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The Most Important Skill You Can Improve

I often get asked questions that boil down to “How do I get better at using my computer?” Many people have a basic level of frustration using their PCs because they can’t necessarily find the 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.

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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.

OK, to be completely honest, it’s part skill and part patience. It’s frustrating 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.

The search engines do try to interpret what you’re looking for, and while they are getting better, they can only go so far. The better and more clearly you are able state what you’re looking for, the better results you’re going to get.

The most common mistake

Google SearchThe 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 with. 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 simply 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 that you’ll possibly see results that aren’t related. Rather than typing in a sentence, focus only on the 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 to further narrow in on your target. Good searching is often an iterative process.

An example: looking for jewelry

The evening after I wrote the first draft of this article, my wife presented me with a search challenge1. She’d been to a craft show, and had seen 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 has a website; and she knew the city the artist was from (not local to us).

Challenge accepted.

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 that listed the artists showing at that particular show, categorized by the style of art they did.

That had promise. It seemed likely that a crafts person 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.


Podcast audio



Footnotes & references

1: Not uncommon, actually. She knows my “search-fu” is strong, and often presents me with challenges like this. 🙂

16 comments on “The Most Important Skill You Can Improve”

  1. Fine advice,Leo. Google search is extremely rich but the “after effect” is annoying. Big Brother keeps reminding you for months that your search is remembered. I really like the Ixquick…aka StartPage…*advanced* search (an option). It lets you do many helpful things like filter results to a domain (.org / .gov / .edu / etc.). It can also be set to filter out content that’s inappropriate. Best of all, it’s totally private. Yet, sometimes I still need Google…

  2. I think you should mention that with some searches, such as a name or a two word search, ie: John Smith or Christmas Sacramento, it helps to put quotation marks around the words, or you end up getting results with both “John” and “Smith” or ” Christmas” and ” Sacramento”. I know you did that in our post for your search term, but you did not mention the actual dong of it as a helpful hint.

  3. To get started with effective and efficient searching check out three Power Searching with Google self-paced online course at

    And then follow up with Dan Russell’s SearchReSearch blog (, “A blog about search, search skills, teaching search, learning how to search, learning how to use Google effectively, learning how to do research. It also covers a good deal of sensemaking and information foraging.”

  4. My wife does the same. She figures my master’s degree in library science, even if almost 40 years old, gives me an edge in searching. And she’s right!

  5. Good advice (and thanks to Del for the links I didn’t know about). My first suggestion is to create “” (use “com instead of “ca” in the USA) as a favourite. I can type in the Boolean syntax directly, but the Advance Search page really helps to organize your thoughts without knowing who Boole was. My second suggestion is to watch for synonyms for your search terms in the initial results. If you think “ship” when everybody else thinks “boat”, you might get some good hits, but the best results will be with the more common term. I find this a particular problem when looking for help with computers – it really helps to know the exact “official” term used for the feature you are searching for. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the specific searches that drove me crazy to give as examples.

  6. If learning how to do effective searches is #1, then #2 would have to be developing effective communication skills. As someone who volunteers (i.e. free) tech support on another site I am frequently appalled at how poorly most people express themselves when asking for help. I can only imagine these people going to a doctor and saying “I have a symptom but I’m not going to tell you what or where. What’s wrong with me?”

    • Exactly so! So many reviews or folks trying to be helpful are such a waste. As well as the huge amount of YouTube stuff that have little thought put in to actually make them useful. Oh yes, major pet peeve!

  7. Thanks Leo, and thanks To Brian. I found the advanced search page here, , and will bookmark it. As well found a very well done page on Boolean search that explained maybe why my amateurish Boolean wasn’t going very well
    These two resources should save a lot of frustration and time.
    I hear what y’all are saying about big bro and have converted my Safari internal engine to Duck Duck Go to stop the tracking thing. Google will still track if you go to YouTube from there etc. but DDG is the next best thing to the paid out of country engine with dedicated servers etc.. So that’s the one I use if I’m feeling a bit paranoid on a given day or search. What you search can and will be used against you! Dave e

  8. Years ago, I had a computer problem involving data loss so I turned to Google for advice and the top result was an Ask Leo article that specifically addressed the problem I was having and helped me fix it. I’ve been reading Leo religiously ever since then and backing up my system and data zealously.

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