How To Use Google

I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to write this! You see, one thing I noticed over and over when doing desktop support is that most people don’t know how to use Google! It’s not their fault – after all, it’s not as if there’s a “Google Class” or anything. But I’d see people get frustrated because they couldn’t find what they were looking for. Now and then I’d try to teach them a thing or two, but since most third-party desktop support is metered, most employers don’t care to pay $85/hour to have their employees schooled on how to use a search engine. Which is a shame, because more and more people are using the Internet at work – and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, the Internet is useless!

The Basics

Let’s pretend that you’re interested in looking up some information about the St. Louis Cardinals football team. If you open a browser window and type St. Louis Cardinals into the Google search page, you will get several pages of results. One thing you will notice right off the bat is that most of the links on the first couple of pages are about the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team!

Editor’s Note for the Sports Challenged: there used to be both a St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and a St. Louis Cardinals football team. The baseball team is still in St. Louis, but the football team moved to Phoenix in 1988 and was known as the “Phoenix Cardinals” until 1994, when they changed their name to the “Arizona Cardinals”.

So anyway, the first thing you wanna do is cull out the baseball results from the football ones. To do this, you need to use an operator. The most common operators are the + and – signs. So if you go back to the Google search page and type this instead:

St. Louis Cardinals +football (returns any page that has the word “football” on it)


St. Louis Cardinals +football -baseball (same as above, but also rejects any page that has “baseball” on it)

you’ll get results more in tune with what you’re looking for. But not quite. You’ll find that the first three or four pages do indeed have information about the Cardinals football team, but after that you’ll start to get hits from sites that contain all of the words, but in the wrong order (such as a online article entitled “Cardinals, Blue Jays Endangered in St. Louis, EPA Study Says”) or sites that contain some (but not all) of the search terms (such as an article about cardinals (the bird) or St. Louis (the city)). To get around this, put the phrase you’re searching for in quotes, like this:

“St. Louis Cardinals” +football -baseball

This query will only search for pages that contain the phrase “St. Louis Cardinals” and football, but not “St. Louis Cardinals” and baseball. So what’s the difference between using quotes or not using them? Although Google will indeed put searches that contain your entire search string (St. Louis Cardinals) at the beginning of the results, it’s still searching for the entire phrase. If you skip ahead to page 20 of the search results, you’ll see that Google returns any page that contains St. or Louis or Cardinals. Putting the search query in quotes ensures that Google is searching only for “St. Louis Cardinals” and not “St. and\or Louis and\or Cardinals”.

Which brings me to another tip: Google drops most “common words” from your searches. Most pronouns, prepositions and definite articles count as “common words” in the Googleverse, so keep this in mind when you’re doing searches. If you type “How to reformat a drive in Windows XP” into a Google search, Google is only going to search for “reformat drive Windows 2000”. It’s subtle, but it makes a big difference in your search results. If you want to search for something like your original query, try “How to” reformat drive “Windows XP”. Putting the quotes around certain search terms not only limits Google to search for “Windows XP” instead of “Windows and\or XP”, but it also allows for the inclusion of the “common words” like “how to” that Google would normally drop from its searching. Also, keep in mind that Google also drops common words from foreign languages as well, so be sure to use quotes or the + operator if you search for LA (Los Angeles, which Google might interpret as “la” from Spanish).

More Power To Ya!

OK, so you’ve got the bare basics down. Here’s some more advanced stuff:

  • Use the tilde (~) to search for synonyms. To find good inexpensive restaurants in Chicago, try searching for “Chicago restaurants ~inexpensive”, as this will cover inexpensive, cheap, thrifty and several other synonyms for “inexpensive”. Likewise, searching for “Windows troubleshoot ~setup” will include searches for “install” and other common synonyms for “setup”.
  • Use the OR operator to include multiple search terms (note that it’s in ALL CAPS). If you want to get tickets to either a Cleveland Browns or a Pittsburgh Steelers game, search for “Cleveland Browns” OR “Pittsburgh Steelers” tickets.
  • Use the * operator as a wildcard. If you want to search for a Hemingway book but don’t now the full title, “For * The Bell Tolls” will search for any web page with that phrase with * as a wildcard character.
  • Use the SITE: operator to search only within a specific website for something. For example, if you wanted to use Google to search this web site for the word “Charleston”, you’d go to Google and enter “charleston”. This works for any site that Google as indexed. As another example, if you wanted to use Google to search Microsoft’s site for information about ordering service packs CD-Rom discs, you might wanna try “order service pack CD”.

Nice Extras

Did you know that Google has a built-in calculator? You can enter simple calculations (7*8) or enter more complicated things like “half a cup in teaspoons” or “29.7 c in Fahrenheit” or even “speed of light in furlongs per fortnight”. And just in case you were wondering, the speed of light in furlongs per fortnight is 1.8026175 × 1012 furlongs per fortnight. Click here for complete instructions for using the Google Calculator.

Google also has a built-in dictionary of sorts. Just type DEFINE: followed by the word you want defined.

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