This is part 1 of a 2 part post series related to the release of my ebook ‘How to google – the Ultimate Guide to finding everything!’ The post below is a modified excerpt from the book.
‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.’ – Sherlock Holmes
A few weeks ago my Dad called me into his office. He said he had a computer-related problem.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Haha, those Dad’s and their computer problems, right?
You should know that my Dad is 49 years old and considered an absolute IT genius in his generation. He was around when Pong came out and his Dad’s architecture company bought one of the first available personal computers with a billing management software for their business. Price tag at the time: 20 grand (German Mark). He knows his way around ebay, email, excel, SAP, power point, and even some VBA.
Sometimes though, like we all do, he can’t find the solution to a problem, because it is too simple to even consider.
That day he told me that the links in his Thunderbird had stopped working. Before, when he had clicked on a link in an email, it would open in Firefox. Now when he clicked, nothing happened.
“Can you fix this?”, he asked. “Sure.”, I said, opened Firefox, and by the time I had entered “thunderbird links”, Google’s auto-complete already offered the phrase “thunderbird links won’t open” – and my Dad moaned in the back: “Ugh, of course, I could have thought of this myself”.
2 minutes later his links worked again. It had simply been a matter of adjusting Thunderbird’s permissions as the standard email program.
The obvious fact is that today you can google ANYTHING.
Google is the most powerful tool the internet has to offer, and by using it correctly you can not only thrive and excel in business, but also in life. Not to mention the precious air you save by not having to ask 90% of the questions that pop up inside your brain every day – simply because you know how to google.
I know, it’s more comfortable to just ask them anyway or have someone else just give you the solution or google it for you, but comfort is not what we are here for, is it?
Any problem you have, or any information you are looking for, Google either has the answer to it, or can at least point you towards the source that has it. All you have to do is remember the obvious fact.
You can google ANYTHING.
And while I can’t help you with remembering to use Google – that you will have to do yourself – I can help you with perfecting the way you use it. Let’s get started by looking at searching itself.
A search for an information is a process. As with every process, you have one or several inputs and a desired output.
For the case of Google search there are two inputs:
Your input (you must know what you are looking for and how to enter it into google) and
Google’s input (index of the web with an automated search algorithm and built-in functions that increase the efficiency of your search).
Your desired output: An information, whether it be in the form of text, audio, video or an image. Now, what all of us want to do is increase the quality of the output, namely we all want to (ideally always) find what we are looking for when we google.
But how do you do that?
The answer is simple: Increase the quality of the input factors.
Today I will teach you how to tremendously increase the quality of the two Google inputs. Not only will this greatly enhance your understanding of Google and its search, it will also make you the Sherlock Holmes of googling.
Trust me, following this guide, you will find what you are looking for 99% of the time (and only because that last percent is reserved for things you truly cannot find on Google, simply because they are not available online).
I have broken down the process into these three steps:
- Master how you search
- Master Google’s built-in Features
- Master the Art of Focus
Are you ready? Good, let’s get started.
The emphasis here is on YOU. The first thing you must learn is how to get from the question you have to what words you must enter into the search bar in order to get the answer you want.
Sometimes there is no step between one and the other. For example, if you wanted to know Taylor Swift’s real name, you could literally enter “What is Taylor Swift’s real name?” and receive this:
Mostly though, this won’t work. Google is not a genie that grants wishes. You have to earn your output. When looking for a certain type of academic paper in a pdf format for example, entering the following into Google is useless:
While the result still gets us in the right direction, we could have struck a hole-in-one by heading over to scholar.google.com, Google’s academic literature index, and entering the following:
Right now this example of a search might look abstract and intimidating. Don’t worry about it, we’ll get back to it later. Abstract is a good keyword though.
To improve the wording you choose for your search, you must know how Google values YOUR input. It is a machine after all, and therefore acts on an abstract level.
Google’s search is based on keywords. That means phrasing your search as a question does not increase efficiency. You have to feed Google the right keywords relevant to your search and it will reward you with the right output.
Imagine looking up a word in a dictionary whose index is sorted by questions. Complete chaos!
You want the translation for the word “ketchup” to be under “k” and not somewhere under “w” in “what does ketchup mean in German?” (it’s still ketchup, by the way).
If all you need for a successful search are good keywords, then all you have to do is pick the right keywords from your question.
How do you do that though?
First of all: Take some time to do this. The 30 seconds you spend thinking about how you are going to conduct your Google search beforehand might save you 5, 10, or even 20 minutes later, which you would otherwise spend correcting and adapting your search until you find what you are looking for.
The amount of time you think about what keywords to google directly relates to your success rate.
Of course abstracting or generalizing from a question to get keywords is easier for some people than others, but everyone can learn to improve this skill.
I found that abstracting takes place in several ways, all with different difficulty.
Here are the 3 levels of abstracting you can go through to arrive at good keywords from your actual question:
This is the easiest one. You try to eliminate everything from your question that is not necessary.
Look at the sentence we formed in the Taylor Swift search. What are the core elements? We need “Taylor Swift”, because that is who we are looking for. We want to know her real name so “real name” is the other bit we really need.
“Taylor Swift real name” would have gotten us the same result as the actual question. Can we go even further? Yes! “Taylor Swift” is her celebrity alias, and therefore likely to be not her real, full name, and we can trust Google to know that too. Therefore, we can also eliminate the “real”. This search was as simple as “Taylor Swift name”.
(Note: If you want over 250 awesome Google shortcuts like this, I’ve compiled an easy-to-use cheat sheet as a bonus at the end of this post.)
This is something you can practice easily. If you need to, write down your questions every once in a while and try to circle the important words in it.
Most of the time you can cut the entire search down to two keywords.
Don’t be afraid to cut things out. Google is smarter than you think.
To illustrate how well Google can link keywords to one another and fill in the needed context, let’s look at another example.
My question: “Can my dog eat chocolate?”. If you tried to eliminate the unnecessary here, you would most likely arrive at “dog eat chocolate”. But we want two terms, so we need to eliminate one more. What is the only word we can eliminate? Well, we need the “dog” to get information on dogs and the “chocolate” is what we are worried about. Therefore, we have to eliminate “eat”. This is what we get when googling “dog chocolate”:
So no, my dog can’t eat chocolate (neither can yours, by the way).
See how Google did not give us pages of online shops offering special chocolate for dogs they can actually eat or pictures of chocolates in dog-form?
That’s because most people who search for the keywords “chocolate” and “dog” together also want to know whether their dog can eat chocolate. Google has learned this over time and thus presents the results based on the context in which the keywords are linked together in most search cases.
Remember to keep it simple. There is a reason it is the first tip on Google’s own support page.
After you have eliminated all the unnecessary and arrived at your important keywords, rephrasing is the next level. It makes the difference between a good keyword and a GREAT keyword.
Let’s assume I want to know the following: “How much money does Brad Pitt have?”. Upon eliminating my two keywords will be “Brad Pitt” and “money”.
Ugh. No number. Something about his earnings from World War Z and Moneyball. That’s a bogey.
So money was probably not a great keyword. Luckily, the search result at least gives me a hint what my keyword should have been: “net worth”.
“Net worth” is a term often used to describe celebrity fortunes, Forbes for example simply lists the net worth figures for the richest people in the world.
By rephrasing “money” into “net worth” we transform a good keyword into a great one, which gets us back on par (or rather a hole-in-one):
Rephrasing is the art of picking the version or synonym of your keyword most relevant to the context you are searching it in. In the context of celebrity fortunes the best version of the keyword “money” is “net worth”.
Always try to think of at least 2 ways of phrasing your keywords and then pick the versions most suited to your search’s needs.
Lastly, the third level on which you can abstract, which is also the most difficult, is inferring. Inferring follows an idea from mathematics and logical reasoning called transitive relations. If you’re a nerd like me, you will LOVE this.
If a number X is larger than Y and Y is bigger than Z, X must also be larger than Z. This principle is what lies behind thousands of conclusions we draw each day and applied to googling can help yield outstanding results.
Inferring simply means you draw conclusions from your keywords on how you can alter or tweak your search to narrow it down decisively. It creates focus. And focus is the ultimate skill when googling, as you will see later.
Enough with the blabla, here’s an example:
If I eliminate and rephrase my very naive search for the academic paper on cancer I might end up with a search like “paper casein cancer campbell”.
This leads us to the author’s blog, but not the paper we actually want. How can we use inferring to get to our goal?
Let’s try using a transitive relation. We want an academic paper. Google understood we were looking for an academic setting, since we added the keyword “paper” (the author also helped). But think a little about academic papers. Are they ever just web pages? No. They are almost exclusively in a pdf format.
Therefore, if we are looking for an academic paper (X) and academic papers are always in pdf format (Y), that means we need to search for pdf files (Z!).
Boom. Tell me you don’t feel like Sherlock Holmes right now!
Given we know our way a little around Google’s advanced search operators (which we will also cover in full later), we can tweak our search to “filetype:pdf casein cancer campbell”, which leads to the following:
Now that pdf looks promising! Unfortunately it is only an article on the same topic, not the exact academic paper we searched. Google is helping us out again though with the suggestion of scholarly articles.
Remember I said Google Scholar is Google’s index of academic literature?
What Google infers is that if we search for academic papers (X) and Google Scholar is an index based entirely on those (Y), we should search on Google Scholar instead (Z!).
If we click on the link, which simply performs the same search on Google Scholar, we can see the paper ranked as the 4th result. By adding some more advanced search operators, as in the introductory example, we can even get it to show up in 1st place.
While inferring is often not necessary to find what you want, it can be extremely powerful and help you get Google to focus on a very narrow set of results.
When you apply it to googling, try this:
If I am looking for X and X is:
- of filetype Y
- most likely on site Y
- definitely not on site Y
- on a page similar to Y
then that means I should search for Z.
This helps you replace keywords with actual search constraints. Inferring done right eliminates millions of search results you don’t want, inevitably leading you to your desired output.
And that’s it! Congratulations! Those are the 3 levels you can work on to improve your choice of keywords and maximize the quality of your search input.
One last thing you should know about punctuation, spelling and grammar: Forget about it. Google ignores almost all of it.
Full stops, commas, colons (unless used in advanced search operators), semi-colons, uppercase spelling, question marks and exclamation marks are all ignored. Spelling mistakes are usually corrected (“did you mean X?”), just like most grammatical errors:
Some symbols trigger advanced search features and you can force Google to include punctuation (which we will cover in step 3), but for the most part you should do what Google does and don’t waste time with punctuation, spelling and grammar.
Congratulations, you just took the first step to becoming a master of Google!
Now here’s some actionable advice for you to try and apply this instantly:
- Come up with 2 questions, and eliminate the words in them until you arrive at 2 keywords.
- For those two keywords, try to think of how you can rephrase them and google both the original keywords and their synonyms.
- For the following 3 searches, what can you infer and thus conclude for your search?
1. You are looking for a song from the original Pokémon soundtrack for Gameboy.
2. You want to know when the latest construction work took place on the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
3. You found this article on the iPhone 6 on Lifehacker and really liked it. How can you find more?
Here are some hints if you are stuck (but don’t peek before trying!):
Hint for 1: What filetype should you look for?
Hint for 2: What site should you look for to search on?
Hint for 3: How can you find similar websites that talk about the iPhone 6?