Getting more out of Google


Robert Ortega

How often do you start a search by looking on Google? Yeah, I do that more often than I’d like to admit, too. But even if you think of yourself as a Google sophisticate, chances are there are a lot of advanced and specialized search techniques you aren’t taking advantage of – in part because Google is always developing new and useful ways to search.

One caveat – keep in mind that, for political and other reasons, Google sometimes engages in search-result censorship (here’s a recent example), so you should never assume that not finding something on Google means it isn’t out there on the Internet somewhere. Hereand here are explanations of how the censorship works.

That said, Google still offers a useful starting point. There are easy ways to find new Google-related tools, but first let’s review a few existing tools that are particularly helpful for reporters.  One such, I think, is a link-navigation query. In Google’s search box, if you type link: before the URL for a website, Google will list all the other sites that link to that website. Just use the domain name (that’s whatever is between the http:// and the first “/” at the end of the URL). For example, if you type in link: you’ll find the 661 websites that have linked to this site. What’s the point? Sometimes it can be helpful to see who’s linking to a site when you’re looking for a particular source, or trying to get more information about a website, a company, or what have you.

 There are lots of other useful search terms (what Google calls search operators) that you can type directly into the search box, instead of having to go to the “advanced search” page.  To offer a few examples:

Filetype:         Typing filetype:  and a three letter file code (no space after the colon) after your search term will restrict your results to a particular type of file. Typing filetype:pdf will return only PDF files. Filetype:doc will return only Microsoft Word files. Filetype:xls will give you only Microsoft Excel files. Filetype:ppt will return only PowerPoint files,  filetype:jpg, only Jpeg  photo files, and so on. This can be incredibly useful not only when you’re looking for specific forms, but also because often certain types of government reports or other data may be presented in Excel or PowerPoint, allowing you to narrow your search quickly.   

Site:                    This is a useful term when you want to restrict your search to certain domains, or to specific sites. Let’s say you want to search for Canadian web sites that feature information about the Tamil Tigers. Restricting your search to domains ending in .ca this way: “Tamil Tigers” site:ca will return about 36,100 sites, versus more than 436,000 across all domains. Obviously, in this example, there are Canada-based sites that may be in the .com, .org or .net rather than the .ca domain; but this can still be a useful tool.  You can restrict your searches to sites in specific countries. Japan is .jp, Germany is .de, Switzerland is .ch, and so on. (For a complete list of country domain root types, look here.) Also, U.S-accredited universities use .edu, U.S. military entities .mil, the U.S. government .gov, and so on. In some cases, you need to add an extension, for example, for Canadian government sites. The search works in the same manner, though.  Similarly, your can type the whole URL after “site:” if you want to search within one specific site. For example, “ forms” will offer you pages within the Canada Revenue Agency site that link to tax forms. If you want to exclude a certain site or domain from your search, type a minus sign in front of it in the search box.

#..#                      This term restricts your search to within a range of numbers. Say you wanted to look for speeches by Barack Obama between 2004 and 2006, you could type in the search box: Barack Obama speeches 2004..2006. Note that you have type in two periods and no spaces between the two numbers.

Define:            If you put this in front of a word, acronym or phrase, Google will provide you with definitions found on the web. An alternative in to type in what is or what are in front of your term. Typing in what is cats, for example, will give you a definition of cats (small carnivorous mammals), but also the fact that CATS is an acronym for credit accumulation transfer scheme, Charlotte Area Transit System, and so on. This can be useful not only for acronyms, but for slang, technical, ethnic and other terms you might not find in a dictionary.

Movie:                            Gives reviews for whatever movie title you type in after the term.

Stocks:           Gives stock price, when you type in a company’s ticker symbol after the term.

Weather:           Gives the weather in whatever city you type in after the term.

Inurl:                   Returns results only that contain the word you specify in the URL. If you want to include more than one word in such a search, you need to put inurl: in front of each term. For example, inurl:healthy eating will return the 784,000 pages that have healthy in the URL and the word eating anywhere within the page, whereas inurl: healthy inurl:eating will return only the 77,400 pages that have both those terms in the URL. You can get the same result by using the term allinurl: before the terms you want.

There are lots of other specialized search terms you can use. Within Google News:

location:            Will give you articles only from the location you specify. For example, “Queen Elizabeth” location:Canada will give you articles about the British monarch only from sites in Canada. Make sure not to have a space after the colon.  This search term only works within Google News

Source:              Will restrict your results to those from the source you specify. For example, “Queen Elizabeth source:Toronto Star” will return only news stories from the Toronto Star in which the words Queen Elizabeth appear. Again, this particular search operator only works within Google News searches, not web searches.

There are many other search terms and techniques available, some officially supported by Google, others not. An excellent site to find these is at Google Guide, an independent online search guide and tutorial.

All but hidden within Google’s own website is the company’s experimental lab section, which tests – and enrolls users in trying out – new ways to search. One technique Google recently developed and is beta testing at their lab pages is called alternate view for search results.  If you sign up for the beta test (which is free), you can check out how to create a timeline view when searching dates/ events, how to cross reference maps with your search terms and more.  It’s really cool, and includes a bunch of interesting view options that you can’t otherwise use yet.

Another useful source is Amy Webb, a digital media consultant who blogs about the web for the International Center for Journalists. She tracks Google applications and other useful net tools for journalists. (Her postings and Google Guide were primary source material for some of the techniques I discuss in this article.) Check out her web page here.