Two Steps to Better Search Results

As I mentioned in a previous article, people are often confused as to what is and is not “search”. But even when they know they’re searching, they often give up in frustration when they don’t find what they want.

Searching effectively is the key to unlocking the vast amount of information that’s available to us on the internet. Unfortunately, searching well can be a bit of mystical art.

While advanced stuff you can do with most search engines like Google or Bing or others is pretty impressive, you don’t need to be a “search engine jockey” to get better search results.

I want to share the two mistakes I see people making most often. I’ll also share my two-step approach to getting better search results that I’m convinced will get you what you’re looking for well over 80% of the time  (assuming what you’re looking for exists, of course 🙂 ).

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Mistake #1: Starting too specific

What I often see in the search logs for Ask Leo! are questions that are almost complete sentences. For example:

help i cant get my computer i just bought from an action, says need administator password, i dont know it….what can i do to get on my computer??????

Forget the grammatical and spelling errors for a moment (also very common), but putting a lengthy phrase or entire sentence into a search engine is a recipe for failure in most cases. That’s simply not how search engines work.

Now, to be fair, search engines are getting better at distilling questions down to what the questioner means as opposed to exactly what he or she said.1 But the fact is computers are still better at finding and matching words and phrases than they are at trying to figure out what a sentence – particularly one full of grammatical and spelling errors – means.

Mistake #2: Giving up too soon

After performing a search, if the answer isn’t obvious on the first page of ten results, many people just walk away. “Can’t find it”, they say.

Results Count

This is particularly frustrating since it’s not uncommon for that initial search to be very, very close to the desired result. The fact that it wasn’t immediately obvious isn’t an indication that the answer isn’t there.

It’s an indication that you probably need to dig deeper. And there’s often much to dig into.

Bonus Mistake: Confusing ads with search results

Many search engines display ads on search results pages.

Many people don’t realize that.

They just click on whatever’s at the top of the page thinking that’s the first result from the search, when in fact someone paid money to appear there. The actual search results appear somewhat further down the page. How far down? That depends on how many ads are present. It’s not uncommon to have no ads; and it’s also not uncommon to have more ads appear on a search results page than there are actual search results.

With so much of the internet being advertising supported – including Ask Leo! – it’s critical to learn to recognize advertisements and not confuse them with actual content like articles and search results.

Step #1: Start broad

When you have something in mind that you expect is out on the internet, start simple. Use only a couple of words or a very short phrase that distills what you’re looking for down to its essence.

To use our lengthy tortured-English example of the individual who’s won a computer at auction and doesn’t have the administrator password to login to it, I’d start with a very simple search:

administrator password

Yes, there could be hundreds of search results on that theme depending on where you’re searching, but it’s best to cast a wide net to start with.

In fact, because that’s such a common scenario and a popular article, the answer to our searcher’s query happens to be the very first search result when you search Ask Leo! for “administrator password”.

In fact if you just search Google for those two words the results will be link after link to articles dealing with lost administrator passwords, including that same article here on Ask Leo!.

There was simply no reason to type that entire lengthy question into a search box when two words would do. Yes, they had to be the right two words, but they were two words that represented the essence of the question – a question it turns out that many people have.

Step #2: Refine

The reason many people don’t start broad is they probably believe that the terms are too generic, and not a good match for their actual query. As we’ve just seen, that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes the basic terms will get you just what you need.

And sometimes not. That’s when it’s time to refine your search.

Search for Administrator Password

Add a word or two that makes your search a little more specific. Don’t fall back to the entire sentence, just a couple of terms that gives the search engine a little more information about what it is you’re looking for. Google will often make suggestions.

administrator password windows 8

might be one example. If the search results you are getting don’t seem to apply to your situation, an additional word or two – like “windows 8” added to our administrator password question – can help zero in on what you’re looking for.

If those results are off-target, then perhaps a couple of more words, or perhaps more realistically a couple of different words, can help improve the aim.

The key here is to look carefully at the results you’re getting and think about what words you can add, or replace, to give the search engine a better clue as to what it is you’re looking for, without being so specific that valuable results are excluded because they don’t happen to use those exact words.

For example, adding the word “lost” to “administrator password” might exclude results that don’t happen to use that word. Results about “forgot administrator password” might be equally valuable, but since they wouldn’t include the word you added – “lost” – they might not show up in the results.

It’s a balancing act:

  • just enough words to tell the search engine what you want
  • not so many words as to cause potentially valuable results to not show up

Give it a few tries

The key is not to give up too quickly, which is what I see people doing in frustration.

Much like aiming a gun, aiming the search engines at what you’re looking for takes practice. As you find what works and what doesn’t your aim will get better and your searches more productive.

It’s true, sometimes what you’re looking for doesn’t exist. But at least practice refining your aim a few times before giving up.

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Footnotes

1: Google’s often quite impressive in this regard. This mess of a sentence still turned up relevant results. It’s just not something you can count on, and more work than is necessary on your part.

16 comments on “Two Steps to Better Search Results”

  1. One thing that most peoples forget, or don’t know about, is the use of operators.
    When using Google, and probably Bing and others.
    You can search for “lost OR forgot administrator password” to find results that contain “lost”, “forgot” or both.
    You can force the inclusion of a term by using “AND”.
    You can forcibly exclude a term by using “NOT”.
    The operators are always in all uppercase.
    You can search for an exact expression by enclosing it in quotes.

  2. I would add a third to your two. At times, a specific phrase is exactly what’s needed. I have found that posting an error message text sentence almost always brings me to someone else whom has faced the same issue. Usually a user forum or a blog like yours will spell out the problem as well as a solution.

    And it is these times when a vexing problem’s antidote has been so provided in these helpful forums to give thanks.

    Thank you, Leo, for many helpful free tips, more comprehensive works at nominal cost and always well-articulated and often illustrated copy. You are one of two online newsletters that I will actually read (and I’m fairly confident you know the other, personally).

    • Just copy the text of the most clear part of the error message which may have lots of other info that won’t help. It’s the part of the message that is most likely to be part of anyone asking or answering about that problem.

  3. What frustrates me the most about searching is when Google puts out responses that are completely unrelated. You click on the hit and it takes you to a website. It’s not immediately obvious where the information is, so I hit Ctrl+F to find it on the page and it’s nowhere to be found.

    I don’t know how those websites manager to make it to the hit list when they don’t even mention what you’re searching for, but it is very frustrating.

  4. Sometimes the search engine will offer hints to narrow down your search. The hints are sometime good or way off the mark.
    There times I wish or know to search by date, the answers when old than example 2013 will not work the newer OS like Windows 8 or 10.
    I was having a problem with Adobe Flash player the answer date back in the early 200? would not work. Or a way to sort by date with newest on top.
    The problem with flash player in FireFox was the old installed version would not work the newest version of FireFox.

  5. If I want to search for something very specific, I use Ask. It’s especially useful for any “who, what, where, why, when” questions.

  6. Leo,

    I prove this over and over again when my teenage son gets frustrated and says he can’t find any information on the topic he’s researching for school. I put in a search and the information is all there in a few seconds. He simply doesn’t know how to search.

    • Go to http://lmgtfy.com/ (Let me GOOGLE that for you). Fill in your Google search. Click on the Google search button. Instead of returning the search results, it give you a link which reproduces your search steps. A subtle reminder for people who ask you questions which they can easily Google themselves.
      Here’s a sample:
      http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Leo+Notenboom

      Or you can skip going to the site and just send them the link:
      http://lmgtfy.com/?q={a list of words you want to Google, separated by + signs}

  7. Sometimes when searching for “parts and stuff” for my Hobby ,, I will go in “Google Images” ,, but Yes, It is sooo frustrating when I know a result is out there and I cannot find it !!

  8. This is the second time I have the opportunity to read what is presented to us in the Ask Leo documentation and the more I read his lessons, in a self evaluation of the result of my learning of Leo lessons I have reached the satisfactory conclusion that I now know how to handle better the way of searching for something which is actually important.
    Here it is my failed recent search I made to BING…. “Email address of Outlook c.om customers support”. I now realize how vague was my question. Outlook.com can provide many kinds of supports to his customers, and I am sure Leo will
    point out many other mistakes. But I am happy that thanks to him I also realize how wrong I was in formulating that kind of question because my problem with Outlook is a NOTIFICATION that is driving me mad, that I receive many times a day and that I am now convinced that the solution of my problem is not for me to make a search but for Outlook. Here it is the Notification. “Please update your credentials for the account {email removed}, Its looks we dont have permission. And the notification stop there.!! Me I remain wondering how it is possible that Outlook has to ask permission, permission for what? for inserting that gmail account in their INBOX that I know it does not exist since several years ago because I removed it after some problems with Gmail. So my search perhaps could have read… How to convince Outlook to search that gmail address TO VERIFY if it exists or not. Every day and several times a day I go to my Outlook.com home page, and there I found the option to delete the gmail account that seems to be a threat to them. More over, in the same home page of Outlook there, there is an option to make searchs and I search for that old gmail account of mine, and BINGO.. it is never found.
    This brings me to my mind what I also read on Leo’s teaching, that sometimes ROBOTS are the ones providing the reply to customers. If the executive people of Outlook could make that search they will stop their sending several times a day their notification to me, and will also stop all what I do several times a day to solve a problem which does not exist..

    What kind of search should I make to solve this problem?

    • Well, to start with there is no email address for Outlook.com customer support. So a search would turn up NO valid results (and possibly lots of scams).

      I’m confused about your scenario: You’re saying Outlook.com — the web site — is asking for credentials for a Gmail account you no longer have? Did you at some point in the past use the Outlook.com account to get the email from that Gmail account?

  9. Subject: Autotext in Word 2000 Disses Dr. Rothberger

    The Autotext feature in MS Word 2000 has suddenly begun behaving erratically. No matter what name i enter in the utility and save it so that Word then autocompletes it, Autotext works correctly. But when I enter and save Dr. Rothberger it saves it but then refuses to autocomplete it. I even tried deleting Dr. Rothberger in the utility box, opening a new window, re-entering Dr. Rothberger and saving it but it still won’t autocomplete it. If something is corrupted in the Autotext utility how can it be fixed without having to completely uninstall Word 2000? But how can Autotext really be damaged when I entered and saved Johnny and other names, all of which got Autocompleted?

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