Online Search Tips | How to Search
There is a truly vast amount of information on the internet. Quite possibly, ‘all the information in the world’ is available there. In theory it should be possible to find almost anything that you require—and it is, but only if you know how to search.
This process has got considerably easier in the last twenty years with the advent of several extremely good search engines, the best-known of which is probably Google. Searching for relevant information is still not an entirely trivial operation, however, but fortunately there are several ways that you can improve your search technique. This page sets out our favourite tips and tricks to help you with online searches.
1. Choose the right search engine
Perhaps the most important single issue to consider with internet searching is your choice of search engine or search tool.
There are far more search tools and search engines available than you may realise. Most people have heard of and use Google - indeed 92.7% of all internet searches are powered by Google. You're probably also aware of Bing (2.73% market share) and Yahoo (1.47% market share), Google’s main rivals. However, there are many more, both general and specific. They include:
Ask.com, which was one of the earliest search engines in the form of Ask Jeeves. It is now designed specifically to allow users to obtain answers to questions (for example, why is the sky blue?).
Google Scholar, one of the Google ‘sideshoots’ that searches only academic journals. It is particularly useful if you need to find the source of a piece of information, because most of the results will have been peer-reviewed.
DuckDuckGo, a search engine specifically designed to protect your privacy as you search.
Many sites also have their own site-specific search engine. SkillsYouNeed, for example, has a site search engine that is provided by Google. Databases and information repositories also usually have a very advanced search tool.
Every search engine has advantages and disadvantages. For example, Google tends to return more pages, but Bing is better on autocomplete (where the search engine offers alternative search terms once you start typing).
If you don’t find what you want using one, it is therefore worth switching to another—especially from general to specific, or vice versa—to see if you get different results.
Top Tip! Searching within a site using a general search engine
You can also search within a specific site using a general search engine like Google by using an operator. For Google, this is the word site, so if you wanted to find anything related to, say, self-confidence on SkillsYouNeed, you would enter the search string: site:skillsyouneed.com “self-confidence”
2. Concentrate on keywords and using the right search terms
Once you have found the right search engine, the next most important choice is your search terms or keywords.
Too general, and you will return far too many results that are not relevant. Too specific, and you may find that nothing comes up at all.
Generally speaking, if you are looking for a specific piece of information (for example, for a person, or for a specific quote) it is better to start specific, and widen your search if necessary by removing one or more words from your search term.
However, if you just want to see broadly what information is available, then a more general search term may be more appropriate.
3. Use quotation marks to make your search more specific
Quotation marks (“…”) have a very specific function for search engines: they group a phrase together.
Without quotation marks, the search engine will look for all the words in the phrase (ignoring linking words like and and of), but not necessarily in the same order. For example, if you search for the name Mary Jones, the search engine will find any sites that contain both words, even if they are not together. It might, therefore, suggest a site mentioning someone called Mary Smith, and someone else called James Jones.
However, if you put quotation marks around a phrase, then the search engine will only search for sites where those terms occur exactly as you have typed them.
This is particularly helpful if you are searching for information about a person, but can also help where you can remember a phrase from an article and wish to find the same article again.
4. Remove unhelpful terms from your search
Sometimes when you search, you find a lot of information about a related subject that is actually irrelevant to your search.
If you exclude this, you will find that your search is a lot more useful.
For example, if you are doing a search to check your digital footprint (and for more about this, see our page on Managing Your Online Presence), you may find that there is someone else with your name who has a very strong online presence. You can remove them from the search by finding something about them (for example, the company that they work for, or their job title), and then using the minus (-) operator to exclude that information from your search. For example:
“Mary Jones” –“VP Marketing” -BigSalesCompany
5. Use operators to refine your search even more
Both the minus sign and the word ‘site’ are operators: terms used to refine your search.
There are many other operators that may also help to refine your search. Some of the most useful include:
OR and AND. These can be used to find sites that include one or other of your search terms, but not both (OR) or both your search terms (AND).
*. This is known as a wildcard, and can be used to replace any whole word in a string. If you could remember part of a quote, but not one particular word, you can replace that word with * (for example, the * in the hat).
TOP TIP! Not all search engines have the same rules!
Note that * cannot be used to replace part-words in Google. However, some search engines will allow this. Using those sites, for example, walk* will return results for walk, walks, walking, walkies and walked.
Related: Typing the word related in front of a website address will return other sites that are similar. For example, if you type related:skillsyouneed.com “self-confidence”, you will get results about self-confidence from sites that are considered similar to SkillsYouNeed.
~. If you place a tilde (~) in front of your search term, this should return words that are synonyms. However, it does not always work for all search terms, so it may be better to try different synonyms yourself.
6. Use Advanced Search options
Most search engines also have advanced search options. Look in the menu, or under the search box for the word ‘Advanced’. These will usually offer drop-down boxes, or operators, to allow you to refine your search.
This option is particularly useful if you need to refine the search a lot (say there are several additional people, or extraneous information turning up, or you want to add or exclude some site options).
The advanced search saves you having to include or exclude everything in a single search string.
7. Consider the effect of your search history
However, it also has its drawbacks, especially if you often do a lot of unrelated searches.
Your search history will affect the results of any new searches.
Suppose that you had been looking for information about your great-grandfather, whose surname you share. You might have looked on lots of different genealogy websites, and perhaps some electoral rolls or census pages. Now, however, you want to check your own digital footprint, but when you enter your name, all that comes up is ancestry sites!
If you clear your browsing history before you begin any new and unrelated search, your results will not be affected by what you have done before. You can also browse anonymously to avoid picking up any cookies.
8. Search within webpages using built-in functions
When you open a website from a search, you may find that you cannot find the term for which you were searching, especially if it is buried deep within a lot of text.
To save time, you can use the ‘Find’ function to search for a particular term on that page.
In Windows, you would use CTRL + F and on a Mac it's ⌘ + F to open the dialogue box, and then you can enter the term you want to find. This will save you having to read the whole site only to find that the word was only mentioned as a throwaway.