Useful Google Search Tips and Tricks
(or "Teach a Man to Fish")
By Peter A. Bromberg, Ph.D.

Peter Bromberg

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." -- Aristotle

In 1996, BackRub, written in Java and Python, was running on several Sun Ultras and Intel Pentiums running Linux. The primary database was kept on a Sun Ultra II with 28GB of disk space. Scott Hassan and Alan Steremberg provided a great deal of very talented implementation help. Sergey Brin was also very involved. Some interesting statistics from this early Google predecessor:

  • Total indexable HTML urls: 75.2306 Million
  • Total content downloaded: 207.022 gigabytes
  • Total indexable HTML pages downloaded: 30.6255 Million
  • Total indexable HTML pages which have not been attempted yet: 30.6822 Million
  • Total robots.txt excluded: 0.224249 Million
  • Total socket or connection errors: 1.31841 Million


In June of 1999, Google received $25 Million in equity funding through Sequoia Capital, and the rest is - well, history. In the realm of public offerings, and despite considerable controversy about the way the offering was handled, it has nearly doubled in value since September 2004, flirting with the $200 mark. If the owners prove to continue to be as prescient and savant as they have been up to the public offering, they have the capitalization to literally squash any competitors. We will see how well they really can do as a public company. I don't know about you, but if I were one of those early Sequoia fund investors, I'd be pretty damn happy right now.

This isn't a piece about the Google story - there are already a few authors who've seen fit to write books on the subject, and undoubtedly there will be more. It will certainly be the centerpiece of courses at the Harvard School of Business and many others. This is about you, me and Google today, and tomorrow, in our daily needs for knowledge.

I have had Google as my "default browser page" since 2001, and so do many other developers I know. Why? Simply that it has earned the right to my browser "real estate" by providing me with valuable search capability far beyond other search engines. But only about 1 in 10 users really know how to leverage the Google search facility to zero in on high - quality search results on what they are looking for. In this short piece, I'll focus on some known and not so well - known techniques you can use to make your Google searching not only more productive, but more fun and useful.

Tip Number One:

The first thing you must do to generate a productive search is think. You need to think about what it is you really want. You really have to search Google for the words or phrases that will be on the page you want, not for a description of the page or website. So if you are looking for a comparative review of wireless telephones, you will probably get more results from a list of names such as SmartPhone, Audiovox, Motorola, and so on, than the words "comparative review of wireless phones".

Tip Number Two:

Use Quotation marks to force finding a specific phrase. When you surround your phrase with quotation marks, the search engine will only return results exactly matching the entire phrase. This is an extremely powerful search technique, and yet it is not used by the majority of web searchers. If you search on the two words George and Washington, you will get over 8 million results. If you put quotation marks around the entire name, your results will be restricted to about 3 million. And if your search is on "George Washington" "Cherry Tree", you will only get about 12,600 results. You get the picture. This is especially important if your search contains what are called "stop words" - words that Google is designed to ignore, such as "and" "of" and "the". By including these inside your quoted phrase, you will get more targeted search results.

Tip Number Three:

Use the Plus (+) and Minus (-) Signs. The plus sign just before a search term means "This MUST be found in the search". Conversely, if you find a lot of search results that include a specific product, word, phrase, or item that you do not want to see, you can put a minus sign before that word or phrase, and those results will be excluded from your search. You can even exclude domains or top-level domains from your search - see the site: command below.

Tip Number Four:

Use the Asterisk (*) As a WildCard search term. Yes, you can insert an asterisk in your search phrase and it will act as a wild card matching any word in that place in the phrase. Not only that, but you can insert more than one asterisk in place of more than one word in your search phrase, up to the limit of ten search words - and the wild card markers are not counted toward this ten word limit.

Tip Number Five:

Use the site: command. If you are interested in finding examples of the term XMLHttp, but only on eggheadcafe.com, then you can create a search like this:    site:eggheadcafe.com XMLHTTP This will restrict your search to only pages belonging to that web site. You will notice that in regular Google searches, if there are more than two results from that site, the second result will be indented and there will be a link "More results from ..." - this automatically uses the site: qualifier. Also, you can search or exclude whole domains. For example, you can search for tampopo dvd site:co.uk or tampopo dvd -site:com (Tampopo is a wonderful Japanese noodle western spoof by director Juzo Itami that is sure to be enjoyed by Americans. If you really want to get educated IMHO, try to avoid watching films out of Hollywood, as they generally stink).

Tip Number Six:

Use the operators. Besides the site: command, Google understands a range of operators that include filetype: (eg doc, xls, or pdf), intext: and allintext:, intitle: and allintitle:, inurl: and allinurl:, author: (in Google Groups) and location: (in Google News). Google also understands a logical OR, provided it is upper case. This means you can search for a bar in Orlando OR Miami for example. It is useful when targets of searches have alternative or variable spellings: outsourcing bombay OR mumbai. The OR command can be shortened to a vertical bar (|), as in outsourcing bombay | mumbai. Another way of adding alternatives is to use a tilde character (~). Thus if you search for ~food, Google also searches for cooking, cuisine, nutrition, recipes and restaurants. You have a lot of power and flexibility; you just have to make some notes and learn the language that the search engine understands so that you can speak to it. The search engine doesn't get mad or take offense - provided that you know its language, it will do exactly what you tell it to!

Tip Number Seven:

Use the Advanced Search Page. Fortunately, you don't need to memorize all of the above tricks, since they are conveniently offered to you in various combinations in the Advanced Search option which is always available from the main Google search page.

Tip Number Eight:

Use Google Groups. Google has the most complete archive of usenet and other news posts going back over 20 years. By simply switching tabs from Web to Groups, your search term(s) will be repeated on the Groups archives. I cannot stress how valuable this can be- many, many times when I have not found a proper result on the web, by simply switching to Google Groups I've been able to find exactly what I was looking for.

Tip Number Nine:

Use new advanced search features. Google has a number of new features including Google Local, Google News (news items from newspapers and other publications around the globe), Froogle - which searches for the best prices on products, and the Dictionary - to get the spelling and / or definition of a word. In fact, if you may have misspelled a word in your search, Google's dictionary will remind you with a link that says "Did you really mean XXX?" and clicking that link will correct your search. Google also provides an Images search facility that brings back results filled with actual images on web pages that match your search terms. One of the lastest new offerings as of this writing in October, 2004, is a mobile SMS search that allows you to send an SMS message to google with your search terms for a restaurant and zipcode, somebody's name and address, or whatever, and get back the results to your cellphone in seconds. I've used it, and it works great. You can even get driving directions. Here's a table with a listing of links to some of the Google advanced search features:

  Cached Links

View a snapshot of each page as it looked when we indexed it.

  Calculator

Use Google to evaluate mathematical expressions.

  Definitions

Use Google to get glossary definitions gathered from various online sources.

  File Types

Search for non-HTML file formats including PDF documents and others.

  Froogle

To find a product for sale online, use Froogle - Google's product search service.

  I'm Feeling Lucky

Bypass our results and go to the first web page returned for your query.

  Local Search - New!

Search for local businesses and services in the U.S. and Canada.

  News Headlines

Enhances your search results with the latest related news stories.

  PhoneBook

Look up U.S. street address and phone number information.

  Search By Number

Use Google to access package tracking information, US patents, and a variety of online databases.

  Similar Pages

Display pages that are related to a particular result.

  Site Search

Restrict your search to a specific site.

  Spell Checker

Offers alternative spelling for queries.

  Stock Quotes

Use Google to get stock and mutual fund information.

  Street Maps

Use Google to find U.S. street maps.

  Travel Information

Check the status of an airline flight in the U.S. or view airport delays and weather conditions.

  • Web Page Translation 

Provides English speakers access to a variety of non-English web pages.

  Who Links To You?

Find all the pages that point to a specific URL.


Tip Number Ten:

Use the Google API. Google has an API with a WSDL webservices proxy class generator for developers that allows you to incorporate the power of Google search into your own applications. It's free, and all you need to do is download the SDK and request a free license key. Now that I think of it, Amazon also has a very fine API that now includes the Alexa search engine which provides some very useful statistical information about URLs and web crawler searches from the Alexa engine, so Google "ain't the only game in town".

Have fun, and remember the ancient Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish. Often, when we get posts with questions that can be easily answered with a simple Google search on Eggheadcafe.com, you will see answers from yours truly holding nothing more than the URL of the search itself. I wish more of them would "get the message" about learning how to fish! And, lest we forget - be nice to newbies. You were one once, too.

 


Peter Bromberg is a C# MVP, MCP, and .NET consultant who has worked in the banking and financial industry for 20 years. He has architected and developed web - based corporate distributed application solutions since 1995, and focuses exclusively on the .NET Platform.
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