's results so much, why do I keep trying others? I'm glad you asked.
Google doesn't just search for this stuff, it keeps track of searches to track trends. In some cases, it may be able to associate what you search for with a file on you personally, or with some group it thinks you or your computer belongs to. This allows it to customize search results if you ask it to, but it also allows it to sell ads better, by promising to put customer ads in front of people who Google thinks care about those ads.
They try to spin that as a positive, but it's got its negative side. How would you feel if you walked into a Hallmark card store and were immediately greeted by someone saying “Sorry to hear your best friend's sister died. Sympathy cards are to the right.” That's both helpful and creepy. And that's what web advertising is becoming. The companies that do it the best are also the ones that are stockpiling the most information about you.
Using such data, political campaigns could perhaps find just the right message to say to you to make you like their candidate and dislike another. The ones who can pay for such targeting, that is. Using such data, a political or military force seeking to take control might know who's likely to have weapons or a strong voice that needs silencing.
Using such data, the center for disease control might notice people searching for symptoms that are signs of an emerging epidemic. That could be really good. Or a health care provider could sense you had a pre-existing condition and were a bad risk to cover. That would be less good. Information is very double-edged.
We all know there are positives, but we should be conscious of the negatives, and what our searches reveal about us. Sadly, the best search engines are the ones best equipped to make lots of records of who's searching and why. They may even justify the data they collect by noting we don't pay for the service, and suggesting they have to make their money somehow. Maybe. I don't recall ever being given the choice. We might all be better off paying for search and keeping our personal data to ourselves.
We tend to take these things as they come, thinking there are no choices. But often there are, they are just made for us. We end up not questioning whether things could be other than they are. If you want to read more about that phenomenon, I suggest Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget. Lorraine Berry (FingerLakesWanderer) and I wrote joint reviews of it here on Open Salon (hers, mine). But then, you could have found that out by searching for:
Or if you didn't quite remember the title, perhaps:
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