Searching the internet can be a frustrating business. You enter a word or a phrase into a search engine and up comes a stack of irrelevant information.
What you need is the ability to refine your search to get exactly what you want.
In this article, we explore seven steps that you can take to pinpoint specific information online.
1. Vary Your Search Engine
Search engines sort through about 625 million active websites to provide you with content. You may favor one, but don’t let habit restrict you. No search engine is perfect, and they all have different blind spots.
- Google usually returns the greatest variety of results, and has by far the largest catalog of pages.
- Bing, however, has more extensive autocomplete results (where the search engine tries to narrow the search for you).
- Yahoo offers search as part of a wider range of services that includes news and shopping. Other engines such as DuckDuckGo and Dogpile also have their devotees.
You can perform more specific searches by using specialist search engines. Google Scholar, for example, allows you to search for academic articles that might be hard to find in a general search. And Zanran is useful when you need data and statistics.
2. Use Specific Keywords
Keywords are the terms that you use to find content on the internet. Making your keywords as specific as possible will help your search engine to track down the information that you want.
Say, for example, that you want to find a local supplier that can design an exhibition stand for your company. If you type stand design into your search engine, the results will include many pages about other types of stand, whereas typing exhibition stand designer will return a more concise range of companies.
You can further refine your search by including other specific keywords. If you add your location, for example, you’ll likely find someone local.
3. Simplify Your Search Terms
Some engines include stop words in their searches. These are frequently used words such as prepositions (in, of, on), conjunctions (and, but) and articles (a, the), which mean that you’ll end up with more pages in your search results than you need.
So, it’s usually best to eliminate stop words from your internet searches. The main exception is if you’re looking for a specific title or name that includes them.
Also, use the simplest form of the keywords that you’re looking for, by avoiding plurals and verb forms with suffixes such as -ing, -s or -ed. For example, you would improve the quality of your search results by searching for service rather than services, or finance rather than financed or financing.
4. Use Quotation Marks
Enclosing a search term within quotation marks prompts the search engine to search for that specific word or phrase.
If the term is a single word, using quotation marks will cut out stemmed variations of it. For example, if you search for the word director, you’ll likely receive a lot of results for direct, direction, directions, and so on, too. Typing “director” (with quotation marks), however, will ensure that you only get results for that stem word.
Some search engines allow you to search for specific words by preceding them with the + symbol. Google no longer uses this function, but Yahoo, for example, does.
If the search term is a phrase, your search will be for that specific phrase, rather than for all the component words as individual items. So, for example, if you search for the phrase director of human resources, without quotation marks, your search will return results based on all of the words in the phrase (except of, which is a stop word.) Surrounding the term with quotation marks, however, will generate results that feature this specific term.
5. Remove Unhelpful Words
Inserting a hyphen/small dash/minus sign immediately before a word excludes it from a search.
So imagine, for example, that you’re looking to find out more about marketing. However, you want to concentrate on traditional marketing techniques, whereas the internet appears to be full of references to digital and social media marketing, all of which are appearing in your search.
Typing in marketing -digital will exclude digital from the search, making it easier for you to find the information you’re looking for. Typing marketing -digital -social would allow you to get rid of even more clutter.
6. Refine Your Search Using Operators
Other characters or terms, known as operators, allow you to narrow down your internet search in more targeted ways. We explore a few, below:
- Wildcard Searches: use the * symbol as a placeholder for another word. For example, searching for * man in the world returns results for the richest man in the world, the tallest, the oldest, and so on. Wildcard searches are also useful when, for example, you don’t know the full text of a quote.
Combination Searches: the OR operator enables you to search for two or more terms simultaneously, and is most useful when those terms are very similar. Typing selling OR retailing, for example, will return pages where either of the terms is used, without both needing to be present.
Another way to combine searches is to use AND. This operator ensures that you receive only search results that include two or more terms. For example, the search “Smee Computers” AND “Devlin Corporation” would only deliver search results that include the names of both companies.
- Search a Specific Site: when you type site: followed by the URL of the website that you wish to search and a search term, you limit your search to a single website. So, site:mindtools.com “human resources” will return all the pages from MindTools.com that feature the term “human resources.”
- Finding Related Sites: another useful operator is related: Typing this in front of a web address that you already know – as in related:xyz.com – your search results will deliver a range of websites that are similar to xyz.com.
7. Avoid Search Pitfalls
When searching online, it’s important to bear in mind that many companies now have staff who are dedicated to improving their visibility online. They constantly tweak the wording of their websites to match the most commonly used keywords – a process known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
As a result, the sites listed at the top of your search results may have very good SEO, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’ll have the best content. So, even when you’ve put in the best search terms you can, it’s often worth digging down through your search results to find the best information.
With so much information now at your disposal, you need to be savvy about what is authoritative, and what is merely opinionated. Some blogs, for example, rank highly without actually being written by accredited experts. So, check carefully that the author of any information you use is well-regarded, and preferably associated with an academic institution, a professional body, or a reputable news organization.
It’s also worth being aware of paid advertisements, which can appear at the top of search engine listings because companies have paid for them to do so. These are simply designed to sell to you, which is fine if you’re looking to buy, but can be a hindrance to general search.
The internet is vast and often confusing, and in order to find what you want, you need to take some basic steps to make your search as focused and rewarding as possible. Strategies for pinpointing the best, most relevant content include the following:
- Vary your search engine: in fact, get used to using several, as they have different strengths.
- Use specific keywords: be as specific as you can in your wording.
- Simplify your search terms: strip out unnecessary stop words and avoid suffixes.
- Use quotation marks: this narrows searches down to particular words and phrases.
- Remove unhelpful words: remove confusing or misdirecting terms from your searches with the – (minus) operator.
- Refine your search using operators: use operators to search specific sites, related sites, and particular combinations of terms.
- Avoid search pitfalls: the internet is a selling tool as well as a fantastic resource. Be sure that you only view advertisements if you want to.