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Can you imagine an internet without search engines? It’s amazing how often we rely on them, countless times a day, every day. But while they’re pretty good at giving us what we’re looking for, sometimes they do fall short.
Fortunately, there are many ways to make your searches faster and more accurate. Here’s a basic look at how search engines actually work and several tips for how you can start searching like a boss.
How Search Engines Work
Search engines index the entire visible part of the web, which is actually a minority of all the content (the rest makes up the “deep” web). A search engine compares your search terms against this index, and displays the results in order of relevance and accuracy, hopefully.
Think of the internet as a library and search engines as librarians.
The thing is, the internet is millions of times bigger than any library in the world. It’s great that there’s so much content out there, but that makes it harder to actually find what you’re looking for.
If you’re searching for something very specific, there may only be a limited number of results. If you’re searching for something broad, there may be hundreds of millions.
When you type in your search terms, the search engine will take into account things like international spelling variations (i.e. color vs. colour), common typos, and even common synonyms. Searches for “funny cat videos” and “hilarious cat videos” will produce a broadly similar set of results.
You’ll also see an auto-complete list which suggests common searches and those that are popular right now, depending on which search engine you actually use.
Understanding the Results
So how does a search engine know what is and isn’t relevant?
Search engines use algorithms to classify every single page by quality, relevance, and authority. Exactly how they do this is a closely guarded secret, otherwise publishers would be able to game the system. But it’s believed that Google uses as many as 200 different factors in its calculations.
These range from things like whether the title matches your search terms, to the number of other sites linking to an article (in theory, an article that has a lot of links to it indicates authoritative content), and even some aspects like how fast a page loads.
This creates the basic page ranking, which is then tweaked further by delivering you personalized results, which includes tailoring your results by location, be it national, regional, or even hyperlocal.
So, for example, a search for “football” might suggest webpages about the NFL in the U.S. but pages about soccer in the U.K., while a search for “chinese restaurants” will list businesses just down the road from where you live.
Personalized search results also take into account the links you clicked on previous searches. Sites you visit often will be promoted in your results, ensuring that you are always being recommended sites that you trust.
The downside is that you risk finding yourself in something of an echo chamber, where you’re only pointed to articles that agree with your opinions, and if you share your computer with other people your results will be distorted by their searches.
To have non-personalized search results, switch to Incognito mode in Chrome (or open a private browsing tab in other browsers).
14 Ways to Search Better and Smarter
If you’re tired of having to run multiple searches just to find what you want, then these tips will help you home in on the exact information you’re looking for. They all work on Google, and most will work on Bing and other search engines, too.
1. Use Natural Language
Search engines automatically ignore words like the, or, or to, so you can freely use them in your searches without affecting your results. This means you can use natural language queries — like asking a direct question — instead of just focusing on keywords.
2. Check Your Spelling
It doesn’t matter if you make a typo, as the search engine will recognize it and account for it. But sometimes they will think you’ve made a typo when you haven’t, and show you results for what it thought you meant.
To get around this, you can just put unusually-spelled words or names in quotes.
3. Use Specific Words and Phrases
Anything inside quotes will be searched exactly as you’ve written it. It doesn’t just work for typos, but also ensures that individual words are searched for exactly and that phrases are searched verbatim with the words in the exact order. (Other search engines use the AND or + operators.)
Without quotes, a normal search will look for results that include ALL of the words in the query but in ANY order. This is one reason why search results can be so hit-or-miss for longer search queries.
4. Exclude Words From a Search
To exclude a word from a search put the minus symbol directly in front of it. For example, key lime returns key lime pie recipes; key lime -pie doesn’t. You can exclude entire sites, too, using -site:[website name].
This is particularly useful when searching for a truncated version of a certain phrase, as demonstrated above. It’s also good when a search term is too ambiguous on its own (i.e. “monster -jobs” cuts out all results that are related to the Monster.com resume service).
5. Use Wildcards
Not sure what you’re searching for? The asterisk functions as a wildcard, and Google will try filling it with its own ideas and suggestions. It can be a little hit-or-miss, but works for most things from shopping to solving crossword clues.
6. Search Either-Or
Normal searches will look for results containing all the words you use, but the OR operator enables you to specify exactly what you’re looking for.
For instance, tomatoes cherry OR plum will produce results for cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes whereas tomatoes cherry plum would find results containing all three words.
7. Search for Prices
To search for products at a particular price, you can enter the dollar value into your search, e.g. “android $200”. This only works well with dollars though, and other currencies are left out. On Google, you can also search between two values using two dots, such as “android $200..$400”.
8. Search Within a Site
To search a specific site, or to limit your results to those from a single website, use the site: operator. The search “site:makeuseof.com iphone” will return all posts on this site that reference the iPhone.
9. Search for File Types
A web search doesn’t just return web pages. You can use it to find files as well! The operator filetype: enables you to search for numerous types of file, including PDF, XLS, DOC, and PPT.
This is extremely useful when you’re searching for spreadsheet templates, PDF manuals and documents, as well as music, ISO files, and so much more.
10. Search a Cached Page
Web pages change or disappear all the time. Fortunately, Google saves a cache of every web page it visits, so if you have the URL for the page you can see what it looked like when Google indexed it. Use cache:[url] to see it.
11. Calculations and Conversions
Google is able to perform fairly complex calculations and conversions from directly within the search box, and you can type them in using natural language. So, 6+3, square root of 175647, and 100 euros in us dollars will all give you instant answers.
Need to quickly find out what a word means? Just type define:[word] and you will get your answer.
13. Quick Answers
You can also get instant answers with Google’s quick answers feature. This gives you a quick summary from one of the top results when you’re searching for specific information. Try asking a question to prompt one of these snippets.
14. Use Advanced Search
If all these shortcuts are too much to remember, then head over to Google’s Advanced Search page. Here you can access all the main operators, and filter your results further by location, language, the date a page was published, and more.
Better Searching: Easier Than You Think
Most of these search operators will work on Bing, with a few variations that you can read about on Microsoft’s help pages. By getting to grips with them you can ensure you get the results you’re looking for every time.
What are your tips for searching? Do you have any shortcuts or other ways to get the results you want? Let us know in the comments.