I often get asked questions that boil down to “How do I get better at using my computer?” Many people get frustrated using their devices because they can’t quickly find answers to the questions they have.
In fact, it’s one reason sites like Ask Leo! are so popular.
And that word find is the key.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
The most important skill? Search
If there’s one skill I recommend everyone invest in, it’s using search engines (such as Google) more effectively.
To be completely honest, it’s part skill and part patience. It’s sad to watch people search using wild guesses and then quickly give up in frustration when the answer they’re looking for isn’t at the top of the results.
Search engines do try to interpret what you’re looking for, and while they are definitely getting better, they can only go so far. The better and more clearly you are able to state what you’re looking for, the better results you’re going to get.
The two most common mistakes
The most common mistake I see is trying to be too specific from the start: including every term you can possibly think of to narrow down the search.
There’s nothing wrong with being specific or trying a naturally complete phrase or description. Just don’t give up when what you’re looking for isn’t obvious in the first few results.
The second most common mistake is the exact opposite: using only one or two words as your search terms, and giving up after getting lost in a flood of irrelevant results.
The solution: refinement
Effective searching involves knowing what words, phrases, and partial phrases are most likely to get you what you want. But really effective searching also means knowing what to do next.
Knowing how to refine your second search is perhaps more important than the terms you choose to start. It involves understanding a little bit of how search engines work and using that knowledge to pick the right things to search for next. It’s a step many people skip. If they don’t get what they want immediately, it must not exist.
If you’ve tried to be specific with your search terms, perhaps you’ve been a little too precise. Try removing some terms, or replacing them with more generic synonyms, and searching again. Cast a wider net, knowing you’ll see results that aren’t related. Rather than typing in a sentence, focus only on terms that are truly relevant to what you’re looking for.
If you’re seeing results that are somewhat related but generally off the mark, perhaps you’ve not been precise enough. Try adding some terms to narrow down what you’re looking for.
In either case, be prepared to repeat the process. Good searching is often an iterative process.
An example: looking for jewelry
My wife presented me with a search challenge1. She’d been to a craft show and saw a silver jewelry artist she wanted to find online. The challenge was this: she couldn’t recall the artist’s name; she knew the artist had a website; and she knew the city the artist was from (not local to us).
I started with the basics: “silver jewelry <city>” (I’ll use “<city>” as a placeholder here for the actual city name). That returned a long list of jewelry and craft supply stores in that city. That was too generic and not particularly useful.
I added the word “artist”, since I was looking for a person, not a store: “silver jewelry artist <city>”. This returned a somewhat different list, including entries for classes to become an artist. But there was one result that caught my eye: a craft show in the artist’s city. In fact, it was a page listing the artists showing at that particular show, categorized by the style of art they did.
That had promise. It seemed likely a craftsperson might exhibit at shows local to her. I went to that page and located the section on silver jewelry. There were several listed, but only one artist located in the same city as the show… and that listing had a name.
I searched for “<name> <city>”, and the first result was the website of a silver jewelry artist in that city. I clicked on it and showed it to my wife.
Success in roughly three searches.
It’s about more than technology
While I’ve positioned this as a “computer-related” skill, it really does apply to anything you might look up online — even jewelry! :-)
Given how pervasive searching online has become, I believe principles of effective searching should be taught in school and made available as adult education courses as well.
It’s that important.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!