Find What You REALLY Want on Google

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 28 December 2011 |

This probably sounds like the most ridiculous article. How to search Google?… Duh, enter the thing you’re searching for and then press Return – right?… Well actually, whilst that may find you something close to what you’re after, you’ll probably be missing the best match. Why? Because of the way Google works… 

Firstly, when you type in your phrase, Google will assume you’re highly prone to making mistakes, and that you can’t spell. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that a vast number of people spell or enter what they're looking for wrongly, and if Google didn’t try to help, there could be big problems. I’m quite good at spelling, but I still can’t spell some of the things I search for, and I make plenty of mistakes. I'd accordingly guess that most people make errors on Google, and that if the search engine didn't have a built-in correction function, a huge number of searches would go awry.

So, if you enter something which is similar to, but not the same as a popular search term, Google will try to persuade you that you’ve made a mistake, and that you’re looking for what everyone else is looking for – not what you’ve specifically typed in. Hence, the results you get by default may not even relate to what you’ve typed in. They could instead relate to what Google thinks you would have typed in, had you done it correctly.

Secondly, if you simply enter a phrase and then hit Return (and Google agrees that you did actually intend to enter what you’ve entered), then the search engine will prioritise what it considers to be the most important sites, and list them at the top of your results – even if the information they provide is not the best match with the phrase you typed. I’m not talking about the adverts here, by the way – I’m talking about the main body of the results. In some cases, you won’t even see a site anywhere on the first page which has a best match with the term you typed!

There are valid reasons why Google does things this way. The search engine knows that anyone can set up a really stupid site which is nothing but gibberish and adverts, and indeed many people do. If some of the gibberish matches the line you’ve typed, a search based purely on a straight match could end up prioritising an otherwise completely irrelevant article, and that wouldn’t make a good search engine.

So as a starting point, Google looks at how well regarded each site is by the people who visit it. If lots of visitors are spreading links to the site, Google presumes the content is valid and does genuinely interest people, and thus awards it a higher status. Of course, site owners can play the system by spamming their own links around the web, but Google is getting wiser all the time, and it can differentiate between a pile of spam links on a meaningless little site, and a good link on a major site with integrity.

Lots of other factors are said to contribute to a website’s propensity to rank highly in search results. The size of the articles, whether or not the articles are predominantly original, whether the site focuses on a particular category of subject or just appears to be a disorganised jumble… Essentially, if Google sees what it interprets as a big, well-established, popular, focused site with substantial, original articles, the theory is that it will prioritise that site above a small, barely known site with no particular subject focus. Let’s try a demonstration…

I want to know what year the Hammond XB-2 organ was first released, so I’m going to do what masses and masses of people do, and type: what year was the Hammond XB-2 released? If you go onto Google and type in that phrase, you should see a page of results like the one below (click the images to see them at full size)...



None of this will tell you the answer without you clicking on a link. If you do click a link, you may find out, but when I tried it, most of the articles didn’t give the info I wanted, and the top result wasn’t even about the Hammond XB-2 – it was about the Hammond XK-2. So clearly, Google is not looking for the specific piece of info I want. It’s trying to be clever, and seeking out popular sites which it thinks are likely to provide me with the most satisfactory visit. In so doing, it’s failed to take me straight to what I actually want to know, so to find what I need I’m going to have to spend some considerable time reading. You probably want your info more quickly than that, and I know I do.

So now let’s try and be clever and get Google to look for an actual phrase. I’m thinking that if someone’s going to state in an article the year in which the Hammond XB-2 was released, they’ll write the phrases: Hammond XB-2, and released in... Then, somewhere in the same sentence, they’ll write the year, which is what I’m after. So I'm going to try typing those two phrases into Google: Hammond XB-2, released in. It doesn’t matter whether or not I use the comma – once again, I can't find the answer without having to click links, and most of those links won’t lead me to the answer either...



Okay, so that’s how not to search Google for a relatively obscure piece of info. Here’s how to do it… Actually, with the last search we were nearly there. We were right to be searching for what a writer would actually say rather than trying to ask a question. It was just that Google wasn’t taking us literally, and was still trying to find us the most detailed posts on what it deems the most appropriate sites. How d’you get Google to take you literally? Simple. Just enclose your search term in speech marks. So let’s now try it. Enter the same two phrases: Hammond XB-2, and released in, but enclose each of them in speech marks, as: “Hammond XB-2” “released in”. Make sure when you do this that you don’t make any mistakes, because Google in this instance really will search for exactly what you’ve typed…



So, provided things haven’t changed too much since I wrote this, you should now be seeing the info you need, without even having to click a link. And not just once either. You should see multiple posts, stating that the Hammond XB-2 was released in 1991. So much easier than wading through long articles! Of course, we shouldn’t take two or three posts at face value – especially if they’re just copies of each other, as was the case here. However, now we have a date, this is much easier to cross-reference. We can now type: “Hammond XB-2” and “1991” into Google. Finally, this serves us with an absolute barrage of confirmation...



It would have been great if our original question had led to the page you should now be seeing, but as we’ve verified, Google is a lot less intelligent than a human being, and it really didn’t understand what we needed. Enclosing short, specific terms in speech marks, and keeping the terms compatible with the way a writer would write, should get you your information much more quickly. Happy searching.

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