One of the questions I get asked most about my work for the BBC is “how do you find all those great websites?” The answer is patience; a whole lot of it; and a few simple tricks to help filter out the noise. According to Google, a company whose name has become so synonymous with the act of web searching it had to defend the trademark against becoming a verb in 2012, the web now has 30 trillion unique individual pages. If you want to get inside the world of search and understand more about how a company like Google orders the crazy mess of web content it finds, it published a rather nice site explaining how search works not long ago. There’s an awful lot of information there that will tell you how the search engine uses algorithms to try and understand more about what you mean with your search query so that it can serve up better results. With around 1 billion names searched for on Google every day it works pretty hard – and a shocking 94% of users never look beyond the first page of search results, so if you’re running a site you want people to find you can imagine how important search engine optimisation (SEO) becomes.
But that’s not what we’re looking at today (I have a big feature on that topic planned for the future so make sure you’re signed up for the newsletter if you’re interested). Instead I want to share with you a few tips and resources that will help you search the web more effectively.
The Basics of Search:
A search engine finds content by scanning and indexing individual pages, making them searchable by keyword. Different search engines use different technology and some are more effective than others. There are also search engines geared to specialist, niche subjects, like medical, jobs or simply finding people. You’ll get different results from each search engine you use, so it’s worth gathering a handful of varied resources depending on what kind of things you normally look for.
The granddaddy of search, Google has without doubt indexed the most pages – over 30 trillion to date, so you will get the widest range of results for a general, non-specialist query using this engine.
Advanced Search Techniques:
Because the index is so vast you might find there is just too much information returned from a general query, but there are ways to narrow down your search using ‘syntax’, ‘symbols’ and ‘shortcuts’, which are ways of formatting the text in your query so that Google understands better what you are looking for.
ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION
I often find that typing a simple question into any search engine is one of the most effective routes to the answer, as unless you’re being incredibly obscure the chances are someone else has already asked/answered that question hundreds of times online. Do not format it or put speech marks around it (as in the next example) as that will narrow your results from similar phrases.
EXAMPLE: How many pages are there on the indexed web?
If you’re looking for something very specific you can place speech marks around a phrase to return results that contain only that exact sentence. This is very useful if you find a quote in an article and want to know where else it has appeared, or if you know precisely how something would be worded within the text of an article.
EXAMPLE: “websites that only contain this exact phrase”
Sometimes one word can make all the difference – for example if you are searching for ‘football’ And mean the English version of the game you might want to exclude results that feature information about American football, and vice versa. You can use the + and – symbols before a word in your search term to include or exclude them from results.
EXAMPLE: If you want the US version of the sport you would search for: +American football
EXAMPLE: If you want the UK version of the sport you would search for: -American football
SEARCH A SITE
If you have a favourite site for news or articles you can ask the search engine to look only within that domain name for results by placing site: before the URL after stating your query.
EXAMPLE: PRISM spying site: bbc.co.uk
You can broaden out the results a query will return by adding an asterisks to indicate you’re looking for terms that begin with a certain word. This is useful if there might be grammatical variation of a word that are still interesting for your search.
EXAMPLE: tempt* – this search will return results for tempt, tempted, tempting, temptress etc.
You can also use the asterisks symbol to fill in the blanks when there are more than one possible options. For example of you wanted to find articles about wearing different coloured shoes you could search for:
EXAMPLE: “wearing * coloured shoes”
Continuing with the shoe fetish, you might only be interested in how it feels to wear two colours of shoe. If so you can use OR between two search terms to express this limited preference.
EXAMPLE: “wearing red shoes” OR “wearing green shoes”
You can also define your search by a relation to another thing – for example to find websites covering similar topics to Mashable.com. In this case use the term Related: before whatever it is you’re interested in.
EXAMPLE: related: mashable.com
By placing 2 full stops together between 2 numbers, you can ask Google to search for a term within those values.
EXAMPLE: ‘bicycle £50..£150′ will look for bicycles priced between £50 and £150.
You can also use this syntax to look for something up to a particular value.
EXAMPLE: ‘BMW ..£5000’
If you’re looking for something specific, like a user’s manual (which are often posted at .PDFs) or a PowerPoint deck (.PPT) you can use the command ‘filetype:’ to express this preference.
EXAMPLE: SEO tips and tricks filetype: ppt – this search will serve up PowerPoint decks full of search engine optimisation tips and tricks
Alternative Search Tools:
This service introduces a fundamentally new way to get knowledge and answers — not by searching the web, but by answering factual queries directly by computing the answer from externally sourced “curated data”, rather than providing a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer as a search engine might. It’s very deeply geeky but you don’t need to understand it to give it a try and see if it works for you. Just ask it a question and let it do its work. There are apps for Android and iOS too. They’re not free – but at under a couple of quid each they are a powerful tool if you like the way this service delivers knowledge.
And if you’re curious about what Facebook knows, Wolfram|Alpha has just launched a new tool that breaks down your Facebook activity into 60 different charts, graphs, and other analyses tools. Just fire up the site and search for “Facebook Report” to learn more.
This engine offers a completely anonymous search facility where users history is not logged and saved, thereby assuring their privacy – something which seems to matter more and more in the wake of all the government spying programmes we’ve been hearing about lately. The search engine pulls information from crowd-sourced websites like Wikipedia and because users are not profiled to filter preferences everyone searching for the same keyword or term will be delivered the same results, making it a refreshingly democratic service. I wrote a full review of the service last month here.
Searching has now become so sophisticated that you don’t even need to use words. Tineye labs links to some neat image searching tools made by the Tineye crew, and all are worth exploring if you’;re curious about colour and images.
Here you can upload an image or point to one on the web to find out where else it has been indexed online. This is a great tool if you’re checking no-one has stolen images copyrighted to you to use on their own website or blog.
I love the simplicity of this tool, which lets you build a pallet of colours to return a patchwork of images made up from that selection, extracted from 10 million Creative Commons images on Flickr. As a decorating tip it can be a perfect way to check if your chosen scheme will look harmonious when it is all brought together.
Using the same engine this tool lets you upload an image and then extracts the entire palette with reference codes from within that image – again a useful device if design is your thing.
There are many many examples of contextual searching – in other words search services geared towards finding results based on context rather than simple key-word recognition. One I’ve found useful is date and location searching website, Joobili. Most travel websites start by asking you where you would like to go, but if you’re thinking about travelling in Europe you can set the slider on Joobili to a range of dates when you want to travel and have the site tell you what’s happening, where.
With clever optimization tricks and a bit of money to spend on advertising it’s pretty easy to get a website onto the first page of search results but that doesn’t mean the content will be what you’re looking for. Instead of digging deeper and deeper to find the really interesting stuff, MillionShort is a search tool that removes the top results for you – from 100 to 1 million sites depending on what you choose – throwing you straight into the un-promoted underbelly of the Internet where you could discover something completely unexpected.
To see whether you’ll find anything more interesting this way try out the blind test at millionshortiton.com, where your search queries go head to head between Google and MillionShort over three rounds to reveal which results you favour most.