Unlike search engines such as Google or Bing, Ask Leo! is a real person: me, Leo Notenboom. That means when I get a question (and I get lots of questions), there are various steps I take to come up with the answers I post here.
Did I mention I get lots of questions? Unfortunately, that means I can’t answer every single one. However, I can outline some of the resources I use when I need them.
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The big, dark secret
Here’s something I’m completely open about, but people often don’t realize:
I don’t know everything …
… and that which I do know, I stand a good chance of having forgotten.
Fortunately, knowing everything isn’t what makes or breaks a service like Ask Leo! What’s more important is knowing how to find the best answer.1
How I find the answer generally falls into one of two buckets: experimentation, search, or some combination of the two.
“Fiddling around with it” deserves more respect
I’m actually somewhat surprised by the number of questions that can be answered by simply trying whatever the question is about.
“What are these three dots over here?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you click on them and find out?”
Indeed – why don’t you click on them to find out?
For a large percentage of the questions I get, I do exactly that and then report back the answer.
The reason I point this out is that you don’t need me to fiddle around for you. You can often try things yourself and save yourself a lot of time.
Scared of breaking something? I have two answers for that.
You will not break your computer. It’s much more resilient than that. Sure, you could confuse it, but 99% of the time you can quickly undo whatever it is you did and be on your way. Seriously. (And you will not break your computer’s hardware – unless there’s a screwdriver or hammer somehow involved in your “fiddling”.)
Restoring a back up is the ultimate undo. Let’s say you do something that turns out to be so incredibly confusing to your computer that it no longer even boots. (I can’t think of anything that would easily do that, but let’s just say there is.) Fine. Restore your most recent image backup, and it’s as if what you tried never happened … except now you know not to try that specific action again.
My sense is that many people are more afraid of their computers than they need to be. It won’t break easily, and if it does, you can fix it.2
Google is your friend
If you’re willing to spend a little time learning how to use it well, Google can be your best friend. What do I mean by learning? Anyone can throw some words at Google and press Search. But there are several aspects to Google that most people overlook.
- Knowing which words to search for to get relevant results.
- Knowing how to interpret the results effectively.
- Knowing how to use Google’s advanced search, extended syntax, and additional features.
By becoming proficient at using Google or other search engines and web-based tools, you can frequently get the answers you need very quickly on your own.
If I don’t know the answer, and even sometimes when I do, I turn to Google search. Google is my best friend. (For this stuff, anyway.)
Make more friends
You may find that search engines will send you to some sites repeatedly, depending on the nature of your searches.3 Sometimes, it’s easier to go straight to that site if it turns out to be a common source of good information, and using the search or related functions there.
If you already know some basics about what you’re searching for, you can get an answer more quickly by focusing on specific resources.
- Microsoft and/or Microsoft Support. Information isn’t always that easy to find (or perhaps understand4) here, but they’re getting better, and there’s a ton of information and answers in the Microsoft Support Knowledge Base. I recommend spending some time to learn some of its quirks. Once you get a feel for how best to search this resource, you’ll start seeing good information pop up when you’re searching for anything Microsoft-related. I list Microsoft separately because it’s currently a broader search that encompasses a few more helpful resources.
- Your computer manufacturer. When it comes to problems with your specific computer, there are few resources as authoritative as those provided by its manufacturer. The quality definitely varies, and you may need to look for both a company-run support site and a peer-to-peer support forum, but I send people to these resources often.
- Your software manufacturer. I’m somewhat surprised at how often people don’t do this. If I have a problem with software “X” from company “Y”, the first thing I do is search for company Y’s web site and see what support options they offer. Once again, there’s rarely anything more authoritative then going to the source.
Sometimes the search options offered by various web sites are less than ideal.
Not to worry! There are techniques you can use to search even the specific resources I’ve mentioned, using general-purpose tools like Google. Sometimes – though not always – the general-purpose tools are more effective than the search provided by the sites themselves. For example, using Google to search for
site:askleo.com windows 10
causes Google to return results only from the site askleo.com. Coincidentally, that’s redundant with my own site-search, which uses Google to do the same thing, but that’s definitely not true for all websites. Searching microsoft.com using Google will return different results than Microsoft’s own native search, which is powered by Bing.
Naturally, regardless of what information I find and where I find it, I use my experience and expertise to weed out the garbage from the really accurate and useful information. But even without having made your career in computers, you, too, can use the resources I’ve listed to get answers and solve problems.
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7 comments on “Where Do You Get Your Answers?”
Accents do not agree with my hearing problem. I almost never contact a software manufacturer for advice, because so many of them outsource to overseas.
I agree that Google is our friend, and that is my home page on the web.
“I don’t know everything and that which I do know, I stand a good chance of having forgotten.” – In some ways, I think I now know less than I ever did. I no longer make an effort to remember things I’d have tried – or had – to remember in the past. Instead, those things are now saved in bookmarks, address books, OneNote, etc. and can be searched for and accessed using whatever device I happen to have in my hand. Total recall!
For example, a few years ago I could have reeled off the phone numbers of my 50-or-so most frequent contacts. Today, the only number that I actually have committed to memory is my own.
Computers and the internet are certainly changing how our brains our wired.
“Today, the only number that I actually have committed to memory is my own. ” Really? Lots of people I know don’t even know their own number anymore.
I do have to pause and think about it sometimes!
The main reason I signed up for the Ask Leo news letter is because of your site coming up in search results to computing questions several years ago. The answers that you gave were easy to understand and informative so I signed up to see what else I could learn from you. You’ve provided me a lot of good info over the years and some of the articles that don’t necessarily have to do with computing but a way of thinking about things are great. Keep on translating Leo your good at it.
Leo, you still know more than many of us out here. But I agree it is true that people should search more before asking.
I stumbled upon Ask Leo years ago when I was looking for a solution to a problem. Now this is where I look as a trusted source when new issues arise. As a subscriber I also have email access to Leo, but of course Leo doesn’t answer my emails if he thinks the answer already exists on his site. (No offence. It just teaches me to search better.)
I’ve also become a big contributor to Help Forums as a result of first being helped with challenges I had. A Google search for my problem led me to the forums, then the usual format is search the Knowledge Base first before posting a new question, then acknowledge the answer and come back and help others.
I’ve actually quoted Ask Leo material a few times in answers I gave on other sites.
I have been a long-time reader of and one-who-practices your advice and thoughts. I have also been a long-time collector of aphorisms. Your first footnote definitely made its way onto my collection and I will definitely be presenting it to my students. Thank you very much.