Founded in 1998 by Stanford Ph.D students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google has since exploded into more than just a worldwide phenomenon. It has become an integral staple of modern life and a key cornerstone in research and learning, granting the world with free, unlimited access to a staggering estimate of 15 exabytes of information in less than a blink of the eye.
Google has now become the epitome of the modern technological world, having irrevocably altered the face of twenty-first century education and way of life – for good. According to Internet Live Stats, over 40,000 search queries are processed in Google every second, which then translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year.
The vast appeal and international reliance of Google lie in its direct, uncomplicated approach. Got a burning question? No problem. Just type it into the search box, hit enter and watch as the answers immediately flash up on your screen.
However, the situation often becomes a little trickier for more open-ended questions, such as this research inquiry posed by Dr. Sergey Gavrilets at the University of Tennessee: How did human social complexity evolve and what are the implications of our evolutionary past for our social behavior?
Needless to say, a question of this caliber and complexity will require years of intense primary and secondary research. Assume, however, that we’re looking only to gather basic relevant data through sources on the internet. First, note that we obviously can’t expect to find this simply by copy-pasting the above question in the search box. Try it – you’ll soon be drowning in an overwhelming number of useful and useless websites, with articles that are only partially related to your topic and blogs that happen to use a certain few keywords.
What you really need to be doing is breaking down your overarching question into manageable chunks and refining your queries to make your search entries as efficient as possible. Did you also know that you can even specify your entries to search only for select types of information, such as papers published in peer-reviewed journals or newspaper articles from 2008? All you need to do is know exactly what you want to ask – and how you want to ask it.
1. Use hyphens to exclude certain words.
This one’s pretty simple to remember. Notice how a hyphen is the exact same sign as the mathematical minus sign? Google notices the same thing, too. So the next time you’re looking for a recipe for brownies that doesn’t use any chocolate, simply type in: "Recipe for brownies -chocolate." The next instant, you will find recipes for Swedish brownies, butterscotch brownies, lemon brownies and vanilla brownies – none of which involve chocolate. (Although I’m not sure why anyone would be looking for brownies made without any chocolate in the first place.)
Another important point to keep in mind is to NOT place a space after the hyphen. This is because Google works in such a way that it will register “recipe for brownies -chocolate” as “recipe for brownies without chocolate,” while interpreting “recipe for brownies – chocolate” as “recipe for chocolate brownies.”
2. Use quotation marks to find an exact phrase.
In essence, Google works by sifting through millions of webpages to find the ones that contain the words you typed into the search box – though not necessarily in the order that you typed it in, which explains why we’re sometimes presented with seemingly completely unrelated websites. If you’re looking for a certain quote, a song lyric or a phrase, in which the order of the wording is crucial, just place it all in between quotation marks. For instance, if you wanted to find out which book the line, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs,” was from, you would type it into the search box with quotation marks around the line. If you decide not to place it all inside quotations, Google will probably still help you find the right answer, but it would also likely show you websites about nursing, life, animosity or height problems. Why not avoid all these unnecessary detours?
And for those of you who are curious, the book which that line came from, according to Google, is "Jane Eyre."
3. Use "site:" to search for something from a specific website.
Sometimes our professors may only allow us to conduct online research on a select few websites. But what if those websites contain pages and pages of archived information dating all the way back to the 1970s? Where on earth will you find the time to sift through one unending subsection after another? Where do you even start, period?
Never fear, for the tools of Google are here. All you need to do is type “site:” and immediately follow it up with the desired website you wish to search in, then leave a space and type in your search entry as you normally would. For instance, if you wanted to search for cloning in nature.com, you would type, “site:nature.com cloning”.
Note that the “www.” is optional – writing either “site:nature.com” or “site:www.nature.com” will give you the exact same result. And once again, just as for hyphens, remember to NOT place a space in front or behind the colon.
4. Type “OR” to search for multiple things at once.
Did you know that you can search for multiple things at once? All you need to do is separate each query with the word “OR.” Keep in mind, though, that unless you capitalize the whole word (OR rather than or) Google will interpret your search as a phrase that involves the word “or,” instead of two separate, distinct entries.
For instance, if you wanted to simultaneously search for DNA and cows, you would type: "DNA OR cows." If you accidentally typed “or” instead of “OR,” however, Google will turn up webpages about bovine genetics, rather than a couple of websites about DNA and a few about cows.
Bottom line: capitalization matters!
5. Type "filetype:" to search for a specific file type.
Information gathered from websites are frowned upon, if not outright rejected, when conducting secondary research in college. However, articles are always fair game and from personal experience, I’ve found that the vast majority of articles on the internet are never floating around loosely on a webpage, but rather packaged away into pdf or word files.
To search only for information contained within a certain type of file, simply type "filetype:pdf" (or filetype:doc, filetype:jpg, etc.) before typing in your search entry as usual. For instance, if you were looking for pdf files about turtles, you would type the following: "filetype:pdf turtles." Or if you were looking for word files about alkane synthesis, you would type: "filetype:doc alkane synthesis."
And once again, please remember to not add a space in front of or behind the colon!
6. Type “intitle:” to find results with a specific word in their titles.
To further narrow down your searches, try specifying your queries to find results that contain a specific word in their titles by typing in “intitle:DNA” (or intitle:Pumpkin, etc.) after your regular entry. I have found this to be at its maximum potential when combined with the above “filetype:” hack. In order to do so, type in your preferred file type, then your regular entry and finally the specific title word.
Let’s try an example. Say you wanted to look up pdf files about pesticides that have the word “apple” in their titles. Then you would type in: “filetype:pdf pesticides intitle:apple.” Note that the order in which you write the query is crucial to prevent Google from becoming confused. For instance, if you had typed “intitile:apples pesticides filetype:pdf,” Google will search for pdf files containing “apples pesticides” in their titles, instead of pdf files about pesticides containing “apples” in their titles.
7. Use an asterisk to replace a common term with specifics.
Whether you’re desperately trying to narrow down your research topic or gather particular details for a big umbrella term, if you are working with a broad, generalized idea, this next Google hack will prove to be absolutely invaluable. By placing an asterisk in front of a word and hitting enter, Google will automatically search for the word that you placed the asterisk before, but also other specific terms associated with that word as well. In essence, Google will treat the asterisk as a placeholder and play a game of fill-in-the-blank. For instance, if you were a marine biology major interested in the ocean just in general, as well as in the five different types of oceans, you would type into your search box: “*ocean.” Trusty Google would then turn up results about oceans, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean – you get the idea.
8. Use “~” to search for related terms.
This one is super straightforward. Just as we use the symbol “~” in front of numbers in math to mean “approximate,” we can place this symbol in front of a certain word to see search results for its synonyms, as well as for the word itself. For example, if we Googled, “~castle,” we would see results for palaces, mansions, fortresses and of course, castles.
9. Type “author:” to search for works written by a specific author.
Unlike all the other tips we’ve previously discussed above, this next one only works in Google Scholar, a search engine for scholarly literature. If you are trying to hunt down a dissertation by your favorite researcher or are just bored and want to read Albert Einstein’s paper on the Brownian movement, all you need to do is type in “author:Einstein” into the Google Scholar search box and hit enter to find all available papers and articles written by Einstein (or any other author of your choosing).
10. Use “..” to designate a timeframe.
Finally, at the very end of your search box entry that you’ve specified to the max using the above nine tips (or not), you can at last designate a desired timeframe. Simply type in the year within which you want to search at the very end of your entry. For example, if you were in Google scholar, looking for papers written by Einstein in the year 1973, you would type: "author:Einstein 1973."
If you want to make your time period a bit broader, simply add “..” between the first and last years and Google will pull up all relevant results from within that time range. For instance, if you wanted to search for pdf files about turtles written during the years 2006 to 2009, you would type: “filetype:pdf turtles 2006..2009”.
With an estimated 1.2 trillion searches per year and an astounding 15 exabytes of data, Google is an undeniable powerhouse of information and a crucial tool in conducting secondary research, making it absolutely critical that students understand how to perform efficient and effective searches. And with time, practice and the above 10 fabulous tips, learning to properly master the ins and outs of Google is within anybody's grasp.
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