In today’s world, knowing things isn’t as important as knowing how to find the information when you need it. Some people are great at pulling up websites that tell them exactly what they need to know, while others search in vain. If you do a search for “How to find things on the internet” you will find lots of articles describing search engines, but few hints on how to use those search engines.
I happen to love doing research. I never liked doing my homework when I was in school, and when teachers assigned us “research” papers so we could learn the valuable skills of … I’m still not sure what, I would groan as loud as anyone. Now that I’m out in the real world, finding out about things is one of my great thrills. Sadly, none of the careful lessons in the dewey decimal system, or how to read a card catalogue come in handy for most of the research I do today. Mostly, I look things up on the internet.
Patch is continually impressed with my Google-fu or search-fu, meaning my ability to find what I am looking for via Google’s search engine. (Feel free to use any search engine you like, many internet service providers have search functions built into your home page.) There are people who are much better at it than I am, but after watching Patch doing a search the other night, I was struck by how many little tricks I use for searching that he just didn’t think of.
So here are some pointers for how to make an Internet search better:
Try using different words that mean the same thing; if you want to know how to make wine you could search for: HOW TO MAKE WINE, HOW TO FERMENT WINE, TUTORIAL MAKING WINE, INSTRUCTIONS MAKE WINE, INSTRUCTIONS FERMENT WINE, etc. If you do one big search, like: HOW TO MAKE FERMENT WINE INSTRUCTIONS TUTORIAL, you will be pulling a certain kind of result to the top of your search, the kind of result that has all of those words, which was probably written by someone trying to game the system — it might be exactly what you want, or it might be some spammer with a parked domain that has a bunch of links and ads on it. By searching for each set of terms individually, you can keep your eye out for results that don’t show up under all the searches — in this kind of example, where it is a search for instructions, the results that don’t show up for every similar search are often people’s hobby sites, full of well researched information, and describing lots of actual experimentation.
If you don’t know exactly what you are searching for, think of words that go with the thing you can’t name. Say, you can’t remember the word for Tempeh. You could try searching for: VEGAN MEAT ALTERNATIVE, or DENSE STIR FRY VEGAN. That last won’t turn up the word Tempeh right away, but it will pull up some other vegan stir-fry options… which leads me to the next tip.
Once you’ve started searching, don’t give up. The results you get, even if they aren’t what you’re looking for, are useful. From the example above, the search: DENSE STIR FRY VEGAN will turn up results talking about Tofu and Seitan; you can take those results and make a new search: VEGAN TOFU SEITAN, which finally turns up what I’m looking for — ah yes, that word was Tempeh. You can also use “bad” search results to eliminate words. With many search engines, you can put a minus sign before a word to remove results containing that word. Say you wanted to find information on ottomans, but you didn’t want to look at ottomans for sale, and you didn’t want information on the ottoman empire. Doing a search for: OTTOMAN, turns up everything. You can rid of the information on the ottoman empire by changing your search to” OTTOMAN -EMPIRE, but then you still get all the sales pages. Unfortunately, the people selling furniture on-line are very good at what they do, so even adjusting the search to: OTTOMAN -EMPIRE -PRICE -SALE, pulls up a bunch of stores. So you have to think again about what you’re looking for.
Be specific about what you want. Do you want to find out what an ottoman is? In that case, you can do a search asking just that: WHAT IS AN OTTOMAN, you can even add in the useful information from that earlier search, and put in: WHAT IS AN OTTOMAN -EMPIRE. Or maybe you realize that what you’re really looking for is information on the history behind ottomans as a furniture item, in which case, you can search for: OTTOMAN -EMPIRE HISTORY FURNITURE, voila!
If your search includes a person’s name, or a set of song lyrics which you know will be next to each other, you can put the relevant words in quotes: “LIFE GOES ON LA” SONG, or “LIFE GOES ON LA” LYRICS; notice that I didn’t put the word “song” or “lyrics” inside the quotes, that’s because I don’t care what order those words go in, in relationship to the words in the quotes.
Really, the most important thing is not to get discouraged, if you don’t find what you’re looking for right away. Do side searches, to try and figure out what words are going to make your main search more focused. Do multiple searches using different words, and see what you find. Research is a fun puzzle, a mystery to be solved, so appreach it as a game, and enjoy everything you learn along the way.