Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harnessing the Power of Google

By request, 9 research tips vital to finding information in the digital age.

1) Narrow your search terms.

Although Google's algorithms can be very powerful, it still can't read your mind.
  • Want information about a mustang but not the car? use the minus sign (-) ex. mustang -car
  • Searching for a particular phrase? Want Pope's Essay on Man and not every essay ever written on man? Use double quotation marks ("") ex. "Essay on Man"
  • Want to search for websites on "honour" and not "honor"? use the plus sign (+) ex. +honour
2) Expand your search terms.

Sometimes you know there are a lot of ways to describe what you are looking for. If that is the case, here are a couple of ways to expand your search.
  • The wildcard. Want to know how your Senator voted on the latest bill? use an asterisk (*) ex. Schumer voted * (A note: the wildcard only works as a substitute for whole words, not partial ones)
  • Looking for something on e-readers, but you don't want to limit it to one brand? use OR (it must be capitalized to work) ex. e-reader OR Kindle OR Sony OR Nook
  • Want to learn about the newest advancements in pharmaceuticals but don't know all the common synonyms for "research"? use a tilde (~) ex. pharmaceutical ~research
3) Pick a numeric range.

Say you are looking for a new house within a price range or maybe, doing research on Somalia during a specific time period. Any number within that range will appear. Be aware that the search engine will not recognize whether these numbers are prices or years, they will only recognize that the numbers on the page lie between the range you provided. use two periods (..) ex. real estate 100000..200000; ex. Somalia 1955..1962.

4) Choose your file type.

Looking for the power point to a lecture or a pdf of a grant proposal? use filetype: ex. biology lecture filetype:ppt

5) Choose a website.

Know that your information is buried in a big website? Or doing research on universities? use site: ex. hurricane; ex. financial aid site:edu

6) Utilize Google's topic searches.

On the Google homepage, look at the top left corner. Many options are available. News, Shopping, Books, Scholarly works, Blogs. You can choose any one of these and search within these topics.

Alternatively, you can choose the "Advanced Search" option at the right of the Search Box. Filling in the information on this page will utilize the first 5 tips (and more!). Scrolling down the page, you will find links to topical searches.

Even though I have listed this as #6, I actually use this tip more than all the other ones. Narrowing your search to a topic can be very helpful. Because world news has become primarily electronic, I often search under the Google News topic to find the latest information.

7) Understand the limitations of Google's topic searches.

Although these topic searches are incredibly useful, and largely reliable, there are limitations. Particularly with Google Scholar and Google Books. There is an entire part of the internet effectively closed to internet search engines. While you may find peer-reviewed articles by using Google Scholar, you will not find all or even most of the articles on your topic. Most electronic scholarly articles are stored on subscription-based databases. If you are doing in depth research or are particularly concerned with accuracy and bibliographic resources, I would suggest starting with Google Scholar, gathering ideas, and then using the resources at your library. Many libraries subscribe to databases of periodicals and journals that you are not going to find on Google Scholar.

8) Identify quality information.

Just because something is on the internet, does not make it true. Many of the information available is valid, some is unintentionally inaccurate, and some is intentionally, or even maliciously false. When doing any research, make sure the information you are looking at can be substantiated. Look for footnotes (and verify them if you are concerned); use trusted websites and look to them to refer you to new sources; and finally, don't assume that the first answer you find is the best or more accurate one.

9) Know when to move beyond Google.

Google can not find you every answer. Despite the company's ambitious goal to map the entire internet, some of the internet is unmappable. Closed sites, such as subscription databases and company internal web services, will never show up on Google. Many influential scholarly works cannot be accessed. When you hit a dead end, when you doubt accuracy, or when you get a nagging feeling in the back of your skull that there MUST be more out there, head to a library or a museum, IM or text a librarian (yes, those services exist in many areas), or email someone who is a recognized expert in the field. Don't forget that most people comprehend more information through person-to-person communication than through any other method.


  1. I say give Bing a try. not just toeing the company line, but their move towards a "decision" engine is actually pretty cool for a lot of good searches.


  2. Don't let this post fool you...I am not married to Google in the least. I just believe in letting people know how best to get information with the resources they have. I might look into bing and do a follow up post.


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