You’ve been using Google for years. In fact, you use it every day. And you always get tons of results, so you must be an expert searcher, right? Not so fast… Getting more results is not always helpful! Do you really have time to go through 264 pages to find what you want?
What you need are better results, which come from better searches. So here are some tips that work in most search engines and research databases to help you get better, on-target results.
Let’s say I want to research airplanes. That’s a big topic. It helps to state what I’m really looking for in sentence format: “I want to learn about the types of airplanes used by the United States in World War I.” A topic statement will help focus the search, and it leads right to our first tip:
1. Put some thought into your search terms.
You don’t want to start your search with a single broad term. For example, when I tried a Google search just for the word “airplanes”, I ended up with over 43 million results, most totally unrelated to my topic.
The solution? Adding more terms can narrow a broad search. To find more useful terms, let’s underline the important words in my topic statement: “I want to learn about the types of airplanes used by the United States in World War I.” These are good words to start our search. But it’s also helpful to think of other similar words that could be used. For example, World War I is also known as “the First World War” and “the Great War.” “Airplanes” can be spelled “aeroplanes” in British English. Words like “aviation” and “aircraft” also may be used for this subject. Since different things are written using similar words (synonyms) for the same topic, it’s a good idea to try searches with combinations of these various words. The next steps will help us do that.
2. Use truncation to find similar words.
For search results that include alternate spellings and forms of our search words, try truncation. This means inserting a symbol — usually an asterisk (*) — to fill in for part of a word. In our example, we could truncate the search word “airplane” as “*plane” and get results that include words like “plane”, “airplane”, “aeroplane” and even “biplane”. We could even get extra fancy and truncate twice, searching for “*plane*” to get plural forms of all those words. This is a great way to make sure you aren’t missing something important. But it also broadens our search to include more results.
3. Use AND, OR or NOT between search terms.
It can be very helpful to use connector words like AND, OR and NOT between search terms. Most search engines and databases automatically assume the AND between search terms, so the results will contain all the words you’re searching, whether or not you put AND between them. If we searched for “*plane* aircraft” or “*plane* AND aircraft”, our search results would include only items that contained both terms.
However, you may want to type OR between search terms to find results that include either term. In our search example, we could search for “*plane* OR aircraft” and get items with all the “plane” terms we’ve already mentioned as well as any items with the word “aircraft”, or items that include both. So using OR between search terms broadens the search, while using AND narrows it.
If you type NOT between search terms, your results will include items with the first term but not the second. So for our search example, we might try a search that would include “*plane* NOT Germany”, to find items on airplanes but not about Germany. This is a good way to narrow our search and eliminate some off-target results.
Note: In Google and some other search engines, you use a minus sign just before a search term rather than the word NOT.
4. Put quotation marks around phrases and use parentheses to group terms together.
Now that we are able to use a bunch of different search terms and link them together with AND, OR and NOT, we can get even more strategic. For example, if you’re searching for a phrase rather than a single word, typing quotation marks around the phrase means it will search for exactly those words in that order. In our example, we could put quotation marks around “World War I” so our results include items about World War I, and not items that include the words “World” or “War” just anywhere. That also would help us avoid search results about World War II.
Parentheses also can help group search terms effectively. We are interested in airplanes used by the United States during World War I, but we don’t want information about Germany. So we can create a search grouping our various terms as follows:
(*plane* OR aircraft) AND (“United States” OR America NOT Germany) AND (“World War I” OR “Great War” OR “First World War”)
Now that is some expert searching! We’ve got all the important terms from our topic statement, and we’ve grouped them together effectively. If we had just thrown everything into the search box at random, our results would be way off the mark for our topic, and we would have wasted time trying to find the good stuff.
You may be thinking, “But we’re still getting over 17 million results!” Remember — when using Google or another search engine, you’re searching the whole Internet, which is a lot of information! You may (and probably should) question the accuracy of some Internet sources. After all, anyone can set up a website. That is why it can be helpful to use research databases online and at your local library to focus your search on reliable information sources, like newspaper or journal articles.
5. Use Advanced Search when it’s available.
While many search engines have stopped offering an Advanced Search option, many research databases still do. If you see that option, check it out! An Advanced Search may offer easy ways to narrow a search. For example, the Advanced Search for the newspaper database Chronicling America offers ways to limit by state, newspaper title, years, date range, or language.
Other Advanced Searches may offer ways to limit a search by material type (book, journal article, newspaper article, photograph, etc.), publication title (to focus on a specific magazine or journal), subject area, or other useful ways. As a history librarian, I’m always happy to find options that narrow or sort search results by date and/or year.
Google does have an Advanced Search — it’s just kind of hard to find. And don’t forget to use the links for Images, News, etc. along the top of Google’s main search page to help focus your search as well.
A final bonus tip — When doing research on the Internet, be sure to try more than one search engine. Though Google remains the most widely used, it is not the be-all, end-all of searching! Each search engine has its own search formula, so you can get different results. Try these popular search engines (but there are many others as well):
And if you’re looking for reliable online sources of scholarly information, check out my previous post Finding Current Research Using Free Online Resources.