Web Search Basics

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The basics of searching the web, or how to use Google better. Unfortunately, Web Searching is still not very good -- partly due to complexities of language, mostly due to poor implementations. But sadly, since Google and others have done a really poor job of adapting to you, you're going to have to learn how to adapt to them. Thus one of the most important things in a users "Web Experience" is learning how to search the Internet. Most users haven't spent more than 2 minutes learning how to search, and never even clicked the "advanced" search link on their favorite search engines. No wonder so many users are frustrated because they can't find anything, or find 10,000 things they don't care about.


Any failures in searches are NOT the users fault. If computers and programmers were that smart, they'd adapt to users. So none of this is blaming the users for not adapting to computers.

These problems are not easy, or they would have been fixed. There is an inherent problem with language and trying to tell a computer exactly what you want. Computers are stupid, they can't think, and will do exactly what you tell them to in the dumbest, most literal way. So if you ask for a word, they just blindly look for all occurrences of that word; and on the web, that is a bazillion irrelevant results, and only by luck will you find your needle in that haystack.

Search engines rank pages based on things like how many times that word shows up, or how many others link to that page. Thus if you ask for "Dick" as in Dick Chaney or Dick Van Dyke, and you're likely to get a porn site at the top, because they have more occurrences of the word "dick" and they have more links/popularity than some page talking about the VP or a Comedian.

So you have to learn how to talk to the computer and help it.

Narrow the scope

Anything you can do to limit the number of possible results, will filter out lots of the garbage (noise) that you don't want.

If you can limit by category, time (how recent), type (is it an image, a song, a page, etc.), topic, or give it more words that are relevant to what you're doing, then that will get you closer to the few files that you really have interest in; rather than swamp you with all the ones you don't care about.

For example, I'm looking at finishing my basement, and have interest in techniques for framing the walls:

  • If I search for the words 'finishing basement', I got thousands of results, many had to do with finishing metal, cars, books, walls, furniture, hair, people, guns, copiers; and many more on basements (but nothing to do with finishing). I'm sure somewhere in there, is something helpful, I just don't have the time to find it.
  • If I narrow by topic and search on "home improvement", I got many sites on that subject, and could search them for basements. So that was a better subject for what I wanted to do.

So you need to pick which word/idea that you're looking for carefully.

Another way to narrow the results is to give more hints to the search engine. The computer can't intuit what you want, so you have to tell it. When I did the same search, but put many relevant words in there; like "wall framing basement", it gave the search engine a better hint as to what I was looking for, and it ordered the results better.

Logic: and/or

There's some logic as to what the search engine is doing. Usually it is doing an "OR" search, searching for 'this OR that", and finding any of those words.

If you use AND (or the '+' as an abbreviation), you are telling it you need all of those words. And if you give it more hints, like "NOT" some words (abbreviated as '-') that can help more.

So a searching is iterative (it takes a few tries on every search):

  • I started with +basement +framing, and that got me a bunch of commerce sites on hiring contractors or on framing pictures
  • I added the terms -contractor -building -art to get rid of crap I didn't want

And my search was much better on showing actual tips on how to frame walls.


Lastly if you wrap something in quotes, you can tell it you're looking for an exact phrase (those words together) instead of anything with each of those words in them.


Order (first things first) is a hint at importance (first things first). Also different search engines are better at different things, so it is a good idea to try some searches on different search engines and compare the results.


Usually finding what you want on the web takes a little trial and error to get what you care about. But it is a skill that can be learned, and it is usually faster and cheaper than going down to the library or searching store to store, trying to find what you want.

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Written 2002.03.11