The Web is a big place, harbouring at least 70 million websites consisting of at least 19 billion individual pages and that's just an estimate. With so much information floating around it can be quite difficult to filter out the noise from the good stuff.
This is where search engines come into the picture. Everybody who uses the web knows about Google and Yahoo; in fact people are so familiar with these search engines that the word search and the word Google are almost interchangeable. How many times have you 'googled' for cheap flights or searched for that song you heard on the radio?
It all gets a bit harder when you are looking for something very specific. Sometimes you might need to find information on a person, a place or a name but searching for John Smith or Church st London will return too many results that have absolutely nothing to do with what you want. Maybe you are looking for a particular page on bbc.co.uk or a specific profile on a social networking site like myspace? Maybe you have to find out something a little bit more complicated, for example, your employer wants to know how many websites reference your company website. It is possible to find just about any information you may need provided you know how to use the tools available to you. So what are these tools? Let's look and see what Google gives us, starting with the basics.
The Basic Search Query
Most of us are familiar with this kind of query because it's the way you would usually search with Google. For example, if you were looking for a dental holiday in Poland – yes they do exist - you would type the following into Google:
dental holidays Poland
As if by magic you are now on your way to getting a £1000's worth of root canal surgery for £400, thanks to Google.
Ok, I admit there is nothing too spectacular about that search, anyone can do it, so let's move on to something more interesting.
The Phrase Search
Phrase searches use quotation marks to tell Google that you are looking for a specific phrase rather than a bunch of keywords. This can come in handy when you are looking for headlines or a something that contains a specific phrase or combination of words. A good way to test this out is to use phrases based around your name, for example:
“Michael has a”
“Michael was sitting”
Try these phrases with your own name, always using quotation marks to tell Google that you are looking for a phrase. As you can see this is a very useful query and it can be used in conjunction with other types of queries as I will show you later.
The next type of query uses 'negative terms'. You would use a negative term to exclude certain words from a search. This is helpful when you are searching for something that has more than one meaning or if you are trying to clean up a search by excluding something that keeps appearing but is not relevant to you. You perform this sort of search by putting a – sign in front of words which you want excluded. For example:
This query is more likely to find information about fish than bass guitars.
Another example could be “Michael Hall is” -Anthony
This query will return all pages that have a sentence with the phrase “Michael Hall is” but will exclude any pages that have the name Anthony Michael Hall, or indeed pages with the name Anthony.
Go on, try it out. Spend 10 minutes trying different combinations of negative terms, phrase searches and regular queries. Once you get the hang of it you can move on to the next section.
Advanced Google Operators
I can hear you asking: “What on earth is an advanced Google operator?” Well I can tell you for sure that its not a person sitting in a call center in Bangalore and its definitely not a Google employee skilled at surgery. Bad puns aside, advanced Google operators aren't really as scary as you might think. They are simply commands that you include in your search to tell Google where and how to look for the information you want.
Back to the Future
The first advanced operator we are going to look at is the cache: query. This operator lets you look back in time at a website. Google regularly caches or backs up entire websites. This is usefull if you are looking for outdated information or information that has since been removed from a web page. For example, try typing in the following query into Google:
The page you get back is a cached page. In the case of an important site like the BBC it is probably only a day or two old, still helpful if for some reason you need to look into the past. Another much more efficient way of retrieving archived copies of websites is to use the WayBackMachine at http://www.archive.org, where you will find almost every page on the net archived since the 1990's. This is a very helpful research tool, especially when digging around news sites.
I can relate to that
The related: query is one of my favourite Google queries and probably one of the most useful when doing any sort of research. This query is used to find sites that contain similar information. This is an excellent feature to use if you are comparing information or looking for alternate sources of the same information.
For example when I type related:bbc.co.uk into Google it returns a list of news sites similar to bbc.co.uk. You can even do this with specific pages. If I search for related:bbc.co.uk/weather/5day.shtml then Google returns a list of pages containing UK weather forcasts.
Try it for yourself. Copy the address of a webpage and paste it into Google with the word related: in front of it. You don't have to have the http://www bit to make it work. Here are some others for you to try:
related:wikipedia.com will return a list of sites similar to or some how related to Wikipedia.
related:metro.co.uk will return a list of sites similar to metro.co.uk, mostly newspaper websites.
related:news.independent.co.uk/uk/legal/ will return a list of sites that Google thinks is similar to the Independent's legal news page.
The info: operator is the next logical step from the advanced
search operators we have discussed so far. This operator
produces a list of links that essentially will return the same
information as the advanced operators, as well as some others.Try typing in:
This returns Google's entry for institutelegalsecretaries.com as well as a list of links to retrieve further information about the site.
The Ultimate Dictionary
Every body knows someone who is a walking dictionary, unfortunately they are normally never around when you need them! Enter our new best friend Google, with its define: operator. To look up a word or phrase in seconds simply choose a word or phrase and put the operator define: in front of it.
define:general motors corsa
As you can see this is a very powerful tool which works in many languages and can give you a lot more information than a normal dictionary.
Query modifiers and other fun tricks
Some times you might need to search a specific site for information or even look for web addresses that contain certain words. This is where you use a kind of operator called a query modifier. Lets start by finding all the pages relating to Jamie Oliver on the BBC website and no other sites. To do this I would use the site: operator. Give it a try:
site:bbc.co.uk Jamie Oliver
As if by magic every page relating to Mr Oliver appears on the screen. What if you want to find every page on the Beeb about Jamie but you don't want the pages about Jamie vs Boris Johnson? The answer is easy, use the site: operator with some negative terms. Here we go:
site:bbc.co.uk Jamie Oliver -Boris -Johnson
Another cool query modifier is the intitle: operator which lets you find all pages with certain words or phrases in their title:
See how this query brings up all the webpages with Jamie Oliver in the title.
Now, what if you want to find all pages on a certain site that have Jamie Oliver in the title? Its easy, just use a combination of site: and title: in your query:
site:bbc.co.uk intitle:Jamie Oliver
Get me that file!
The final operator we will be learning about is incredibly useful if you are looking for a particular kind of file. This could be a PDF or Word document, a picture, a zipped folder or even music. How do I perform this amazing query, you ask? The answer is that you use the filetype: operator. Simply type filetype: into Google followed by the file type you are looking for. Here are some examples:
filetype:doc for Word documents
filetype:pdf for PDFs
filetype:zip for zipped folders
Of course, typing in filetype:doc on its own isn't much use because you end up staring at a list of every Word document on the internet in no particular order. Try these two queries instead:
filetype:doc last will and testament
filetype:pdf last will and testament
As you can see, these queries are much more helpful. They return PDFs and documents with the terms 'last will and testament' written inside them. You will even notice some templates for Wills as well as actual Wills of actual people. I'm sure you are starting to see some potential here. Let's try using the site: operator alongside the filetype: operator and see what we dig up:
site:bbc.co.uk filetype:pdf employment contract
Jackpot! A list of employment contract related PDFs appears. There are even some actual contracts listed, ready to be signed. With this nifty trick you can search huge sites for the forms you want in seconds.
Over to you
Searching using Google's advanced operators opens up a whole new world of information. All it takes is a little creativity and you can probably find just about any information you need, from names and telephone numbers to specific documents on specific sites. The Internet is your oyster!