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Searching Effectively

Search is, in many ways, the true gateway to the internet. It’s where we turn to find just about anything online. Your ability to use search effectively has a dramatic impact on just how useful the internet can be for you.

In this video excerpt from a recent Ask Leo! webinar, I’ll cover some basic search techniques, and also include a few tips and techniques that can make your internet searches more effective.

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Good day, everyone! We are here for webinar number nine. We’re going to talk search tips, making search effective. It’s one of those things that I think is just a good skill to become better versed in.

And I apologize to Google ‘averse’ in the crowd; this is going to be primarily related to Google. However, some of the topics apply to other search engines as well.

So, searching effectively. It’s interesting to watch people when they are searching using Google. Quite often, I see people enter in a single search phrase – often extremely specific. They’ll end up typing a small novel into the search box. And then give up when what they are looking for is not in the search results.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve often seen people type in a single word into Google and then be so overwhelmed by the results that they give up as well. I don’t have a good example to show you, but my advice is for searching in general is to start broad. In other words, use a search term that might return lots of results and then as you find out that what you are seeing is at least generally about the topic, you might add more words to help refine your search.

So eventually, you might come up with an article that talks or a web page that talks specifically about the item or items that you are looking for. That, to me, is the most effective way of searching.

At the other end of that spectrum (and this is actually a small story), last night, my wife and I were watching a movie and there was a scene in the movie where the characters were meeting at some kind of memorial; interesting piece of architecture with some statues and so forth and I was kind of curious where that memorial actually exists.

All I had to go on was in the background of the shots in the movie. I could see some of the words on the memorial which is actually good because that’s a start to find out. So the words that I saw on that memorial were: ‘Remember here in peace, those who…’ That’s all I saw. And searching for that, looking at the various items that are in the search results, no, no, they are not the thing I was looking for.

And in fact, if you take a look at the highlighted words in the snippets that Google is providing, Yeah, the words are there, but they’re not exactly the way I had them specified. And that is because Google by default is looking for when you type a series of words in like this; what it’s looking for are pages that contain all of those words, not necessarily together, not necessarily in order, just all of those words.

And then, from those results, showing you what it thinks is most relevant of those pages. What I wanted was an exact match. That is what the quote operator is all about. If I put that thing in quotes, then that tells Google look for this and exactly this. So now it’s only looking for (case insensitive; it’s not looking for upper or lowercase) the phrase ‘remember here in peace those who.’

And, sure enough, the first item on that list was the Welsh National War Memorial. And in fact, the scenes from the movie were shot inside this structure and the wording is actually in the background around the inside of the ring and you can see the entire quote over here.

So, that is kind of the other end of the spectrum that I was telling you about. On one hand, it’s just nice to put together just a couple of words and narrow down your search, but in a case like this where you have something that is a specific phrase, then quotes can often get you exactly where you want to be. In this particular case, not only a single step, but in fact, you’ll find that there are several results here relating to that same thing. Even Flickr photos presumably of the memorial that we saw.

So, that’s quotes. Another item I want to show you – so Ask Leo! is implemented using MovableType. It’s a Content Management System; it’s kind of like WordPress for those of you who are probably more familiar with WordPress. There are pros and cons to both, but it happens to be what I’ve been using since 2003, I think.

Today, WordPress’s search, I’m sorry, MovableType’s search is functional. It didn’t used to be that way. I would search on this site (I’m going to search for something specific here). There’s a token you can use inside of MovableType sites called ‘dirify’; it has to do with turning a string into something that would be allowed as a URL.

You’ll notice that all of my article titles actually become the URL for that article and that’s using this ‘dirify’ functionality. In the past, the website would time out. It would just not do the searches for me at all. But you know what? A site doesn’t have to have its own search function in order for you to be able to search it.

And in fact, you may want to sometimes use this alternative search approach because the results may be different and may be better. So, I’m going to go over here and I’m going to go back to Google and I’m going to use the site  operator. Site: dirify. So what Google has now done is it has restricted the results to only those results that only appear on the domain It’s the equivalent of a site search on that site without that site necessarily having its own search functionality.

Or in the case of MovableType some years ago, if the search functionality is broken. Now, there are two things that are important about this. One is if you don’t know whether a site has a search function; you can’t find it, but you know what you’re looking for is probably somewhere on that site, this is a wonderful way to go in and search just that site and then the bare domain name. Don’t include the ‘WWW.’ Just include the base domain name –,, refdesk, whatever.

The other is that, you know, Google has put a lot of effort into making search good. You can get controversial about some of the decisions that they’ve made, particularly when logged into a Google account so that Google knows a little bit more about you, but the search results will still end up being tailored to perhaps you, perhaps your location, just perhaps better. In fact, the reason I point that out here is even using’s native search, what I’m looking for actually isn’t here.

There are a number of different articles that talk about dirify…there it is, it finally showed up. There a number of different articles that include the word ‘dirify’ but what I’m looking for is the page that is a reference of the information for dirify. And that finally shows up in these search results about three quarters a way down the page.

You’ll notice over on the Google search of the same site, it was the very first result. So Google’s site: operator is a very, very useful tool to have in your search engine toolbox. It’s a great way to apply the power of Google to websites that may or may not be providing you with a sufficient search function of their own.

Now, you’ll notice that I did not use Ask Leo! as the example here and that’s because, also like many search sites, I’m sorry, like many other websites, this is actually already in Google search. When you search Ask Leo!, you are doing what boils down to a site search of Ask Leo! for the topics that you put in; once we get past the ads here, you can see that here are the search results relating to only Ask Leo!

So I’m going to wrap up the search portion of this with a couple of pages that I think are worth knowing about. One is this ‘Operators and more search help’ page from Google. You can see the URL up here. It’s actually one of their web search help files – 136861, but if you just search for operators and more search help, you’ll probably just go directly to it.

We’ve talked about quotes. We’ve talked about exact words which is basically the same thing. It will prevent Google from asking you if you’ve misspelled something. We’ve talked about the site operator.

There are others. You can use the minus sign to say, ‘I want all of the pages that include this text without this word.’ Fill in the blanks is something that Google will basically show you results that start with what you’ve entered so far.

‘Or’ is an operator. Google, like it says, Google considers all of the words in your search. If you want to search for red or blue, for example, rather than red blue, then it will return all pages that have either the word ‘red’ or the word ‘blue’ or maybe both. Whereas if you search for red blue, it will only show you pages that have both the words red and blue.

There are…let’s see, so that’s the short version of…these are the basic operators on this page. The other page is this one This is the one that shows you some of the other fun things that Google can do. I’ve know about many of these, but even being here, I’ve learned about a couple I didn’t realize. Like if I want to know what time it is in London, apparently, I can just ask.

Stock Quotes we’ve known about for a long time. Sunrise & Sunset – I had no idea. Games being played right now – I had no idea. Hopefully, you know about the Calculator. It’s one of the most useful things ever. If I don’t have a calculator in front of me, it is just that much quicker to type in an equation in Google and have it do the math for me.

Similarly, Unit Conversion: I use this all the time. How many meters are in a mile? The distance around my property is ‘x’ acres. How many hectares is that? Google will do that in an instant.

So, I didn’t even realize that they specifically have a Synonym Search so that you can actually say not just ‘fast,’ but show me searches that include synonyms for ‘fast’ and ‘food.’

So, there’s a bunch here. I point this out to not necessarily go through each one in detail, but to encourage you as part of becoming better searchers, go visit these web pages when this segment gets aired or gets posted on the website. I’ll be sure to include the links specifically, but for the moment, you can see them, and then the other one in Google support (I’ll just leave that one here on the screen for a second), so that you can get a sense for the fairly simple to use, but powerful tools that this search engine can provide for you.

I did mention at the beginning of this section that many of these kinds of features and functionality are usable through other search engines; most notably Bing or Yahoo! or any of a number of other ones. I would encourage you to spend a couple of minutes and look for their additional features. Nine times out of 10, I think they are very similar. I think site: is one of those things that works in just about any search engine.

But I would recommend that you take a look and just sort of see what kind of tools and techniques are available to help you be more effective when you are actually searching for something online.

Can I answer any questions about search?

How come the Boolean NOT does not work in Google or other search engines? I believe what that really is is this: terms you want to exclude feature. In other words, by excluding words, for example, if I want to search for all pages that have ‘red’ but don’t have the word ‘blue,’ in other words red and not blue, then “red -blue” would presumably run a search that returns all pages that have red but do not have blue.

Is there a difference between using quotes or apostrophe? I believe there is; I believe it needs to be the quote character. I could be wrong; I just always use the quote character to do it.

Define: is the one I use all the time. You might want to mention it. Yes, Define: is actually kind of cool. Let’s see, we’ll go back to Reader real quick. Define: and we’ll just go ahead and Define: Love. And you can see that in fact what it’s giving me is a definition, a dictionary definition for the word love and for those who are not necessarily English speakers, for many of the words, there is actually a sound so you can hear the word love spoken to can get an idea of how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

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