Improving Search Results

Improving Search Results With Search Operators
Tricks you can use with Google, Microsoft Live, or pretty much any search engine

You know, I'm a programmer, so I'm plenty used to typing operators and keywords on a command line, using regular expressions and that sort of thing, but I never tried out Google Advanced Search Operators before. You know why? Because they are so darn hard to find on Google's website. I had to click through like 5 different sections of help to find it.

Anyway, I can forgive them for that, because I now have a far superior toolset for finding what I need! First off, for those that do not know, search operators are just keywords or symbols that have special behaviors when entered into a search. Some of you may already know a few, such as the quotation ("") operator that lets you designate a phrase that you would like Google to find in that exact form.

Google's Advanced Search page can do a lot of these operations for you, without you having to memorize the keywords or look them up every time you search. However, it doesn't let you do quite everything that the Google engine is capable of doing.  Let me give you an example of how these operators have helped me out:

A neat feature that shipped with my Mac OS X is a little RSS Screen Saver that Apple threw together, that takes the text from your news feeds and displays them to you in a cool 3-dimensional rotating graphic. A headline swings by you in 3D, and if it piques your interest you press a key and it opens up the article in your default web browser. (Users can also make such a screen saver themselves, using Quartz Composer).

Anyway, I use this screen saver to display the most recent articles about the robotics industry so I can read about them and forward them to my co-workers. The way I accomplished this was not to find some robotics blog and then subscribe to its news feed — rather, I went to Google News and searched for [robotics] . See, Google News also makes every single search available as an RSS feed, you can use this neat feature to get feeds about absolutely anything that you want! Just search for what you want news about, and click on the icon that appears on the right side of the URL box in your web browser. So there's another helpful hint for ya.

Looking at my search results for robotics, I realized that wouldn't be enough. I wasn't getting any returns on plain old robots, I was often getting treatises on the field of robotics, or people mentioning robotics in an off-hand fashion. So what I did next was, I used my limited knowledge of search operators to search for [robot OR robots OR robotics] to be sure that I covered all the ground I could.

That was satisfactory for a while, but it would always bring up so much cruft. I can't tell you how many articles from local newspapers it turned up about high school robotics competitions and little "robot" toys and the "Transformers" movie and sci-fi TV shows and on and on. More articles on "Wall-E" than I could ever have time to read. I obviously need a way to turn it down. A colleague of mine was having some better luck searching for [autonomous robots] — articles that contain the word autonomous tend to be much more serious and, not surprisingly, much more geared to our line of work. I don't know why I never thought of it before, but words like "autonomous" and "unmanned" are used much more often in the military or technology sectors than they are in the sci-fi world. So I wanted to incorporate something like this into my search, and I wanted to do it right this time, so I looked up all the search operators.

The best one I found was the "synonym operator" (tilde ~) which searched for a certain word and all of its synonyms! Perfect! Now my screen saver searches for [~robotics AND ~autonomous]. This returns articles that "Have some form or synonym of the word 'robotics' and also some form of the word 'autonomous'". This search is now the equivalent of [(robot OR robots OR robotic OR robotics) AND (autonomous OR autonomy OR automaton OR automation OR unmanned)].

Now that is a superior way to search.

Go here for the full listing and description of Google search operators. You can find the ones for Microsoft Bing here. Most search engines use the exact same operators as these two. So take a minute to learn them and you won't be sorry.

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