We all love Google to help us find all things we are looking for. But the results we get aren't necessarily the right ones. Here are 12 tips to make your Google searching more relevant and productive.

Web search is something that most of us take for granted. It’s a split second operation that offers up page after page of results for what seems like an infinite number of topics. For any particular query, if we don’t immediately see a result that catches our eye, our ability to reformulate and execute a new search takes but a moment.

With Google, we assume that the items listed on the first page of results -- or first few pages for that matter -- are the most relevant for the search query we entered and why shouldn’t we, with such a complex algorithm and thousands of intelligent people working to solve a single problem, this market leader has set the standard when it comes to connecting people with information.

On occasion however, we find ourselves conducting search after search and end up spending more time than expected trying to find a document that best matches our original query. In such cases we often accept the results we’re given and conclude that an appropriate resource to what we’re looking for must not exist or cannot be found online. While the search results are typically good enough to get us what we need, there is always some room for improvement when it comes to filtering and refinement.

Search Queries, Ranking & the Relevancy of Results

Let’s take a look at a simplistic example. In the world of business portals and team collaboration, it’s next to impossible to discuss technology without bumping up against Microsoft SharePoint. It has rapidly evolved into the de-facto standard for areas like document management, knowledge sharing, team collaboration, portal solutions and more recently enterprise social software.

Suppose however, I was someone that was new to these topics and all I had in front of me were some requirements, a Google search box and a list of keywords that I believe best describe the type of technology that I seek. I’d imagine using query terms that include combinations of words such as business, enterprise, document, content, collaboration, intranet, portal, software, tools, solutions, systems, teams and so on. The expectation, based on the popularity of the platform, would be to at least see some microsoft.com pages for SharePoint included as relevant resources for many these searches as they do tend to describe product features and functionality.

In working through the process of executing my searches however this was not found to be the case. Pages from microsoft.com achieved a first page ranking on only four out of the fifty queries performed, with the highest rank coming in at position six for the query document management (click here to see the full list of query terms along with their associated ranking). Their absence near the top of the result sets indicate:

  • I’ve unknowingly selected the wrong set of search terms;
  • The algorithm doesn’t deem any of the pages from microsoft.com to be overly relevant for the queries executed (based on available signals); and/or
  • The content on the pages themselves has not been fully optimized in an effort to align with search behavior and achieve high ranking in the search results.

Not to mention there are also many very talented people out there implementing search marketing programs with the sole intent to influence search ranking for specific query terms. (the definition of relevance here is undoubtedly subjective).

Of course, it’s certainly arguable whether or not any of the pages from Microsoft are the best resource for these queries, but my thoughts are that they should at least have a place at the table based on what’s taking place in the market today. Regardless of the reasoning behind why they are not there, the intent of this example is really to illustrate that we need to be aware that the results we encounter as we search online may not represent the best resources for what it is we are trying to find.

Using Advanced Operators for Improved Query Construction

Google does a terrific job, but keeping this example in mind, as users we need also bear some responsibility for ensuring we have the understanding required to fully leverage the capabilities of the tools we use. Our time is precious and sometimes all we need is a little something extra to help us dig deeper into the search index to find the relevant resources we seek. What follows is an overview of twelve tips and tricks that you can add to your search toolkit and employ when the need for more precise query formulation is required and hopefully, they will get you to more relevant and higher quality results considerably faster.

1. Phrase Searches (“term1 term2 term3”)

When entering multiple terms into the search box Google will (by default) return a document set containing all the terms entered. Although the algorithm uses proximity of words as a signal during retrieval, sometimes we want to see only those documents in which the exact phrase we entered appears. To do so, we need only place quotation marks around the phrase we wish to identify. For example, the following queries will only retrieve those pages that contain the phrase taxonomy management system or sharepoint ia.

2. Synonym Searches (~term1 term2)

As searchers, we are often challenged with selecting the most appropriate query terms to use when trying to find what it is we are looking for. Rather than entering multiple queries for terms that may have the same meaning, we can use a tilde “~” as part of our query to indicate that we would also like to see results for searches that have the same meaning as one of the terms we’ve identified. For example, perhaps we would like to find information about purchasing a house. The addition of the tilde to our query immediately before the word house tells Google to also include equivalent terms such as real estate, property and home.

3. File Type Searches (filetype:extension term1 term2)

Search results, although primarily comprised of web content, can also contain a mixture of formats from Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint files to PDF, text documents and more. Use of the “filetype” operator will restrict a query to return indexed content of a specified file format only. For example, use the following syntax to show only PDF documents that contain the terms sharepoint and features.

4. Title Searches (intitle:term1 term2)

Words used in the title of a page are often an indicator of the overall topic of that page. Matching a query against terms used in the title only is usually expected to return a more precise result set. We use the “intitle” operator to see results that include query terms as part of the title only. Some examples include:

Note: by title we‘re referring to the html title tag, and not a page title or headline, which are sometimes the same but often different.

5. URL Searches (inurl:term1 term2)

Same reasoning as with the title searches above, words used within the file name of a document are often an indicator of the topic or subject of the content contained within. We can search against pages that contain query terms within the URL only by including the “inurl” operator as part of our query. For example:

6. Link Searches (link: url)

Citations and references can often help us uncover additional content that might be related to a specific page we already know about. Use the “link” operator to see a listing of pages that link to a specific page. For example, to see all the pages that link to the American Society for Information Science and Technology homepage we’d use the following syntax:

7. Site Searches (site:url term1 term2)

Sometimes want to search for documents from a given website or top level domain only. Use the “site” operator when trying to restrict a query to a specific subset of results, or in cases where on-site search functionality is lacking or absent.

8. Related Content (related:url)

In some instances we may already know of a good resource for a particular topic and might want to find sites that have similar content, in which case we can use the ”related” operator. For example, say we wanted to find other websites with similar content to Digg.com. Using the following syntax returns results that include Reddit, Slashdot, Wired and Technorati.

9. Negative Searches (term1 -term2)

Sometimes while searching we often encounter one or more terms that seem to dominate the results but are not really relevant to what we’re trying to find. Luckily we can remove results that make reference to them by including a hyphen “-“, or minus sign within our query.

10. Cache Searches (cache:url)

Documents that make their way into Google’s index represent a snapshot of content at a specific point in time. On occasion we’ll come across a search result that is no longer accessible at the indexed URL, either because it has been moved or deleted. We can however still take a peek at what the page looked like when it was last added to the index by using the “cache” operator. For pages that have frequently changing content, the cached version is often different than that found on the live site.

As a side, sometimes we’re able to see much older versions of web documents by viewing them at the Internet Archive through the Wayback Machine.

11. OR Operator (term1 (term2 OR term3))

By default, Google includes all terms entered as parameters for query execution. Rather than entering multiple successive queries surrounding similar concepts, we can use the “OR” command (must be all caps) or the pipe character (“|”) to formulate as a single search query. For example, suppose I want to find documents that are about both SharePoint and Information Architecture, which I know is also commonly referred to as IA. Using this syntax would result in construction of the following query:

12. Forced Term Inclusion (+term1 term 2)

Common search terms that do not add additional context or meaning are often excluded by default from a query by the search engine prior to execution (frequently referred to as stop or noise words). There are instances however when we want to ensure a term is included as part of our search and in such cases we would designate this through the use of a plus sign “+” immediate before the term that must not be dropped (Google is very good at doing this automatically for common queries).

These are some of the more common operators that if mastered will certainly change the way you search. Combinations of the above can really contribute to the creation of complex queries that ultimately return smaller subsets of targeted results. As you can imagine, there are many more shortcuts we can employ as part of our search repertoire but for the time being I suggest you start by getting familiar and experimenting with these.