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Getting More From Google

Searching the Web can be a frustrating exercise. Here are some tips and tricks to help you find exactly what you want from the leading search engine.

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.

Use the Googlebar

Google’s main search page has a link that invites you to make Google your home page. If most of your Web voyages start with a Google search, clicking on this link might make a lot of sense for you. But you can do better.

If you use Internet Explorer on Windows, download the Google Toolbar from toolbar.google.com. The toolbar modifies Internet Explorer to add a Google search field right underneath the address bar. Once installed, you can do a search simply by typing the string into the toolbar.

The Googlebar also opens up additional Google features. Instead of searching the whole World Wide Web, for instance, you can restrict your search to the site you are currently looking at: just click “Search Site” instead of “Search Web.” For example, if you use the Googlebar to search for my name on the technologyreview.com site, you’ll get 157 hits, starting with my columns that have been the most widely cited.

Underneath the Google Toolbar’s “Page Info” you can search for “Similar Pages,” “Backwards Links,” and see cached snapshots of the Web page (in case you think that it may have recently changed). The “Similar Pages” feature is a neat way to meet new friends: A few years ago, I asked for “Similar Pages” to my home page and was directed by Google to humorist Madeleine Kane-a strange choice, on the face of it. But it turns out that Madeleine’s politics and mine are incredibly aligned, and I’ve enjoyed reading her stuff and corresponding with her. Without Google, I doubt I ever would have met her.

Gaming for Google

Many people ask me how they can increase their placement on the Google search results. The answer is simple and guaranteed: buy an advertisement.

Surprisingly, though, most people don’t want to spend money to buy an advertisement on Google. I say that this is surprising, because these same people are willing to spend a lot of time and effort in an attempt to game the system. Such approaches are called “spamdexing,” a contraction of “spamming the index” that originated back in the days when the AltaVista search engine reigned supreme. Back then, people could improve their position in the search results by including a word multiple times on the same Web page. People who ran pornographic sites put entire dictionaries (with tens of thousands of words!) on their Web pages in an attempt to increase their hits.

Google’s value comes, in part, from its use of algorithms that help defend against spamdexing. If you don’t want to buy an advertisement, the easiest way to increase your page rank is to make your Web site as useful as possible. Link to other sites; encourage people to link to yours. But don’t link randomly: try to keep things on topic and on-target. Google’s algorithms seem to reward good Web citizens. For example, two sites that heavily link to each other-and nowhere else-are ranked low.

One way to dramatically increase the usefulness of your site is to load it up with a lot of freely available documents. These documents can be HTML files, Microsoft Word files, Excel spreadsheets, or even PowerPoint presentations: the programmers at Google have figured out how to download all of these files, turn them into text, and add the salient information to Google’s index.

What Google generally can’t search is images. If you have, say, an old birth certificate that you’ve scanned and put on your site, you’ll need to put a few sentences describing the document on the page where the document’s link appears. That’s because Google’s engine doesn’t do OCR-that is, it doesn’t use optical character recognition technology to turn images into text.

The same is true of Google’s image search system. Click on the Google “Images” rectangle and type in a search string and you’ll find all of the images that are on Web pages that contain your search terms. Google tries to be smart by using various hints that it can find on the Web pages, but it’s fundamentally trying to solve an extremely difficult problem. If you want people to be able to find your images with Google, it’s best to write a short description of what the image contains.

Those tips will put you well on your way to Google virtuosity. Here are a few other resources and amusements:

  • Google Labs: If you are really interested in learning more about Google, check out http://labs.google.com/. There are a bunch of neat products there, some of them half-baked. Computer science buffs will enjoy perusing the papers written by the Google employees (http://labs.google.com/papers.html).
  • Froogle: a great comparison shopping service that Google operates (www.froogle.com). 
  • Google API: If you are a programmer, you should investigate Google’s API (application programming interface). It’s an interesting way to incorporate Google results into your own programs. Find more at http://www.google.com/apis/
  • Cookin’ With Google (www.buzztoolbox.com/google/goocookin.shtml) lets you type in a few ingredients and search for recipes that have them.
  • Googlism (http://googlism.com) will search for all of the simple declarative sentences about your subject; search there for “Simson Garfinkel” and you’ll many interesting facts, all bundled up in one handy place.
  • Googlefight (www.googlefight.com) pits one search term against another to see which “wins” by generating the most hits. Try Technology Review Magazine vs. Fast Company Magazine.
  • Book learning: Check out the new book Google Hacks, by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest (O’Reilly). It promises “100 industrial-strength tips and tools,” and is probably the most comprehensive well of Google information that you can get without actually taking a job at Silicon Valley’s most happening company.
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