How to Use a Search Engine

July 31, 2009

We all use some sort of search engine to find the websites we are looking for with the information we need. Search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and more are vital to finding what you need on the world wide web. It doesn’t seem very complicated to go to a search engine, type in some search terms, and click on Search. And it’s not complicated. But if you know how to use a search engine, you can get better search results and that saves you time.

Here are some tips on how to use a search engine. For the purposes of this article, we are only going to talk about Google. Most of these tips are true for most search engines, although there are differences between them.

The first thing you should know is that almost every word you enter into the search box matters. There are only a few words that don’t matter. Those includes small common words like “the”, “a”, “for”, etc.

When entering your search terms, you should only enter words and numbers along with any special operators (we’ll discuss that later). Don’t bother entering any punctuation because most punctuation is ignored. When deciding what search terms to enter, think about how a web page might look and what it would say and enter words and numbers that you visualize being on that web page.

When entering search terms, the case of the letters doesn’t matter. So it doesn’t matter if you enter COMPUTER, Computer, computer, or CoMpUtEr. It also doesn’t matter what order the words are in.

When you search, the search engine looks for web pages that have all of the words you entered. So for example, if you searched for CEDAR PARK, it would return all of the web pages that have both the word CEDAR and the word PARK in them. But it doesn’t matter where those two words appear on the web page. As long as each one appears somewhere on the web page, it will be returned in the search results. This ends up giving you a lot of noise in your search results that you have to sift through. In this example, I get hits for Cedar Point Resorts, Cedar Point Amusement Park, etc.

If you wanted to only find websites where CEDAR and PARK were together in that order, then you would enclose those two words in quotation marks like this “CEDAR PARK”. To make your search results even more specific, you could enter this: “CEDAR PARK” TEXAS. Note that I am just using upper case to make it stand out. As mentioned earlier, case doesn’t matter. By entering your search terms this way, your search results will be more specific to Cedar Park, Texas.

How many times have you searched for something only to get a lot of hits in your search results relating to something that you aren’t interested in? For example, search for the word “JAGUAR” and you will get hits on an animal, a car, a football team, and a computer operating system. If you just wanted information on the animal, you could exclude a lot of the noise by excluding search terms like cars, football, and os (Apple OS X operating system), and more. You can eliminate some of the noise by excluding certain search terms.

To exclude something from your search results, enter a minus sign (dash) in front of the search term you want to exclude. So if you entered: jaguar –cars –football –os
You would get a list of web pages that have the word “jaguar”, but it would not include any web pages with the word “cars”, “football”, or “os” on them. You’ll probably still get some noise, but not as much. You can still use the dash, or minus sign, in the middle of words. For example, the words anti-virus and e-mail will work normally. It will only exclude a search term that start with a minus sign.

Google uses synonyms when searching. For example, if you entered childcare, Google will also search for child care (note the space between the words). If you search for Charles, you get results for Chuck too. For most searches, this is a good thing, but sometimes you don’t want all of the extra search results. Sometimes you are searching for something specific. In that case, preface your search term with a plus sign. So in the above example, you would search for +childcare. You would only get web pages with the word childcare. If a web page had childcare as two words, it would not be returned.

If you do a search on Google, at the top of your search results you may see where it says something like, “Did you mean …” If you get this, you may have a typo in your search terms or Google may think you meant something else. Look at the search that Google lists after “Did you mean…” and see if that is what you meant. If that’s what you wanted, all you have to do is click on it, and it will redo the search for you with the new search terms.

As mentioned earlier, when you do a search, it looks for web pages that have all of the words you entered. However, there may be times when you want to look for web pages that have this OR that. For example, let’s say you want to go to a dude ranch for vacation.

You could search for: “dude ranch” vacation

But many dude ranches no longer use the term “dude”. They call themselves guest ranches, so you might not get as many results as you would like. In that case, you can enter the following: “dude ranch” OR “guest ranch” vacation
This will give you any web page that has the word vacation and also has either “dude ranch” or “guest ranch”. Note that the word OR must be in uppercase or Google will think you are just searching for the word “or”.

Let’s take a look at the search results you get back from Google. For each search result, Google displays several lines of information. First, it shows the title of the web page. This is where you can click to go to that web page. Under that, it shows a few lines of text from that web page. This is helpful in determining if that web page has what you need. It saves you having to click on every search result to see what’s really there. Under that it shows the address for the web page and then it will usually have two links. One called “Cached” and the other called “Similar”

Cached (pronounced like the word cashed) is a snapshot of what the web page looked like the last time Google visited that web page. Because web pages change frequently, Google periodically visits web pages to collect information about them so that it can provide accurate, up to date search results to you. When it visits a web page, it makes a copy of it and saves that on Google’s servers.

You may be wondering how this feature is useful. Let’s say you search for something on Google and you get a result that seems to be exactly what you are looking for based on the few lines of information Google displayed in the search results. You click on the web page to view it, and it has nothing to do with what you are looking for. That’s because the website has changed since Google last visited it. You can hit the back button to go back to your search results and then click on “Cached”. Now you are viewing the copy of the web page just the way it looked when Google last visited it. The information you were looking for is probably there.

The other link, “Similar” can be useful as well. Let’s say you need to purchase a new washing machine. You want consumer information on washing machines so you can make sure you get a good washing machine. You know about, but you also know it’s not free. You want to find similar free websites. To do this, go to Google and enter “Consumer Reports” in the search box, including the quotations, and click search. Now find in the results and click the “Similar” link just to the right of it. It’s next to the “Cached” link. Now you get a list of a bunch of websites that offer the same type of information. In this example, I got,, consumerwo,, and more.

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