Blogging & Social Media Tips, Technical & How-to

Questions and the Quest for Answers #AtoZChallenge

5 May , 2019  

My writing often begins with a question. Who, what, when, where, why? Questions lead to rabbit holes; rabbit holes lead to the Wonderland of Google, more often than not. Recent blog posts begin with questions like, “What are some literary terms beginning with the letter q?” or “What interesting words or rhetorical devices start with r?” They don’t always end up there – they just open the door to another rabbit hole. Q is for questions. Queries. A quest for knowledge, be it trivial or great.

Crafting the perfect question is literally a big part of my day job. Of course, perfectionism – that should have been my post for “P” – doesn’t mean ever attaining perfection, only that the perfectionist will kill themselves in the pursuit of it. Oh, look at all the lovely “P” words that just pop out, now, when I don’t need them anymore.  Yesterday was P-post day; “Q” is tougher.

But back to crafting queries. I’ve never loved search engines that just take whatever sloppy sentence structure you can throw at them and spit out answers like buckshot. I prefer precision and simplicity. I used to delight in asking Jeeves, the obsequious little butler of what’s now, to do the impossible. Poor little guy would throw up his hands in frustration and send me off to Alta Vista. I spent more time working to stump the search engine than I did getting it to find useful information. It was a very forgettable site, in my opinion, despite its undeniable popularity. It was popular for the very reasons I despised it.

I like more demanding search engines that offer more precise control. I hate that Google now assumes I’ve made a typo in my searches and tries, unhelpfully, to correct them. “Did you mean…?” No, if I’d meant that other thing, Google, I’d have typed it that way. Notice that it assumes I care about the “correctly spelled” (in its opinion) term, regardless:

I really only included that because, holy cats, there are 11,700 results for calculator AND wolfbane. Can you even get Google to return 0 results, anymore? Watch me waste the day trying.

Do notice, though, that the last result contains “Wolf’s Bane” (possessive, two words). The cure for this, of course, is to enter the search as calculator AND “wolfbane” – the double quotation marks, here, tell Google to give me exactly what I asked for, nothing more, nothing less. Mostly, it works. But Google still wants to drive home the point that it thinks you’re an idiot, asking, “Did you mean: calculator and “wolfsbane“?” No, I did not. It’s hellbent and determined to give it to me, anyway.

But Google does still have a few search tricks up its sleeve, even if it prefers to hide them from us and treat them like arcane geek magic. It hides the goodies, then quietly deletes search operators, claiming that not enough people use them to make it worthwhile to maintain them! Sneaky. I honestly thought, for a while, that Google had deleted all but the most basic AND, OR, parenthetical grouping and literal phrases.

Notice the AND? Google appears to think that’s optional, these days, and treats it as a suggestion. Here’s proof – the Tufts article, Worms in Space, does not contain term A – calculator. It does contain term B – “space worms” – later in the body of the text.

So what gives? Is Google…wrong? While most of us would never notice this, or intend to find such hidden text (unless we were specifically looking for hidden text “under the hood”) Google would still allow a little black hat SEO to succeed (at least when looking for space worm calculators). If you right-click and View Source on the page above, you will, indeed, find calculators:

It’s not a useful or expected result, is it?

This is where the operators intext: and allintext: should be useful, but they pulled up the same results, including the Tufts article. calculator AROUND(42) “space worms” actually worked best. (42 is the number of words that can appear between the search terms, on either side.) AROUND(x) does not appear to search “under the hood.”

You can use parentheses to group terms, such as calculator AND (space OR worms). That should return results that include calculator AND space or calculator AND worms. Of course it would include calculator AND “space worms” but doesn’t require that both space and worms, or the phrase “space worms,” be present. Note that this doesn’t always work as expected. For example, (“space worms” OR “potato chips”) AND (frogs OR “garden hoe”) should require at least ONE term from each parenthetical grouping, but the results don’t necessarily reflect that. There’s obviously a half-hearted attempt at it:

That Good’s Kettle Cooked Potato Chips link has nothing from the parenthetical group on the right, even if you use View Source. And Google doesn’t say that something’s missing, as Google often does. It tried, but it looks like it returned accurate results plus a few things it thought might be interesting or conceptually related to stuff that appeared in the accurate results. I’m not sure why – as some sites mention, use of some operators that still work is “hit or miss.”

Here’s a cool one to try: We all know Google offers helpful suggestions in the search box as it attempts to autocomplete as you type. But what if you want slightly more specific suggestions? Use an underscore character in front of the word you’re most interested in:

You can do something similar with Bing and an asterisk: most * books in 2019 gives you things like most anticipated books in 2019 or most popular books in 2019.

It acts as a sort of wildcard.

Looking for guest posting opportunities? Don’t email me! Try this, instead: topic intitle:”write for us” inurl:”write for us” where topic is a search-worthy version of the topic you want to write about. This also works in the Bing search engine, but the results appear to be much more limited there.

You can find more tips, along with a list of the search operators that used to work, once upon a time, but no longer do (useful if you’ve been beating your head against Google’s brick walls instead of gliding down its rabbit holes) at Google Search Operators: The Complete List (42 Advanced Operators).

I like Google, and use it 99% of the time. But it is worth trying other search engines, too, if you’re doing research on a topic. Here’s a “cheat sheet” to operators supported by Google and Bing as of March 2019: Advanced Search Operators for Bing and Google (Guide and Cheat Sheet).

Unfortunately, even these are not entirely up-to-date. The related: operator may or may not yield results, even for sites that have been around for a decade or so. The “official documentation” for major search engines is found here (if your favorite isn’t listed, try site:searchengineURL “advanced search operators” where searchengineURL is the domain name, such as, for your favorite search engine):

The periodic clean-up of little used or resource-intensive operators probably helps to ensure faster performance of our favorite search engines. They now have to chew through billions of sites, and although the results are housed in a database and re-indexed periodically, they are not perfect or perfectly up-to-date. A truly live search would probably take days, if not weeks.

What search tips have you found most helpful? Any obscure tricks you’ve found, that are useful but not covered here? Do share them in the comments, below.

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4 Responses

  1. Searches frustrate me. I know what I want, and it (Google) doesn’t get what I want. I just bookmarked the Operators page – will try harder.

    I find what I want using Google, but sometimes almost despite Google.

    Amazon’s is worse. Type in Pride’s Children in Books – and it won’t give you the TWO novels with that name. To get mine, I have to include Ehrhardt.

    I’ll have to put double quotes around it, but that’s a pain.

    Most people, apparently, don’t care. But I spend my search time knowing exactly what I want (though some of the diversions are entertaining or useful), and would recognize if it came up, without being able to write a search string detailed enough.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Move and miss the oddest thingsMy Profile

    • Should I see TWO books by you here? I see only the one, on Amazon. And it references a trilogy, so that seems odd.

      You may drop your links here, Alicia. You’ve more than earned that privilege. They may go into moderation, but if you limit yourself to one or two in a comment, I think they’ll go straight through. (Only trustworthy people get to leave links in actual comments -all others will be lucky to get one with the CommentLuv plug-in. 😀 )

  2. Arlee Bird says:

    I used to use Ask Jeeves and I liked it. But then I didn’t use it like I now use Google. The thing that disturbs me about Google is that after I’ve done a search I start seeing ads related–though often remotely related–to whatever I had recently searched for. In a way it can be helpful, but sometimes I’m not really looking for the things they are trying to sell me on.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out
    Arlee Bird recently posted…10th Annual A to Z Reflections ( #AtoZChallenge )My Profile

    • That’s always been the deal with Google and Gmail, though. It used to be useful, but everyone – advertisers, content providers, customers, have been actively gaming the system for two decades. Even search engines eventually drown in information overload, I think.

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