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7/19/2011
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6 Tips From Google: Search Smarter

Consider these how-to tips from one of Google's own search experts, plus insight into why searches sometimes go wrong.

Slideshow: The Top 16 Google Services
Slideshow: The Top 16 Google Services
(click for larger image and for full slideshow)
Know Your Search Self

Russell says there's a whole spectrum of ways that people search. He likens search skill to driving: Some people are comfortable at modest speeds and some want to race. Knowing how to drive your search engine means knowing what advanced commands exist and when you might use them. Awareness of one's search competence is the first step to improving it.

Understand the Information Space

Say you're writing about digital photography, Russell suggested. You'd do well to be aware that there are websites out there that specialize in digital photography, like dpreview.com. Knowing about rich sources of information can save search time. Likewise, knowing where there are informational gaps can be helpful. "A lot of newspapers don't allow Google to crawl their obituaries," he explains. So often such searches may be best conducted through the search engines offered on individual newspapers' websites.

Understand How Information Can Be Mapped From One Form to Another

Russell also says searchers can benefit from knowing how information can be related to other information, through related pages links or through a reverse dictionary, which supplies words that fit a user supplied definition. An example posted on his blog on Tuesday offers a tip for using Image Search to determine whether a name is more likely to be male or female.

Understand How to Assess Credibility

That means knowing whether or not to trust a given Wikipedia article, Russell says. It means knowing whether a retired farmer writing about nuclear power on his blog is legitimate authority or an opinionated crank. Of course the popularity of news sources that shape their coverage to match their politics suggests credibility isn't foremost in the minds of the public.

Understand How Expertise Affects Search

Being an expert in a given area changes how your search, says Russell. Not everyone can be an expert in every search, but being aware of this may provide motivation to research before your search, so to speak.

Strive for Search Result Literacy

Russell advises searchers to understand the elements that make up a search result. The goes beyond being able to tell the title from the URL from the snippet. It means knowing, for instance, that snippets don't use ellipses to mark the omission of information in a way that readers might expect.

"People often misread the ellipses thinking that they're the way a human would write the ellipses," said Russell. "The problem is that algorithm does not necessarily respect the semantics of English so it may have elided something important."

As an example, a term like "Transformers 4" in a search result snippet may be linked via an ellipsis to a phrase "was a wonderful movie" when in fact the full review from which the terms were taken might have been referring to a different, elided movie as wonderful.

Why bother worrying about how search works? Russell explained his reasoning in a blog post in March: "Google should teach people how to think about research, rather than just search. There's an important shift in thinking here. The difference is one of scope and scale. A research task is what people do to solve sophisticated problems, while a search is what they do to solve sub-pieces of the larger problem. Google supports search very well. But we don't help our users with their larger research task ... yet."

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