March 8, 2009

Search Tips to Solve Problems Fast

How do we find information on the Internet?

A simple question that people have been trying to answer since the Internet happened. Many pieces of code and humans are working constantly to "index" this endless dynamic web using complex algorithms to make it easier to "find" things on the Internet, so for now we will focus solely on perfecting the art of the web search. Unfortunately, the average surfer uses mostly basic queries and may only click the first search result, using only a few resources to solve even complex problems. Fortunately, there are simple ways to increase the effectiveness of your searches and decrease the time required to come up with a solution.

You need to solve a problem at home or work - whether it is technical in nature or not is irrelevant. For this example, let's say that you have limited groceries and need a creative idea for dinner.

How to search effectively:

  1. Define the data you already have; In this case, note the food items you have on hand. This will turn into your query.
  2. Define the result you are looking for; Here, this will be one or more recipes.
  3. Think about similar problems you may have solved or come across in the past. Did you see a recipe on a blog or hear about a type of dish you might be interested in trying?
  4. If you are already familiar with some resources, start there. In this case, you might try Food Network's website or searching simply for "recipe" or "chicken recipe". Do you see anything that grabs your attention? Look for categories you may be interested in as well as key words. Make sure you always read at least the entire first page of results, and pick out the most reliable links by their title and description.
  5. As you see things you might like, you can require terms in your query by using a plus sign* (+) before the word (no space). In this case, try your main ingredient first, such as: recipe +chicken
  6. Refine your query by trying additional ingredients, like this: recipe +chicken +paprika
  7. Try adding actions, for example: recipe +chicken +paprika +bake
  8. You can also exclude words by adding a minus sign(-) immediately before the word. So, if you don't like (or have) garlic: recipe +chicken +paprika +bake -garlic
  9. If you need to include or exclude a phrase, use quotes: recipe +chicken +paprika +bake -garlic +"sour cream"
*Most search engines will give you similar results without the plus sign (recipe chicken paprika ...), but using the plus sign requires exactly that word as opposed to including synonyms.
    More Search tips:

  • Generally, you can use "find this phrase" in quotes to search for exactly that phrase - words in that order. Try this for queries like "less than" +minutes
  • You can use the plus sign (+) before a word to require the exact word rather than including synonyms.
  • You can usually use the word OR to indicate pages that include one word or the other, or both.
  • Use the minus sign (-) to exclude words.
  • You can use -"this phrase", however this seems to work differently depending on the search engine:

    1. Equivalent to -this -phrase in some cases (
    2. Works as I expected - excluding only "this phrase" in order(Google)
    3. Strange results sometimes, such as including results that should definitely be excluded, especially with more than two words in the phrase.(Yahoo!)

  • You can usually use the asterisk (*) to replace a single word, so to get results for "marinated in (or with or using...) paprika" you would use: marinated * paprika
  • Sometimes you can use the underscore (_) to mean "near" - so you could use the following query to get results with "marinated", "chicken", and "paprika" in the same paragraph: chicken _ marinated _ paprika
  • Using the underscore gives you results when the words are near each other, usually within the same paragraph.
  • Don't be afraid to use long queries. For computer problems, search for the whole error text. To look for the author of a poem, paste a line or stanza. Try with and without the quotes. Use advanced search. Try different search engines.
  • Most importantly, read the documentation (usually under "Advanced Search"), refine your query and observe how your results change between queries. With practice, the 9 steps above should help you find information and solve problems more efficiently on and off the 'net.

Feel free to share your experience or add other search tips in the comments below.


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