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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.

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Google Search works most of the time, but not always. To help improve its already impressive relevance, Google employs Daniel Russell, a member of its search product team, to understand what people do when they search, what they're thinking about when they're searching, and why things sometimes go wrong.

Russell describes himself as a search anthropologist. "I don't do classical anthropology in the sense of going off and living in the field for a long period of time," he said in a phone interview. "We don't have time for that."

Russell likens his job to that of a salvage archaeologist, a researcher called in when, say, potentially significant artifacts are uncovered at a building site. He has to quickly assess how users are using new search features as they're rolled out, and how they change the way people search.

Google has an interest in helping people search more efficiently and, as Russell describes it, there are several ways Google does that.

"We've been doing lots of things to subtly make the efficiency of search better," he said, pointing to ongoing user-interface enhancements. As another example, he cites the daily search puzzle that Google launched in April, A Google a day.

"We're not driving ad traffic or making money off this," Russell said. "This is purely an educational program masquerading as a fun thing to do."

Google also educates teachers, who in turn teach other teachers and students about more efficient ways to search. This scales much better than trying to teach everyone individually, Russell said.

And there's a lot people can learn about search, on Google or elsewhere. For example, Russell said that he has conducted a series of studies showing that 90% of the U.S. Internet using population is unaware of how to use the control-F key combination (command-F on a Mac) to search for a word on a Web page or in a Word or Docs file.

"About 50% of U.S. K-12 teachers don't know how to do this," he said. "The ideal situation would be Google Docs is watching you over your shoulder and says, 'You look like you're looking for something. Did you know about control-F'?"

Microsoft of course tried this already and named its assistance software "Clippy," unaware that its effort to help its users would go on to become one of the most ridiculed technologies in recent memory.

"Clippy was a great idea but it suffered from a major problem," said Russell. "It was always trying to help you out in situations that it wasn't quite right. It had low-precision: It would trigger on something that wasn't right."

As a contrast, he points to Google's search spelling correction technology, which gets used all the time. "It's very similar to Clippy," he said. "It's trying to do a similar job, but its precision is incredibly high."

But Google users don't have to wait for Google's help to search more efficiently; they can take responsibility for learning how to search better. Beyond the various recommendations that Google offers on its Search Help pages, Russell suggests six strategies to improve one's search skills.

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