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Searching Google Well


There are three big things to consider when advancing your skills with search on the web:

  • Web documents
  • Web file system
  • Web query construction

The web is for storing and retrieving documents

When we use Google or another search engine to search, we are often looking for text or documents containing text or matching descriptions. This has some implications:

  • Text has primacy.
  • Our queries are matched against the text that appears in documents on the web.
  • The better our queries match the documents, the better (or more precise) our search results will be.
  • The challenge with search is that we do not always know what text a document contains even if that document covers the topic or concept that we think is relevant.
  • For example, consider synonyms. If I search for the sun, could I also mean solar, star, light, radiation?
  • What if a document only uses terms like solar, star, light, and radiation? Might it still be useful if I was interested in documents (i.e., web pages) about the sun?
  • Other wordy issues include things like homonyms: by bark, do I mean the bark on a tree or the word we use to signal the sound a dog makes?
  • Phrases are also important, with respect to term adjacency and word order. If I search for forest fire, Google, and other search engines, is more likely to return results where those two terms appear next to each other. This will mean that documents that contain text about someone having a camp fire in a forest will be less likely to appear at the top of my results than a document that contains the phrase forest fire.

The web is well organized

The web is strongly organized, even though it may not appear so. We can take good advantage of that when we search by narrowing our searches to just parts of the web.

  • The web is organized like a tree. This tree like structure originally contained just a few main branches, such as: .com, .edu, .org, .gov, and .net, but now contains over 1500 of these.
  • Each of the big branches (top level domains) contains smaller branches (second level domains), such as,,,, and
  • Those smaller branches (second level domains) contain even smaller branches (third level domains:,,,, and
  • We can take advantage of this organization by limiting (or focusing) queries to results within smaller sections of the web.
  • In Google, this would entail using what is called the site: operator in combination with the query we have constructed. For example, let's say I do a regular search for the term flu and I notice that most of the results that I'm interested in are from .gov domains and most of the results I'm less interested in are from .com domains. To address that, I add the site operator to my query: flu site:gov.
  • Then perhaps, let's say that I find these results too general still. We can focus the result on just a smaller branch of the tree. E.g.: flu
  • If we take a close look, we can see that is further subdivided by Florida counties. E.g.: flu

Constructing queries for precise results

Our queries are important and there are all sorts of tips and tricks we can apply to revise and make them more precise.

  • Use quotes: In our last search, Google provided us with snippets of text that highlighted where the term flu appears in the web pages that are retrieved. For example, we see terms like: flu activity, flu season, and flu shot. This is important information because we can use it to revise our search. Let's say that what I'm really interested in are web pages that contain info about flu shots and less about pages that contain information on flu activity or flu season. If that's the case, then I can add the additional term to my query and also enclose the whole term in quotation marks. That will force Google to rank pages with the literal term "flu shot" much higher than those other pages, or exclude those other pages altogether. So our query will now look like this:
    • "flu shot"
  • And, if I'm really interested only in recent pages, I can click on the Tools button and select Past hour, Past 24 hours, Past week, or etc.
  • Exclude results with the minus sign: Let's take a look at our flu shot search. Instead of enclosing "flu shot" in quotes to return only pages with that phrase, I could exclude the other terms of less interest (i.e., activity and season) by excluding them with a minus sign. This is how our search would look:
flu shot -season -activity

I can also exclude specific sites or specific domains:

flu shot -site:com
flu shot
  • Term order matters:
    • results will be different depending on order. Google has gotten good over the years about natural language, and so the suggestion is to use natural language in your query, such that flu shot would be better than shot flu.
    • for other types of term pairs, results will become increasingly different as you page through results. E.g., consider: search 1) google bing ; search 2) bing google.
    • In addition to the minus sign above, we can also use OR to tell Google to return pages with either of the terms or both of the terms. Consider: search 1) "google" OR "bing" ; search 2) "bing" OR "google"


  • documents on the web
    • consider the text
  • web organization
    • take advantage of the how the web is structured with site searches
  • query construction
    • use quotes
    • exclude terms with the minus sign
    • term order matters
    • use OR to select alternate terms
  • if you forget anything, use advanced search:


Final tip: You can get very advanced:

trade ("surplus" OR "deficit") ( OR

Or, limit to specific filetypes:

trade ("surplus" OR "deficit") ( OR filteype:pdf
teaching/searching-google-well.txt · Last modified: 2019/01/25 15:55 by seanburns