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Searching precisely

In a previous article I discussed my two-step approach to search: start broad, and then narrow your results.

In this article I’m going to talk about a different approach, and remind you of an important search operator, to help you find sometimes the most precise and yet most obscure stuff on the internet.

And it all starts with my wife and me watching TV.

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The movie background

My wife and I were watching a movie and in that movie was a scene where the characters were meeting at some kind of outdoor memorial. It was an interesting piece of architecture with some statues, and in today’s world of computer-generated landscapes I was curious about where that memorial actually existed in the real world.

Everything I had to go on was in the background shots of the movie. The biggest clue was that I could see some of the words on the memorial: ‘Remember here in peace, those who…’ That’s all I saw.

Searching for that returned many things, but not a one was what I was really looking for.1

Getting specific

Looking at the search results in more details, something became clear:  the words were there, but not exactly in the way I had specified.

When you search for a group of random words most search engines simply look for “a page containing these words in any order”. Naturally it’s much more complex than that, and while the search engines may give preference to results that have them in the exact order you specify them, they may give more preference to sites that are considered more authoritative, or less spammy, or more active, or any of a hundred different criteria.

What I wanted was an exact match.

And that’s exactly what the quote operator is all about. If I put the string of words in quotes, that tells Google to look for exactly this. So I searched for:

“remember here in peace, those who”

And, sure enough, the first item on that list was the Welsh National War Memorial. The scenes from the movie were shot inside this structure. The wording we saw in the background is inscribed around the inside of the monument’s upper ring.

Welsh National War Memorial


When to get specific

It’s often exactly the right thing to throw together a couple of words, and and then narrow down your search. However in a case like this where you have something that is a specific phrase, using quotes can often get you exactly where you want to be. In my example not only was it a single step, but in fact the results page included several additional items also relating to that same thing.

My movie is just an example, but perhaps of much more interest might be error messages. When your computer presents an error message, try searching for that error message, or even a fragment of that error message:

  • typed in exactly (or copy/pasted)


  • enclosed in quotes (“double quotes” are safest – ‘single quotes’ may have different meanings to different search engines)

will often get you to exactly what you’re looking for.

Do this

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Podcast audio


Footnotes & references

1: Interestingly that’s not true today. At the time I recorded my webinar on effective searching, of which this was a portion, the result I was looking for was nowhere to be found. Today it’s the first result. That goes to show you that search algorithms change over time and the skills you may not need today could come in very handy in the future.

Welsh National War Memorial” by HamOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

23 comments on “Searching precisely”

  1. This is a clear and succinct explanation of how to get started refining a search. And it really took me back: I was trained as a database searcher in the early 1980s, when online searching was expensive and conducted using terminals akin to teletype machines. Until the dept. manager was confident that researchers knew what we were doing, we were required to submit a written search strategy prior to going online (i.e., incurring costs), and were required to log off as soon as any search lasted 10 minutes. We got a bit competitive (“I can find that faster than you”) and the skills and techniques I learned in those days have stood me in good stead ever since. And soon they’ll be meaningless, b/c the search engines will get the rest of the way done with being able to fill in the gaps and intuit the desired results, and the necessity to be efficient and focused will be all the way gone. It’s more democratic now, so that’s good, but in the early days it was kinda sweet to be able to find things other people couldn’t.

  2. I tried working backwards to find the film showing the war memorial, which is across the road from the university building where I studied for four years. Was it Killer Elite?

  3. What do I do if I have a picture of something and want to find it. For example, a piece of art was donated to a charity that I’m affiliated with. We have no idea what the value of this print is (or even if it has value). I took a photo of the art work, is there a search engine that will accept the jpg and search for similar items?

  4. As usual, Leo, your article was succinct, easy to understand and straight to the point. It’s the kind of writing I have enjoyed for over eight years.
    However, I did find a mistake. Near the beginning, you make the statement: “And it all starts with my wife and I watching TV.” It should be “…my wife and me…”
    Keep up the good work, Leo. I depend on you.

    • Hi Bill H

      I think Leo was right to say “my wife and I”. For example “my wife and I” were watching a movie and Did you see “my wife and me” in the mall? Correct me if I am wrong.

    • “my wife and me watching” is subject to the proposition with. That’s why it is “me”.
      Me too I love to read the the very informative articles in ‘Ask Leo’. Thanks a lot.

    • I is used as a subject. Me is used as an object. In this case, “My wife and I” is the subject of the sentence; therefore, Leo is correct.

    • In this case, me is correct as it is the object of “It all starts with.” If you leave out “my wife and” you get “And it all starts with me watching TV.” “I” would not fit there.
      It’s fixed now.

      • Yes, of course. I have the theory down, but I didn’t go back up to the article to get the whole phrase but rather went off BSK’s statement that the phrase was, “My wife and I were watching a movie.”

  5. I can usually find the text I want. however, what is the best way to search for images? I think it has to do with ads on certain pages so I get images of things that have no relation to what I am searching for.

  6. My old English teacher told us a trick to tell if you should use “I” or “me”. Restrict the sentence to you alone and see if it sounds right, e.g. “It all starts with me watching TV.” sounds correct but “It all starts with I watching TV.” does not. MS Word actually underlines the “I” and offers the correction of “me”.

    • You are correct about the I or me, but I’ve found that the way the grammar check often works is to identify words which are often confused and warn you that it might be incorrect. Sometimes I’ve written a sentence correctly and got a warning because it contained one of those often confused constructions. The safest way to interpret a grammar check warning it to look at their suggestion and decide yourself weather whether it it is correct or not. (I just couldn’t resist including weather)

      • I often look for the option for the grammar check to explain the grammar – why it’s flagging it as a potential source of confusion, such as the “which” vs “that” decision, and make my decision according to the rules.

  7. Me, myself and I, thoroughly enjoyed this article! I hone my search skills using things I see on TV also. My wife and I make a contest out of it…loser cleans the kitchen!

  8. Thanks Leo.
    As multiplier of user effort internet search engines must be the most powerful tool in normal life, yet no one is ever taught how to use them. It’s like driving a Mclaren F1 around in 1st gear, not knowing it has another 5.

    How about a few buttons in the search bar that allow users to build Boolean searches without having to remember syntax?

    Someone must have thought of this, but in 30 years of searching I’ve never seen it. Is there a way to get this suggestion through to Brave or Mozilla?

    Happy Xmas Leo.

    • You’re assuming most people are familiar with boolean logic (even if they don’t know that it’s called that). I think you’d be surprised. It gets overly complex VERY quickly. However, if you can build a user interface that would actually make sense to most people I agree it’d be awesome. :-)


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