Folks often ask, “Golly Mike, how do you know so much stuff?” (Or something like that.) Aside from having been doing it for quite a while, I have a super handy tool in my kit: the Internet. Everything is revealed in the Internet. The knack is in knowing how to search in it.
But there’s so much junk on the Internet. How does one weed it out and get to what’s needed? There’s two parts to the answer to this. First is knowing how to search, and second is understanding how to read the search results.
How to Search
Use specific, unique terms. The more distinctly unique, the better. For example, if you saw an unusual farm animal, a search for “cow” would get too many results. If you search for “purple cow” your results will narrow quickly. Conversely, avoid common words as much as possible.
Use quotation marks for exact phrases. The “quotation marks” tell the search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) that you need to match the exact expression inside the quotes. Using the cow again, “purple cow” in quotes will get you exactly that, but without the quotes you may also get results for “Guernsey cows under purple skies.”
Use the minus sign (‑) to not search for words that you don’t want. This is very useful when you get too many unwanted results. For example, if a search for “yellow caterpillar” gets references to tractors but you want insects, use the minus sign: “yellow caterpillar ‑tractor,” or ‑inc to avoid results for the company.
Google also has “operators” that are search modifiers with special powers. Use them by including the operator with a colon followed immediately by your desired term. For example, the “site:” operator means that each result must have what follows the colon somewhere in its URL. A search for “purple cow site:edu” would get results from college and university websites that discuss purple cows. There are many operators, and they change from time to time. Search for them!
How to Read the Results
This is not tricky or difficult, but it is crucially important. Your search results will include, usually at or near the top, advertisements, fakes, and fluff.
The overt ads are marked with such as: “Ad” or “Paid” or “Sponsored.” These results may or may not be useful, but bear in mind that these have achieved their placement in your results in part because they have paid for it. Apply some skepticism here.
Fakes are harder to spot. They’re not always present in search results, but when they are they are often mixed in at or near the top. To spot these, look at the URL (always included in results on Google, Bing and Yahoo). This is especially important to check when you’re looking for technical support – whether it be for computers or sticky dishwasher buttons. Be cautious of generalized sites looking to sell you “support.”
Fluff is most difficult to spot. Fluff content isn’t usually dangerous, as the fakes can be, but it will waste your time. To spot the wasteful fluff, scan the brief excerpt text from the website to see if there’s a hint that the content is or maybe isn’t applicable to your needs.
Searching the Internet is useful and can even be fun. There is much more to it than I’ve described here. Many “advanced” features are hidden away in the larger search engines. To find them, search for “advanced search” on your preferred search site. There are even courses available, free, online for “power searching.”
Mike Pepper, The Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at (845) 855-5824, or www.PawlingComputerGuy.com.