Cheat Sheet

Building Research Tools with Google For Dummies

The Google web search engine is a powerful research tool for novices and professionals alike. Thoroughly researching a topic can be daunting, so begin with a simple search, then learn how to refine it, and then validate your results.

How to Create Simple Search Queries in Google

When you type search terms (also called queries or keywords) into the Google search box, save some time by crafting simple, specific search queries. Remember these basic search rules when you use Google in its simplest form:

  • Punctuation doesn't count. In fact, it is stripped out of the query automatically.

  • Keywords aren't case-sensitive. Uppercase and lowercase letters are considered equal, so Antarctica is the same as antarctica.

  • You're limited to ten words. Everything after the first ten words is truncated and ignored.

  • Avoid misspellings: If you misspell a keyword in your search, then you won't get the results you expect. If Google thinks you've misspelled a search term, it gives you the benefit of the doubt by searching for the misspelled word and proposing a spelling correction when it presents results.

  • Be specific: The more targeted your keywords, the more likely you are to get usable search results. A search for sanitation Alameda County CA is more likely to yield results having to do with sanitation issues within Alameda County than a search for garbage Northern California.

  • A thing is not many things: Singular and plural forms are different keywords to Google. If a search using a singular form (ant) doesn't provide the results you're looking for, consider using the plural form (ants) instead. For example, the query ant Antarctica doesn't tell you anything about whether there are ants in Antarctica, but ants Antarctica returns many pages that provide this information.

  • Google ignores most common, short words: Don't bother to pose questions in your search queries; Google throws out all the stop words anyway. Stop words include most articles (such as the, and, and or), prepositions (after, in, and so on), pronouns (I), how, it, and forms of the verb to be (is, was, will be, and so on). Some single letters are also eliminated.

    These words are excluded to keep searches fast and to keep focused on the most important search terms in the query. So if you want to search for the movie how the west was won, be sure to enter your query phrase wrapped in quotes ("how the west was won") so that the stop words won't be ignored (although you'll still get some relevant results without the quotes while how, the, and was are ignored as stop words).

    When stop words are excluded from a search, Google notes the fact on the results page, just below the search box.

  • Use keywords that are distinctive and important. If you need to search using a stop word, you can wrap the phrase that includes the stop word in quotes or wrap the stop word itself in quotes.

Refining Google Searches with the Inclusion and Exclusion Operators

Using simple Google operators (symbols), such as inclusion and exclusion, can improve web search results without much effort. Operators are used with Google search terms and have a special meaning to Google. They are not included in the subject of a search, but rather change how Google works when it performs a search.

The inclusion operator

The inclusion operator, signified by a plus sign (+), forces Google to include the indicated word on each page that is returned as a result. The inclusion operator, +, must come immediately before the term to be included, without any spaces.

The inclusion operator is most useful for reinserting the stop words that Google leaves out by default. Sometimes you really need to include stop words to get the best results. Never fear; the + is here. For example, if you search for

Star Wars I

the results omit I from the search results. (In fact, Google even displays a message to let you know that I is a very common word and was therefore omitted from the search.) If you're really looking for results related to the first episode of the Star Wars space opera, it's handy and dandy to be able to enter

Star Wars +I

and get search results related to Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The exclusion operator

The exclusion operator requires Google to return results that do not include a specified term. This operator is represented by a minus sign (–) before the term to be excluded (no spaces are allowed between the operator and the excluded term).

Exclusion is one of the most useful operators a researcher can use because it allows you to clarify the context of terms. Many words are used across a number of fields. For example, a virus can infect a computer or a person. A search for

virus -computer

should, in theory, show only biological viruses. If you try this search, you'll see that in fact it includes biologic viruses, philosophic pseudo-religious viruses, and more, as well as some computer virus links. In contrast, a search just for virus returns primarily links about computer viruses. So the exclusion operator doesn't always work perfectly, but it does improve results.

Here's another example. Take the search term fly. Fly could refer to an insect, fishing, a kind of guy, or an airline. Suppose your research interest is in the fly genome. You can suppress a great many extraneous results using the exclusion operator in a search such as this:

fly -guy -airplane -airline -fishing

Of course, you can combine multiple terms along with exclusion operators. This technique is likely to give you better results than just using exclusion operators (the inclusion operator is implied when you add any new term to your query).

For example, if you want to find biological but not computer viruses, using a search term that includes virus and biological and excludes computer, like this,

virus biological -computer

is a good idea. If you are looking for the fly genome, you'll get pretty good results if you include both fly and genome in your search. (There's really not much point in excluding guy, airplane, airline, and fishing as shown in the previous section because these terms don't come up in search results when you add the term genome to the mix.) But you might want to search for fly genomes that belong to flies other than the fruit fly. If so, you could include genome and exclude fruit, with excellent results:

fly genome -fruit

How to Validate Results from a Google Web Search

When you validate research results from a Google web search, your goal is to determine the credibility of the information you've discovered. Evaluating the credibility of a web page, like any complex skill, is part art and part science. The most important thing you can do when assessing credibility of information is to start with a skeptical frame of mind.

Asking the following questions will help you decide if information you've found is, indeed, credible:

  • Is the information published by a reputable source?

  • Does the publisher of the page have a vested interest (particularly an undisclosed vested interest) in the subject of the information? For example, pollution statistics from a website called People For the Abolition of Automobiles might be skewed, just as pollution results presented by the MGGA (Manufacturers of Gas Guzzlers Association) may also be biased.

    Just because a source of information appears to have a bias doesn't mean that the information is useless. You just need to be aware of the bias as you compile search results so that you don't accept opinions as if they are facts.

  • Is the web page (and its parent site) internally consistent and put together carefully? Sites that are sloppy and contain broken links and misspellings are probably not good research sources. Ditto if the source contradicts itself or uses faulty logic.

  • Does the page contain strident pop-up ads or adult material? This is not a good sign.

  • Are purported "facts" on a page — particularly if they are seemingly unlikely — given attribution (via a hyperlink, or perhaps by referring to a book)?

  • If the page contains information about when it was updated, is it fresh or stale?

Just because something appears in writing, or on a web page, doesn't mean it's true. Use the questions in this article as a starting place toward evaluating the information on a web page. Always evaluate credibility carefully before giving any weight to the information on a web page.

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