Google 101: how to use Google Search effectively
Published: Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 12:10
Online research can be time consuming but with the right techniques it doesn't have to make you pull your hair out. One of the best and most used tools for this is Google Search. Nearly everyone who owns a computer has used this search engine. College students and other regular computer users do so daily. In fact, the Google search engine has become so popular that to "google" now means to search the internet in everyday, colloquial English.
As popular as it is, many people don't use the search engine effectively. They find themselves following link after link until eventually they happen upon what they were looking for in the first place. To try to help us out, Google has created a guide for making searching easier. Following these tips can help avoid some frustration and cut down significantly on your google time.
First, most current web browsers have a built in search engine entry box located in the right hand corner of the window. Simply type in what you're looking for and press enter. In most cases, you can also perform a web search right from your address bar. The words you look for are called your query, or search query. It helps to be as specific as possible when deciding on what terms to use in your query.
Say, for example you want to find the website for Prospectus News, but you forget the exact name of the newspaper. You could try entering "Parkland Newspaper," (without the quotes), but that's not specific enough. On the first page of results, you'll find that there are a bunch of places called Parkland, and the actual college doesn't even show up until the bottom of the results. And it's still not a link to the newspaper! If you enter "Parkland College newspaper," Parkland College is the number one link, but the newspaper link doesn't show up until result number four. If, however, you query "Parkland College student newspaper," bam! Prospectus News is the number one result.
It pays to be specific about what you're looking for. It's also useful to know that you can type a question into the query box. So, "What's the name of the student newspaper at Parkland College," will get you there as well. In general, though, it's better to just type in the keywords, which are the words most associated with a website during searches. If you type in a full question, the extra words you type may be searched for as well, and that could cause undesired results.
In addition to words, certain symbols can be typed into search queries. For example, if you type a string of words into the search box inside of quotes, the search will look for pages that have all of those words in that order. This is a good idea if you're looking for a song and you only remember a line or two of the lyrics, or a book, play, or movie from which you remember a quote.
You can also use the + sign in searches. The + sign should be put directly in front of a word (no space) you want all of the results to contain. So it's "college +newspaper", not "college + newspaper." The same is true of the – sign, but reversed. If you want to view only results without a certain word, use the – sign right before the term. Using the ~ symbol in this way will look for sites containing the word or other words that mean about the same thing.
If you want your search results to include one word or another, you can use "or" or | in between the words. Another very useful symbol is the *, also known as the asterisk. The asterisk, when used in a web query is called a wild card. Sort of like a wild card in poker, it can be whatever you want it to be. It represents a word you don't know. For example, say you're trying to find out the lyrics to a song, and you only know about half of the refrain. You can insert asterisks in place of the words you don't know. So if you search for "We all * in a * submarine," you're going to get results about the song Yellow Submarine.
Even using all of these tricks, you're still going to get a lot of results. Deciding which result is right for your purposes can be tricky. One good thing to look at in the results is the domain name. That's the part underneath where it says the title of the web site. If you google "Darwin" for your biology class, the first result is "The Darwin Awards." Underneath it in a different color, it says www.darwinawards.com, which might not be what you're looking for while doing research for a paper on evolution. Reading the descriptions often helps too, but if you see results with domain names like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin, or www.science.discovery.com/interactives/literacy/darwin/darwin.html, you know that they may be a better starting point. The key is to find information on sites that are reputable. If you know of a good, reputable site that may have information that you're searching for, you can use the + sign to include it in the search. So "Darwin +PBS" might give you good results about TV shows about Darwin.
It can be tricky, though, if you don't know much about what you're researching. Which sites have information about the subject, and which ones are creditable and reliable. A good starting point for college level resources is Google Scholar, located at scholar.google.com, which allows you to limit your search to academic results.
For more information on this subject, Buster Bytes asked Jane Smith, Instruction Librarian at Parkland College Library for some advice. On the subject of the reliability of web sites, she points out that it's important to figure out who wrote it, where the information is coming from and whether it was written with a biased agenda. She points out that Wikipedia is a good place to start, especially if you don't know much about a subject. When asked whether Wikipedia is a reliable source of information, Smith had this to say. "I say start off looking at Wikipedia...especially if you don't know anything about the topic," Smith said. "Get a feel for the wording used with the topic. But, you need to know that anyone can write information on Wikipedia. Not knowing who the author is should raise a red flag. Take the wording you see in Wikipedia and use that in a library database, like Academic Search Complete, to find more credible information."