You are a consultant, solving problems is what you do. If someone has a question you usually have an answer. If you’re anything like me, though, the majority of those answers don’t just miraculously pop into your head. As a general rule, if your initial answer begins with “Um…”, chances are that you’re going to have to do some searching to find the details needed to answer the question or solve the problem. Having the intrinsic knowledge and expertise in your chosen field is necessary and valuable of course, but knowing how to find what you don’t already know is the true cornerstone of any consultant’s value. This being the case, having a finely-tuned arsenal of search tools and skills in your utility belt is imperative and essential for anyone in the “give me a problem and I’ll give you a solution” business.
The topic seems almost moot at first. With the seemingly infinite amount of information the Internet provides, it’s inevitable that we tend to begin our searches there. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone today who doesn’t know what a search engine is or how to use one. But for most of us, doing a quick Google search is almost more of a subconscious reflex rather than a focused, concerted effort. And because of this, we tend to do the bare minimum in order to get results. Most searches usually go like this:
- Go to a search engine
- Type in the question/words you want to search for
- Check the first page of results, if your info isn’t found then try a few different variations of the search terms
- Check those results.
For the most part, if the information you need isn’t retrieved by this point, the “Internet part” of your search will probably end right here. This is the point where most people begin using external resources to continue a search, like asking other people, looking for books, magazines, documentation, etc. While these are very valid and helpful resources (and most definitely should be utilized and not overlooked), this article will specifically focus on expanding your Internet searching skills (mostly Google) to help you make your searches more succinct, relevant, and most importantly, efficient.
Quick tips and tricks
Below are some suggestions on quickly expanding your searches right out of the gate. Most of these are not time-consuming, and should only increase your search time by a few minutes at most.
- Leverage auto-suggest and related searches
Most search engines use a combination of search volume, keyword relevance, and your local search cache to populate the auto-suggestion list that drops down as you’re typing in your search. This list is usually not completely accurate or relevant, but it can give you some ideas for wording variations you can try with your search.
Usually at the bottom of a page of search results, the search engine will give you suggestions on other terms/words to search for. This is one of the easiest ways to explore variations of your search terms. Get in the habit of clicking on suggested terms you deem relevant and quickly opening them in a new tab or window (depending on your browser). Then, after you’ve gone through your initial search results, you can quickly page through the results for the other terms. More often than not, you’ll find a few a few hidden gems.
- “Retrieved” doesn’t mean “Recent”
Ten years ago, as searching was becoming more and more a daily routine for most of us, the content that was available (in general terms) was more information expanding on previous information. Today, however, there many search results that get returned high up in the results (simply because of their SEO rank and tenure online) that are outdated or inconclusive. Simply adding the current year to the front of a search term (for example: search for “2015 how to make chili” instead of just “how to make chili”) can weed out older content and improve the relevance of the search results.
You can also filter search results for a specific date range if you need to. Just add “Daterange: (start date–end date)” before your search words to only see results for that specific date range. Keep in mind that the date used is the date that the content was indexed by the search engine, and not necessarily the date the content was published.
- Utilize more advanced searching syntax
There are many ways to augment a search to filter for specific criteria. Below are some references to specific search operators and filtering syntax that is widely used by most search engines. Like anything else, these can be useful when searching for content within a specific context, but don’t necessarily apply to all searches.
- Spend a little extra time looking past page 1
This one is fairly self-explanatory. It seems so remedial, but I still have to make a conscious effort sometimes to look beyond page 1 of returned search results. Depending on the topic being searched, some results become irrelevant by page 2, others by page 8, etc. Regardless, it’s worth the few extra seconds to glance and the next page(s) of results.
- Searching with hyperbolic (grammatical, not mathematical) adverbs and/or lists
Since a lot of the content indexed by search engines is from blogs, forums, social media and the like, the information you’re looking for may exist in a more relaxed, conversational format. When looking for a specific item or concept, it doesn’t hurt to add hyperbolic terms to your search (examples: always, never, best, worst, greatest, the number one, etc) to try and grab relevant content that exists in this format. This trick may yield you more results, but just be aware that it’s also more likely that the results could be opinions, editorials, and sometimes even advertisements. As always, be diligent in identifying what you would consider to be a reliable source.
Also, a lot of information and content out there is compiled into lists of related items, terms, or concepts. Searching for lists not only expands the possible content that can be retrieved, but it also provides a quick way to find related items and/or terms that you can search for as well. Within the context of your search (and, if applicable) adding words like “top, top 10, list of, most popular, widely used, etc” to your search can increase the hits you get for your specific search terms.
- Find the tools that work for you
When doing research on any topic, especially when the Internet is involved, the amount of information that is found can be extraordinarily overwhelming. There are many free tools out there (for almost any browser, and even stand-alone applications) that can greatly improve your researching efforts. I won’t list any specific tools here, but if you search for tools around the particular topics below, you may find some that greatly improve your research efforts. Again, each person and their research style is different, so be sure to assess a tool on the benefits it provides you specifically and not on its popularity. Sometimes tools of this nature can add more unneeded overhead than actual benefit. It’s all about what you’re comfortable with.
– Notation (taking notes)
– Screen Capture
– Research Organization
– “Save for Later” Apps
– Info Feed Apps (social media, news, publications and journals, etc)
– “Ask an Expert” sites and communities
The topics below require a little more time and in-depth study, but understanding the basics behind these concepts can greatly improve your searching accuracy.
- Get to know SEO
Anyone who has ever dug into the inner workings of search engine optimization will probably tell you that completely understanding how it works is a futile endeavor. After all, it is in-and-of-itself an industry in its own right, and some people spend their entire careers becoming SEO experts. It is a very dynamic topic, always in constant flux as new algorithms and search mechanisms evolve. And, add to that the fact that each search engine employs slightly different methods of indexing and semantic extrapolation, you end up with a fairly daunting area of expertise that takes time and effort to acquire. However, you don’t have to be an SEO expert to benefit from it. Just simply understanding the basic concepts behind it will help you understand how the search engines compile the results from a search, and can give you guidance when deriving search term variations to try when searching. Below are a few resources on basic SEO:
- Understanding basic semantics
Knowing “how” to ask the right question when typing a search into a search engine is obviously critical. Understanding some basic concepts around language and semantics can greatly improve the quality of results you get from any search. Again, people have written entire dissertations on language semantics and still only scratched the surface of what there is to learn about this topic. For our purposes, we’re just interested in how semantics plays a part in the contextual extrapolation that search engines use to find information. Below are some good starting points if you’re interested in learning more about semantic searching for the web:
- SEO 101: Semantic Search
- Most Common Questions on Semantic Search Answered
- Five Ways to Unlock the Benefits of Semantic Search (Hummingbird)
- Future SEO: Understanding Entity Search
In a nutshell, knowing how to ask a search engine for exactly what you want, knowing where to look to find the results, and understanding how information is sliced and diced will give anyone an edge in the productivity and accuracy of Internet searching. Just like anything else, a skill like this takes practice. Give some of these suggestions a try the next time you’re looking for info to complete your “Um…” answer. Hopefully, you’ll find that there is more information out there than you know what to do with, no matter what the topic.