Hi everyone! Continuing my articles on critical thinking and information literacy (check out my series on logical fallacies!), I thought today I’d touch on some tips for creating great online research. This may sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people do not do know how to get the most out of a search engine.
First, since Google is by far the most commonly used search engine by the population as a whole (to the point where “Google it” is a common phrase in the culture, and Google searches account for over 91% of all online searches vs #2 Bing search engine, with a paltry 3% of online searches), I thought I’d start with some basic tips that a lot of people don’t know that might help refine your searches using this platform.
Google filters and operators
Here are some handy Google filters that can be used to narrow down your Google searches:
Filters: At the top of the search results, you will see a set of buttons providing filters for the results. You might, for example, want to search for images related to your search terms, or see what the latest news has to say about it. Using these buttons will show you the results according to the chosen filter.
One button to consider is the ‘Tools’ button which will give you a few choices, one of which is to search chronologically – after clicking Tools you can click ‘Anytime’ and a drop down menu will give you offers options to adjust your search chronologically, for example, results from sites that have been updated in the last hour or 24 hours, or a date range that you specify. Be aware though that it’s not foolproof and you may get a result well outside of your desired date range because part of the site was updated within your target range and Google was unable to match it. ‘identify that the update was not relevant to Your search.
The other Tools option is to get “All results” or “verbatim” results, where you can choose to see all the results produced by the search, or just those that literally matched your search when you typed it into the search engine (see also my in quotes below, which will do the same).
Now let’s look at some things called “operators” that will help you narrow down your Google searches.
Quotation marks [“ “]: By putting two or more words in quotes, Google searches for those items together, in that order. So if you know a specific quote or phrase used in what you’re looking for, this is a handy way to quickly narrow down that search. For example, you have a piece of a song stuck in your head and you want to find it. So you plug in “If her daddy’s rich, take her out to eat” and the results will quickly tell you that you’re looking for Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” (it might return that result without the quotes, but the idea is that forces Google to specifically search for that phrase and increases your chances of getting good results).
Minus sign [-]: Placing a minus sign in front of a term removes that term from the search, narrowing your search. For example, if you want to search for lions but want to make sure you don’t get irrelevant results about the Detroit Lions, you can create a search like this:
Lions – Detroit – Soccer
A search designed like this will look for results about lions, but will remove results related to Detroit or football (putting football there also ensures that you won’t get results about, say, high school football teams whose school mascot is a lion).
[Site:]: By placing site: in front of a site URL or domain name, you limit the search to that URL or domain name. For example, site:nytimes.com or site:.gov (don’t put spaces) followed by your search terms limit searches to the New York Times website or sites with .gov in the URL, respectively.
WHERE [OR]: Adding OR (uppercase) between search terms does exactly what you’d expect: it forces the search engine to search for either search term. Why use OR instead of just plugging all the terms into the search engine? Because if you do that, the search engine will start looking for results with both terms, instead of just one or the other.
I hope these tips will help you get better and more relevant results from Google when you search. Other search engines will likely have similar filters and operators, so familiarize yourself with the search engine you’re using to get the best results.
Google Advanced Search
Most people don’t even notice it, but at the bottom right of the Google search page, there’s an option for “Settings.” If you click on it, you will find a selection of items, including “Advanced Search”. The advanced search page will allow you to be more specific in your search phrase, as you can choose mixed options such as “search for these words” and “any of these words” and “none of these words”. You can also choose to search by language or region, or where a search term appears on a page (i.e. in the title, in links on the page, in the text of the pages, etc.). etc So if you’re really looking to do a specific search, the advanced search page can be helpful.
Enough about Google. Now let’s move on to online research “best practices”.
Create a search
For the usual quick and dirty search, not much is needed and tossing a few relevant keywords into the search engine is probably fine. But if you want to get the most out of your research, here are some additional tips.
Create a list of terms: Write your question in long form and start by looking at the keywords in your question itself. Then take a moment to think about any related terms that might be useful for alternative search terms or that can be included in your query to narrow down the results. For example, related terms or concepts, or synonyms of your keywords.
Be specific: In general, the more specific you can be with your terms, the more accurate your results will be. A search for “fish” will return a massive, and probably useless, result set. A search for “tropical fish” will be more specific. A search for “zebrafish” will narrow it down even further.
Use filters and operators: Find out what search engine filters you use and what operators it might use (most often these are the so-called “Boolean operators” like AND, OR, etc.). Take the opportunity to adjust your search and get more relevant results. If you use a search engine other than Google, take some time to find a help site and look for filters or operators specific to that site.
Avoid common words: This comes down to “being specific”, but be aware that most search engines ignore common words such as “a”, “and”, “but” and “the”. Most search engines ignore them, so in most cases you can just exclude them from your search. Stick to keywords, unless you’re looking for a specific phrase and those are part of the phrase (see the item in quotes above).
Use other search engines: If you are not getting the results you want from one search engine, try checking the results in one or more others. Different search engines use different algorithms to generate results, so if you’re unlucky with one, try another.
Regroup and try again: If you’re not getting the results you want in a reasonable amount of time, reconsider your search terms. Can you refine them further? Are there any alternative terms you could use? Don’t be afraid to tweak your search words, adjust your filters, etc. and try again.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about search engine algorithms. As mentioned earlier, each search engine uses its own algorithm to perform its search. But a word of caution here – some of them track past usage and change their results accordingly.
This means that I might get somewhat different results from a search than you do, because the search engine tries to tailor its results to personalize them based on what it thinks you will want as a result.
On the one hand, this can be a good thing because the search engine may be able to give you better results as a person based on what has interested you in the past. On the other hand, it has the potential to give “self-fulfilling” results. Conspiracy theorists may be more likely to get research recommendations related to conspiracy theory, for example. This can contribute to them ending up ‘down the rabbit hole’.
Keep in mind that when you talk about these algorithmic biases, it’s mostly about issues with common online search engines. Subscription databases (like those you can access through a school or university subscription or through your local library) are much less likely to have this problem. But it’s good to be aware that your past searches, and possibly your past browsing history, can influence the results you get when you use them.
Moreover, search engine algorithms are not necessarily neutral, as they are designed and maintained by human beings. Some studies have revealed racial and gender biases, for example, in search engine results. As with anything online, keep your radar alert biased!
It’s a wrap
Hopefully, these tips will help you craft your searches for better results. Some people are more familiar with the online search environment than others, and some may be wondering why I haven’t delved into things like Boolean operators (which are covered in the Google discussion, some of the operators mentioned are boolean operators) and the like, but when I started writing this I was really targeting the average internet user who more than likely uses Google as a go-to and only occasionally needs a good search designed. A future journal might dive deeper into using those subscription databases I mentioned earlier, but for now I wanted to stick to the basics.
I also haven’t dug into things like Google Image Search or Google Scholar. Maybe something for a future journal.
There’s a lot more to say – evaluating different search engines and such – but again, I wanted to keep it simple.
That said, what is your favorite or preferred search engine? If you have a recommendation you’d like to share, throw it in the comments!
Until next time, people! By the way, the next episode of Logical Fallacies Bootcamp will be released on Wednesday, when we visit the False Dilemma Error! I hope you will give it a click!