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Google is a triumph of high technology, supreme usability, and hacker chic. But you can make it work better by investing a little time to learn a few Google tricks.

Surprisingly, I’ve found it difficult to get many people to learn these tricks. Most computer users aren’t interested in the details, options, and preferences available to them when they use a piece of software-they just want to get their job done. These are the people who are determined to work harder, not smarter, when faced with a daunting task. If you are one of these people, stop reading now. Otherwise, open up a browser window and follow along.

Whenever I run a new piece of software for the first time, the first thing that I do is look at the program’s “preferences” panel. By clicking through the options here, I rapidly learn what a program can do and what its shortcomings are. Google is no different.

After you go to the Google home page, click on “Preferences” next to the search box. The most important setting, located near the bottom of the page, is “Number of Results.” By default, Google returns just 10 results for a search. Since Google’s search algorithms are so accurate, this default saves Google both computer resources and bandwidth. But I always increase the default to 100. Although such searches take a little longer to download (especially over a dial-up connection), getting back 100 results saves me time when I’m searching for anything out-of-the-ordinary: it’s much faster to scroll through a Web page than to manually click through 10 pages of intermediate results.

Other preferences that I like to set are to turn off Google’s SafeSearch filtering (I’m a big boy) and to open results in a different window. Once you change a Google preference, click Save Preferences; this stores the settings in a cookie on your hard drive.

Search as I say

You can search for an exact phrase using Google simply by putting that phrase inside quotation marks. Want to find out whose life Google has changed? Search for “Google has changed my life” and you’ll get Bob Metcalfe’s profile in the September 30, 2002 issue of Computerworld.

Searching with quotes is like using a pair of needle nose pliers to pull index cards out of a hat: the search can be so precise that it’s easy to miss stuff that’s similar but slightly different. I was surprised to discover just a single hit when I searched for “Google has changed my life.” I changed the search string to “Google changed my life” and found six more. You can search for them both at the same time by typing:

“Google has changed my life” OR “Google changed my life”

Be sure that the word “OR” is capitalized. If you want to be cool, you can use the vertical bar (|) instead of the word “OR.”

Searching for a star

Frankly, I’m still rather surprised to find fewer than ten admissions of people who claim that their lives have been changed by Google. You can broaden this search further still by replacing one of the quoted words with an asterisk. Try this search:

“Google has * my life” | “Google * my life”

You’ll find people whose lives were alternatively saved, ruined, or simply enriched by Google. One person whose Web page was returned by the search even went so far as to say that Google runs his life. Scary thought, that.

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