Use Google effectively

Google, a household name by now. But how many people know how to use it effectively using these simple tricks? Most of these come from Google’s own help pages.

Search is simple: just type whatever comes to mind in the search box, hit Enter or click the Search button, and Google will search the web for content that’s relevant to your search.

Basic stuff

  • Every word matters. Generally, all the words you put in the query will be used.
  • Search is always case insensitive. Searching for [ new york times ] is the same as searching for [ New York Times ].
  • With some exceptions, punctuation is ignored (that is, you can’t search for @#$%^&*()=+[]\ and other special characters).

Some guidlines

Keep it simple.

If you’re looking for a particular company, just enter its name, or as much of its name as you can recall. If you’re looking for a particular concept, place, or product, start with its name. If you’re looking for a pizza restaurant, just enter pizza and the name of your town or your zip code. Most queries do not require advanced operators or unusual syntax. Simple is good.

Think how the page you are looking for will be written.

A search engine is not a human, it is a program that matches the words you give to pages on the web. Use the words that are most likely to appear on the page. For example, instead of saying [ my head hurts ], say [ headache ], because that’s the term a medical page will use. The query [ in what country are bats considered an omen of good luck? ] is very clear to a person, but the document that gives the answer may not have those words. Instead, use the query [ bats are considered good luck in ] or even just [ bats good luck ], because that is probably what the right page will say.

Describe what you need with as few terms as possible.

The goal of each word in a query is to focus it further. Since all words are used, each additional word limits the results. If you limit too much, you will miss a lot of useful information. The main advantage to starting with fewer keywords is that, if you don’t get what you need, the results will likely give you a good indication of what additional words are needed to refine your results on the next search. For example, [ weather cancun ] is a simple way to find the weather and it is likely to give better results than the longer [weather report for cancun mexico].

Choose descriptive words.

The more unique the word is the more likely you are to get relevant results. Words that are not very descriptive, like ‘document,’ ‘website,’ ‘company,’ or ‘info,’ are usually not needed. Keep in mind, however, that even if the word has the correct meaning but it is not the one most people use, it may not match the pages you need. For example, [ celebrity ringtones ] is more descriptive and specific than [ celebrity sounds ].

Search functions

    1. Either/or. Google normally searches for pages that contain all the words you type in the search box, but if you want pages that have one term or another (or both), use the OR operator — or use the vertical bar “|”  to save you a keystroke. [cats | dogs | ]. Either cats or dogs
    2. Quotes. If you want to search for an exact phrase, use quotes. [“I think, therefore I am”] will only find that exact phrase. [I think, “therefore I am”] will find pages that contain the words I think, and the exact phrase “therefore I am”.
    3. Not. If you don’t want a term or phrase, use the “-” symbol. [virus -computer] will return pages that contain “virus” but not computer
    4. Similar terms. Use the “~” symbol to return similar terms. [~auto loan] will get you pages that contain loan info for auto and its synonyms like truck and car.
    5. Wildcard. The “*” symbol is a wildcard. This is useful if you’re trying to find the lyrics to a song, but can’t remember the exact lyrics. [can’t * me love lyrics] will return the Beatles song you’re looking for. It’s also useful for finding stuff only in certain domains, such as educational information: [goat research *.edu].
    6. Definitions. Use the “define:” operator to get a quick definition. [define:computer] will give you a whole host of definitions from different sources, with links.
    7. Calculator. One of the handiest uses of Google, type in a quick calculation in the search box and get an answer. It’s faster than calling up your computer’s calculator in most cases. Use the +, -, *, /,% and ^ symbols and parentheses to do a simple equation.
    8. Numrange. This little-known feature searches for a range of numbers. For example, [“best books 2002..2007] will return lists of best books for each of the years from 2002 to 2007 (note the two periods between the two numbers).
    9. Site-specific. Use the “site:” operator to search only within a certain website. [admission] will search for the term “admission” only on Stellenbosch University’s website.
    10. Backlinks. The “link:” operator will find pages that link to a specific URL. You can use this not only for a main URL but even to a specific page. Not all links to an URL are listed, however.
    11. Movies. Use the “movie:” operator to search for a movie title along with either a zip code or U.S. city and state to get a list of movie theaters in the area and show times.
    12. Music. The “music:” operator returns content related to music only.
    13. Unit converter. Use Google for a quick conversion, from yards to meters for example, or different currency: [50 dollars in rand]
    14. File types. If you just want to search for .PDF files, or Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets, for example, use the “filetype:” operator.
    15. Location of term. By default, Google searches for your term throughout a web page. But if you just want it to search certain locations, you can use operators such as “inurl:”, “intitle:”, “intext:”, and “inanchor:”. Those search for a term only within the URL, the title, the body text, and the anchor text (the text used to describe a link).
    16. Cached pages. Looking for a version of a page the Google stores on its own servers? This can help with outdated or update pages. Use the “cached:” operator.


Advanced search. If you can’t remember any of these operators, you can always use Google’s advanced search!

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