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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.