BUT, sometimes, I like the other type of post: an actionable, nuts and bolts piece. Something you can read quickly and learn something and use that something immediately. In this case, it’s going to be about using some (basic) advanced searching techniques. They are helpful if you’re looking for an article on a very specific topic, if you need to re-find an article you lost, or if you just need a quicker answer. Let’s get started!
The Semantic OneBox
A good place to begin would be with something we’re already familiar with (if you read the Search Engines, Part 3 post), Semantic Search. I’ll recap and include some examples.
Google started using their “Knowledge Graph” about a year ago to return results about “things, not strings”. This means that if you search for [taj mahal], it does more than find websites with those words in it. It knows that the taj mahal is a thing, and it will not only return articles related to that term, it will also bring you a “semantic” summary right there on the SERP (Search Engine Result Page).
These summaries are great for getting directions or quickly seeing a picture or two, but they’re not very actionable. Luckily, there are a ton of actionable semantic results that are now available. I’ll list the searches you’d be performing in the order that I (and maybe you will) use them the most:
1. DEFINE [x]: Have you ever wanted to know the meaning of a word and typed it into Google? You normally get a list of dictionary-ish websites that want to give you the latin root and translations and synonyms, but none of them will just give you the answer right there. Google has solved this problem! Just make sure you include the word “define” in front of your word, and Google will give you the answer before you even finish typing.
2. [unit x] IN [unit y]: Have you memorized how many British pounds are in a dollar? Or how many miles are in a kilometer? If you need to look a conversion like this up, do you go grab your college science textbook? Well you no longer have to! </Billy Mays voice> Using the tricky indicator word “in” in between the two units, Google will convert them right in front of yo face.
3. [math stuff]: You can do math stuff too! If it’s too much trouble to go to Wolfram Alpha (or you don’t need all their fancy graphs and stuff), you can just type the math stuff into Google and it’ll give you the answer right there. Just make sure you use normal symbols like * and + and – or it’ll get confused. And, if you mess up, it’ll pop up a nice little calculator right there where you can try again. Very 21st century, but still not as fun as typing 5318008 into a calculator and flipping it over and showing it to your friend.
There are tons of these. Here’s a full list. Another one of my favorites is if you search Google for a tracking code (like [1Z9999W99999999999]), the first result will take you right to the page showing its location.
Cool stuff, right? More and more of these quick-help answers are rolling out, so expect to not have to ever visit an actual website again, starting very soon (Google loves this idea).
SERP Filtering and Customization
The OneBox stuff involves tricky ways to get to the SERPs, but what if you’re already there and just want to filter them? There are about 10 different ways to filter/customize your SERPs once you get there. Once again, I’ll highlight the ones I use the most:
1. Search Tools > Any Time > Past [Time Period]: For some reason, Google thinks that articles from 2006 are relevant when I’m searching for tips with Microsoft Excel. I imagine those articles give you steps using Office 2003…not helpful. Thankfully, you can restrict the results to certain time periods. I’ll often only want things from the past year, but if you’re looking for current events, you can limit the results all the way up until the past hour. Just click on “Search Tools” right under the search bar, find “Any Time” (the default), and choose another time period.
2. Search Tools > [Current Location] > [Other Location]: If you search just “restaurant” and Google has detected that you’re in Raleigh (or wherever you live), it’s going to show you Raleigh restaurants by default. But, what if you want to read about restaurants in general, or for a city you’re visiting? Find that “Search Tools” option again and click on the location (for me it says, “Raleigh, NC”). It will give you an option to “Enter Location”, which will change your results.
One thing that’s cool about this is that if you include a non-default location in the actual search query (my default is Raleigh, so if I search [restaurants in Asheville]), it will automatically give you results for that non-default location (as long as it’s in the same country).
3. Search Tools > All Results > [Custom Filter]: This one seems to be changing. I had written down to show you that you can filter the results by “Pages you’ve already visited” vs “Pages you haven’t yet visited”…but now I can’t find that option. That would have been super helpful! I hope that is still around. Weird. Anyways, there are still some cool options in here. For example, if you want to read about local reviews, you can choose the “Nearby” option. If you want articles with images, you can choose “Sites with images”, etc. These sometimes change the whole SERP, and sometimes just mix it up, but the customization is very helpful.
You may notice that for these filters, Google will often store your filter in the URL. For example, to view “Nearby” results, just add [&tbs=loc:n] at the end of the default URL. If you’re a spiffy developer like Kevin McAbee, you can pull these customizations without needing the full interface.
Text Modifiers: “”, +, -, OR, and *
There are a slew of basic modifiers you can use to make your search more specific. The idea is you enter in the words you would have normally, but you add one or more of these in there with it. Here are some examples:
[“entire phrase you want to search”]: This first one is real easy. Normally when you search, Google searches for the words you entered, but in no particular order. This can lead to some technically accurate but incredibly unhelpful results. If you’re searching for a specific sentence or phrase, add quotations marks around the words and Google will search for it in it’s entirety.
Example: Let’s say you heard a phrase that had the words “a quick fox” in it, but it’s not the “quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” phrase. If you search for [a quick fox], you’ll likely get “quick brown fox” results. Try adding quotes and searching for [“a quick fox”] and you should get better results.
[+specificword with other less important words]: Here’s another tidbit of info about what’s going on behind the scenes. When you put in a normal search, Google looks for those words, but also synonyms of those words. If one of the words you’re searching has a more popular synonym, you might get some weird results. To tell Google “I want this word exactly, no synonyms”, put a “+” in front of that word.
Example: What if we were looking for little places where kids could play (let’s call them “play stations”). You can imagine what the SERP would look like if you searched for [play stations]. To remove Sony-related results, try [play +stations] and see what happens.
[your search -unwantedword]: Sometimes, you’ll get some results that you don’t like because they consistently return results related to a certain unwanted word. You can put a negative sign in front of the unwanted word to have it removed from the results entirely.
Example: Let’s say you search for [xbox reviews] and nothing but Xbox One reviews show up. Throw that negative sign in front of the “one” (so the search would be [xbox reviews -one]) and you get an entirely different set of results.
[one thing OR another thing]: Here’s another idea. What if you’ve only narrowed your search down to two things, and you want results related to each (but not both) things? You can tell Google to look for one or the other with the OR command.
Example: If you’re searching for a wedding venue and you realize that you want either a barn or a cabin, you could search for [wedding cabin barn] and get results related to both, or you could search [wedding cabin OR barn] and get one or the other.
[exact words *]: The last text modifier is the “wild card”. The asterisk is used as a placeholder-for-anything in a couple different languages, such as Regex and Excel-based work, and also works in Google. It can be used similarly to the OR command, where you have narrowed your search partially but not entirely. Instead of wanting results based on two things, though, you can specify part of your search and the rest can match anything at all.
Example: What if you feel inspired to try base jumping, but you don’t know what kinds of things people normally base jump off of. You could search for just [base jumping from], but Google will actually omit the “from” thinking it’s unnecessarily added to the end of your search. Instead, type in [base jumping from *] and see the difference. Some guy jumped from Mount Everest, what a bad ass!
Site Modifiers: site:, inurl:, and intitle:
On top of commands that modify the text you search, you can also specify what websites from which you want results. There are a number of these, but let’s look at the three commands I use the most.
[search text site:websiteIwant.com]: This one I use all the time. It can pretty much entirely replace going to a website and searching within that website’s search bar. By adding a “site:website.com” to your search, Google will only give you results from that website. Amazing, right? So simple and so helpful.
Example: Let’s say you saw a video the other day for a graphic designer whose last name is Draplin. If you search for [graphic designer draplin video], you’ll get some YouTube and other results. But, you know that the video you watched was on Vimeo. Try [graphic designer draplin video site:vimeo.com] and see the magic happen. Nothing but Vimeo results!
[search text inurl:urlword] or [search text intitle:titleword]: In this last case, instead of specifying an exact website to get results from, you can tell Google to only give you websites that have a certain word in the URL or Title. It’s going to be less common that these are the parts of the site you remember, but it could happen!
Example: This one could be good if you are just looking to find a website you visited once, but can only remember part of it. How about if you found a Raleigh photographer’s website and you can’t remember what it was, but you remember it was a family photographer and the word “family” was in the URL or the Title. You could try and search for [raleigh photographer] and manually look through the results, or you could use the inurl command and search [raleigh photographer inurl:family]. If that didn’t work, maybe [raleigh photographer intitle:family] does. Either way, both sets of results have family in the URL or Title, which should save you some time!
Alright that should cover the most popular advanced searching skills. Google’s got a good list of them here and there are plenty of other websites that detail them as well. One last thing before you go. Keep in mind that you can combine these. If you wanted, you could combine ALL of them. The basic combos are things like [movie reviews -site:imdb.com] if you want movie reviews sites that are not imdb.com.
Or, you can have fun and search [some +crazy * quote OR phrase -ridiculous site:urbandictionary.com inurl:definition intitle:mustache] to find 1) a page on urbandictionary.com 2) that has “some crazy something quote” or “some crazy something phrase”, 3) with crazy exactly without synonyms, 4) does not have the word ridiculous on it, and 5) has “definition” in the URL 6) and “mustache” in the Title.
As you can see, there is not a single page in Google that is like this. You broke it! Good job. Come up with crazy combinations yourself, or use one or two commands at a time to refine your results. Either way, you’re one step closer to becoming a Google master!
Thanks for reading.
As I’m not updating the resource too often, so here are some other probably-more-updated posts on the subject: