Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


MARCH 22, 2012 1:08PM

Squeezing More out of Web Search

Rate: 15 Flag

A friend was looking for an old post on Open Salon. I wrote some remarks on how to use Google to search for it. I find a lot of people don't know these little tips, so I figured I'd share them here.

The first thing to know is that you don't have to search the whole Internet when you have a problem like this. You can narrow your search to a particular site, even when that site doesn't have its own search box—or even when it has a search box but that box is really bad at search—by just going to Google and adding “site:” followed by the site you want to search for—with no space between “site:” and the site name.

We were looking for an article about a painting, so it just goes in with the other search terms, like this: painting

Before we go on, let's look at a few other useful details.

The word “painting” isn't terribly rare, so you'd expect a fair number of pages to match. If there's some unusual or unique aspect in the thing you're searching for, try to pick a word related to that to cut down on the number of search results.

In the case that started this, we were looking not just for a painting but one with bold colors. And someone recalled it might be about overcoming a “Stepford-like existence.” The “Stepford” reference wouldn't be in nearly as many pieces as the word “painting” might, so adding that to the search request will probably narrow things down.

This search request searches for an article containing both the word “painting” and the word “stepford”: painting stepford

Searching for two words finds any page that has both of those words anywhere on it, not necessarily side-by-side. For example, this finds any page that has both “bold” and “colors” on it, but not necessarily side-by-side: bold colors

Note that search engines will tend to give preference to finding them side-by-side anyway, so you may not have noticed. But when more words are involved this is trickier. For example, consider this: painting bold colors

In this case, the search engine has difficulty inferring your intent. Are you asking to find the phrase “painting bold colors” or are you looking for “painting bold” anywhere on the page but “colors” elsewhere on the page?

By grouping them, the meaning is clearer. You do this with doublequote (") characters at the start and end of a phrase to search for that phrase as a unit. For example, this search will only find pages with the word painting anywhere and with the words “bold” and “colors” side-by-side in a phrase:

painting "bold colors"

If you're finding things you don't want, you can exclude matches by adding a minus sign in front of a word or phrase. For example, this is the same as the previous, but pages containing the word “architecture” will not be included in the search result:

painting "bold colors" -architecture

It even makes sense to both include individual words and exclude them as a phrase. The following search string will find “bold” and “colors” but not as the single phrase “bold colors”, so they will be only separated from one another on the pages in the search result:

bold colors -"bold colors"

It might be that you aren't sure of a word and want to try several choices. You can use the all-uppercase word OR for this, with no doublequotes around it. The uppercase, by the way, is to avoid confusion in case you want the ordinary English word “or” in your search request. Here's an example:

"bold colors" OR "bold colours"

You might also have written this, but then you'd be searching for the word “bold” anywhere on the page and either “colors” or “colours” anywhere else on the page, but not necessarily together.

bold colors OR colours

I also often use OR to seach for different phrasings, like when trying to find ideas about a problem I need fixed. For example:

toyota radio broken OR "doesn't work" OR "won't turn on"

By the way, with this next search query, which you should now be equipped to understand, Google found the blog post The Good Mother by Mary T. Kelly that we had originally been looking for: painting stepford "bold colors" OR "bold colours"

Search Engine Choice

It's perhaps also worth noting that search engines differ a bit in the syntax they prefer. I've been talking about Google's notation, so if you want to try another, be aware some of these tips may not work. Read their documentation. The concepts will be similar but the capabilities may not be. Many try to copy Google, though, so probably you'll do OK.

I find Google delivers superior search results, and although I routinely try to use other search engines, I don't think they're nearly as good. Then again, you might wonder why if I like Google's results so much, why do I keep trying others? I'm glad you asked.

Google doesn't just search for this stuff, it keeps track of searches to track trends. In some cases, it may be able to associate what you search for with a file on you personally, or with some group it thinks you or your computer belongs to. This allows it to customize search results if you ask it to, but it also allows it to sell ads better, by promising to put customer ads in front of people who Google thinks care about those ads.

They try to spin that as a positive, but it's got its negative side. How would you feel if you walked into a Hallmark card store and were immediately greeted by someone saying “Sorry to hear your best friend's sister died. Sympathy cards are to the right.” That's both helpful and creepy. And that's what web advertising is becoming. The companies that do it the best are also the ones that are stockpiling the most information about you.

Using such data, political campaigns could perhaps find just the right message to say to you to make you like their candidate and dislike another. The ones who can pay for such targeting, that is. Using such data, a political or military force seeking to take control might know who's likely to have weapons or a strong voice that needs silencing.

Using such data, the center for disease control might notice people searching for symptoms that are signs of an emerging epidemic. That could be really good. Or a health care provider could sense you had a pre-existing condition and were a bad risk to cover. That would be less good. Information is very double-edged.

We all know there are positives, but we should be conscious of the negatives, and what our searches reveal about us. Sadly, the best search engines are the ones best equipped to make lots of records of who's searching and why. They may even justify the data they collect by noting we don't pay for the service, and suggesting they have to make their money somehow. Maybe. I don't recall ever being given the choice. We might all be better off paying for search and keeping our personal data to ourselves.

We tend to take these things as they come, thinking there are no choices. But often there are, they are just made for us. We end up not questioning whether things could be other than they are. If you want to read more about that phenomenon, I suggest Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget. Lorraine Berry (FingerLakesWanderer) and I wrote joint reviews of it here on Open Salon (hers, mine). But then, you could have found that out by searching for: "you are not a gadget"

Or if you didn't quite remember the title, perhaps: gadget pitman OR berry

Happy searching.

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Best tips ever for searching this site Kent.
This bit of information rocks. TY
Now all I have to do is to remember what I was looking for.
Thank you,for this,Kent..Very Informative..I will keeρ it.Rated.Best regards.
Mission, thanks for the award, though I seem to have misplaced my acceptance speech so I'll just thank my wife, my mother, and the academy.

Lefty, if only there were a Brain Search we'd be in business... for a while... until we found out they were putting little cookies on our memories and reporting the data back to some central brain. Faults and all, maybe it's best to be on our own for that.

Stathi, thanks. Hope it helps.
Thanks, Kent, I'm takin' notes.
I am copying this to a MS Word document to have nearby. Thanks for caring!
All stuff I did not know, thanks Kent!

I saw it on FB but it is much easier to follow here :-)
Kelly, I'm glad you feel the adjustments were an improvement.
Narrowing the search to a specific site is new to me so thanks for that Kent.
Wow! A great two-edged-sword piece, Kent! All the information about refining searches is new to me and invaluable. "But/and" (my now characteristic grammatical ?'conjunction'?) as to the negatives, hoo boy. I use Gmail (a family member programmed my computer for me) and the ads drive me crazy already. And when it comes to fullblown paranoia: "who's likely to have...a strong voice that needs silencing" (I don't have weapons) ... oof. It's getting so I hardly dare say anything at all [which may be just as well..... ;-)]
Very useful information. I don't like too much how Google keeps track of the searches you do (in order to improve the services to its customers, as they claim). Keeping this information could also be used against you (e.g., info stolen by hackers).
I was amazed when I saw your comment on FB in response to someone looking for my piece from several years ago...I think it was 2008 when I wrote that piece. Great detective work and thanks for sharing how you did it here.
Abrawang, that's the feature I think is most important. The ones that help you do matching this way or that are also cool, but if you can just narrow it to a site, that's a huge help to start with. And I figured a lot of people didn't know because you hear them all the time grumble about now bad search is at this site (or others, actually).

Marte, I'm glad you mentioned gmail. I never got an account, nor did I get an account with wave, nor use chrome, nor google desktop search. I knew they were already getting enough of my data, and I have come to think that it's centralization of data that is an “evil” in itself. Having been a long-time supporter of EPIC, EFF, and CPSR, all of whom do work in this area, I see over and over that if you have a lot of data, you need to have a meticulous sense of why you collect data, what you plan to do with it, permission to do that and only that, etc. in order for things to stay “under control.” That is a lot of work. But if we are to retain our individual and collective souls, it's necessary. (I'm not religious, so pardon the religious metaphors here, by the way, but I think they're the right metaphors for the conversation.) If you like going to conferences on matters like these, I can recommend none more highly than CFP. (It's not occurring this year. I'm not sure why, since we badly need it. They say it will occur next year.)

Kanuk, absolutely. That's it exactly. Stolen by outsiders, but also from within: We assume that the brains at the helm of the organization owning the data are good or bad, but such control can change. Even for the government, we don't give permission to Reagan, Clinton, Bush, or Obama, we give permission to whoever holds the office, now or in the future.

Mary, I've avoided naming names, since I didn't get permission, and since as I mentioned above privacy matters to me. But there was someone else in the conversation had another way of finding you: you had written a memorable piece that was enough burned into her brain that she remembered some important clues. And it isn't just a favor to you that people remember you—they do it when you write something that speaks to them. People do it when they value what they've just read. You did half the work by being memorable. Search engines allow people to use the fragments they have selectively remembered to pull the memory back into a whole. Reconstructed memory, let's call it. What could possibly go wrong? :)
Thanks for the tips. Although they are not new to me, it helps to take a refresher course. Rated