How To Find Stuff Out On The Internet

This site gets a fair number of hits every day from people trying to locate specific information.

Sometimes folks head this way on purpose, but often it's because this site just happens to contain the words they're looking for, even though it doesn't have the content they need. Obviously they're going to be disappointed if that's the case, so if you're one of those people, I apologise - this page is the result of trying to do something about it.

But this page is also here to stop you making a nuisance of yourself elsewhere on the net by popping up and asking a really dumb question when you could have found the answer after a whole five seconds of typing on Google. In fact, you would probably have typed more text to ask the question than you needed to type to find the answer. Do that too often, and people will think you're an idiot.

You don't want that.

Without more ado, here are my top ten search engine tips to help you find the stuff you're actually looking for.

Let's start with what you should be typing in to that search field. This is your search string. Making your search string as helpful as possible will greatly improve your chances of finding what you're looking for.

What does that mean? Well, it's important to realise that search engines aren't like people: they will look for what you type in without understanding the question.

So if you type in

Why do my feet hurt

you are likely to get a lot of junk mixed with a few decent answers - I even got pages of song lyrics when I tried just now with Google. Think about what would happen if you asked a person the same question. What would they be likely to say in reply? What words would they use? Searching for

foot pain is caused by

gives a much more helpful selection of answers. Try it!

Now try it without typing in the "is" - you'll get a very similar set of answers (in fact, they'll probably be the same.) Common words can safely be left out, unless you're using rule number 2.

Search engines have got better at searching for groups of words, and if you type in a relevant set of words describing something, in most cases you'll probably find what you're looking for in the first page of results. But don't believe the search engines when they tell you to remove quotes to get more results: you'll get more results, but they're unlikely to be what you're looking for. Using quotes makes a search engine return pages where the words within the quotes appear in that order, and without any other words in between. For instance, suppose you were searching for the rather groovy organisation we like to call the Head First Only Club. On Google, if you enter a search string of

head first only club

the first page of results doesn't mention this site at all, but by adding quotes and entering

"head first only club"

you find that Google brings up several pages of results that all refer to the HFO and yours truly.

This one's simple. Think about the answer you are likely to get and put it in quotes, or groups of quotes - depending on which words you need to appear together. If you want to find out how they shot the bit where Tom Cruise escapes in Minority Report, then entering your search string as two strings:

"jet pack" "special effects"

will get you several relevant entries on the first page. Adding "Minority Report" to your search string will make the results even more relevant.

Despite claims to the contrary, spelling *is* important, even if you're putting stuff out on the Internet. Make sure what you search for is spelt the way you think it is. Some search engines will politely ask you if you meant to search for something else if it's a predictable misspelling, but for more unusual words that's not always the case.

People who know about a subject tend to use particular words when they're talking about it. Searching the web using this jargon can often help you find those sites that really know what they're talking about.

To put it another way, typing a bit of jargon into a search engine will tend to give you more relevant hits for technical information about something than more general English will.

If you're looking for a file to download, specifying the file type, determined by the letters after the period in the filename, can narrow down your search to stuff you actually need.

For instance, if you're in search of an Adobe Acrobat document to download, include .pdf in your search string.

If you're looking for an audio file, make sure your search specifies extensions like .au, .ogg, .wav or .mp3.

If you're still not finding the information you need, try coming at things from a different angle. Search for a different set of words that you'd be likely to read on a page about the subject you're looking for. And don't forget to use quotes if there's a particular phrase you want to target.

You could even try searching for pictures, rather than words: most search engines will let you do this these days. You may not find a single page with the text you need, but you may recognise a familiar picture. It's a trick I've used more than once, and it works well for me.

Don't just rely on one search engine for everything. Different search engines have different ways of indexing and ranking stuff, and things change all the time. Using more than one site might take a bit longer, but you're more likely to find what you're looking for - and after all, there are lots of search engines out there.

Back when the Web first got started, there were no search engines at all. people consulted managed lists of bookmarks like the Yanoff List to find the good stuff.

These days, we rely less on bookmarks and more on on-demand searches. Why? Because the Internet is not permanent, and pages come and go. They also move around a lot. As a result, the thing you're looking for might not be there any more. If this happens, Google's cache is your friend. Click on the word cached next to the result to see what the page looked like the last time Google indexed it. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a lot better than coming up with nothing at all.

If you've gone through all these tips and you still can't find what you're looking for, don't worry. Try again tomorrow. The amount of information on the web is growing every day and the odds are it won't be long before another page appears with just what you were looking for.

Happy searching!