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Searching questions

January 2014 

If you are not careful, it’s easy to start thinking that Google and the internet are the same thing; in fact many people already do.  Of course they are a big part of it and you can’t deny their success; they have just rejected plans for a new London headquarters as being too small; it was 2.4 acres in Kings Cross with a running track, swimming pool and half an acre of bicycle park.  Not bad for a company started in a garage 15 years ago.

Most of us trust Google as a gatekeeper to the internet.  We all tend to open Google, and work from there, but it is very far from being the only game in town, and unless you know how to manage it, you are not getting the full picture.

Search engines work by using incredibly complex mathematics; you tell them what you are looking for, and they decide what to show you based on an equation that takes into account a huge range of factors.  These criteria are secret, partly to avoid snake oil salesmen creating sites that manipulate the rules simply to get to the top of the list.  The search engines use all the information at their disposal, including all they know about you, to guess exactly what it is that you want.  Much of the time they get it right, or close enough.

None of this is sinister, but as Phil Bradley, one of my favourite commentators puts it: “Google doesn’t want you to search, it wants to tell you”.  In other words, Google knows best.  Add to that the fact that you can only use their best services if you sign up for an account with them (thus allowing Google to collect data on you), and you begin to see how much they want to be not only the conduit, but the arbiter of what you see. 

But what if the thing you are really looking for is on page 23 of the results?  You’d never find it, so you really need to be able to refine the answers, and weed out the red herrings.  It is possible to do this with Google, but it’s much more difficult these days, because they keep hiding the tools.

Once upon a time, there was an “Advanced Search” link on the main page which allowed you to filter the results lots of ways: by language, source, date, excluding certain words and so on.  You could also limit searches to the UK, which saved a lot of time. 

Nowadays all that is hidden, but still there, just.  At the bottom of the main Google page you’ll find, in faint print, the word “Settings”.  Click on that and all sorts of clever options appear, including the old Advanced Search.  It’s well worth having a go with it; especially the instruction to ignore entries that include certain words, that can focus your search very effectively. 

Even more useful, however, is to get to know one or two of the more specialist search engines., for example, is for finding people (look yourself up, you might be surprised); is aimed at the university research world. will help you find pictures you can use for free; has over 100,000 vintage advertisements for you (why?). works like Google but with a different database and puts the results into sensible groups; finds videos for you; spots news stories, is a wonderful source of objective data and calculations; it answers the question, rather than just offering links.   

Using Google alone is like asking a librarian to recommend a book; it will usually get you what you want, but think what you might find if you took the time to hunt through the shelves?