Have you ever ran a Google search and got frustrated because you can’t find your keywords anywhere on the results page?
Do you get too many irrelevant results and wonder if there is a better way to filter them?
Are there times you feel that Google missed something that it should have caught?
This Ultimate Guide to Becoming an Expert Google Power Searcher answers those questions by telling you what strategies and tactics to employ when and where as well as what methods to abandon. And as a bonus, you also learn about some Google tricks to mine information off any website it touches.
Search Strategies that Matter
Pick the keywords that you want to find
People sometimes forget that Google does not read minds (at least not as of 4/2016). It just looks for your keywords on highly ranked pages, which Google’s algorithms assumes that the masses have deemed informative. It isn’t doing any sophisticated artificial intelligence analysis on your request.
As a silly but illustrative example, say you want to find webpages that talk about Bush being a Martian (“Bush is a Martian”). Google will list the various pages where those keywords show up. That’s good right?
But what if you’re actually thinking, “Bush is an alien and I just picked Martian as an example.” That’s where your search will miss pages that talk about Bush being Venusian (Yes, there is a page talking about him being a 2 headed Venusian shape-shifter). Why? Because your request focused on Martian not alien. So, if you really want to address your hypothesis, then the correct search should be on Bush being an alien and not limit to him being a Martian.
The point isn’t to make a political statement but to understand what Google search does and doesn’t. It’s finding the best matches to the keywords in your request. So, you may have to play around with either more specific or more general keywords depending on whether you want a narrower or broader search result.
Google doesn’t authenticate content
As you saw in the example above, Google doesn’t authenticate content. Its ranking algorithms relies on masses to link to webpages that they have deemed informative. Google doesn’t fact-check so can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. There are tips described later that can help you focus on sites that are more authoritative.
Pay attention to the specific form of the keyword you use
1) singular vs. plural (e.g., man vs. men), 2) synonyms (fast vs. quick), and 3) common word variants (developer vs. coder vs. programmer). All of these produce different results. So play around with keyword synonyms if you can’t find what you’re looking for. Webpage owners may label things differently than you. It’s not wrong – it’s just a convention they went with. This can be helpful when you’re exploring and don’t know what the popular terms are.
As an example, I was researching speed reading techniques and thought if I used “technique” it should also capture “techniques.” For the most part the results were the same at least with the first results page with small changes in order. This discrepancy can get worse as you drill deeper but generally it’s limited to different pages the hits show up on. Based on my experience it’s rare to find results that are completely missing from one of the searches.
However, what was unexpected was Google’s recommendations for related searches which is something to explore if you want to do more followup research. And that’s where it was surprising.
For speed reading technique, Google said the following were related (top 6):
- speed reading technique tai lopez
- speed reading obstacles
- reasons for slow reading
- photoreading wiki
- how to read quickly
- how to read fast and still understand
For speed reading techniques, Google stated the following related searches (top 6):
- speed reading exercises
- speed reading techniques pdf
- photographic memory techniques
- speed reading techniques free download
- speed reading tips
- speed reading techniques free
If you noticed, they don’t really overlap and are quite different. So, while the main search results were more or less the same, the related results offered different followup search strategies, which I didn’t expect. So, this is something to keep in mind when searching- things which are equivalent in your head may be different in Google’s algorithms.
Word order matters kinda
If you’re thinking that keywords A and B (say, eggs and bacon) are the same in importance and don’t care about order, beware. On many occasions searching with A before B will produce many of the results as B before A, but they can be different as the emphasis is on word order. So, if A is more important than B, put it in front. But there is a caveat: if one keyword is more popular than the other, then it may dominate regardless of the order and you have to resort to other tactics, which I describe later.
Practices that Don’t Help
Capitalization doesn’t matter
If you do “cia” or “CIA”, the results are the same.
No need for AND or +
In the old days, people would use AND or the + operator with their keywords to make sure Google used them as part of the search. Google doesn’t do that anymore and now provides a variety of options to emphasize keywords such as double quotes, intext:, inurl:, and intitle: (described in detail below)
In theory, Google claims that it does stemming. So if you wanted to know about diet, you don’t need to type diets, dieting, dietary or for the nerd types wildcards like diet*. But I find this can be hit and miss so use with caution as you saw the example earlier with speed reading technique(s).
For the examples below, everything between [ ] is what you would enter in the Google search box- you DON’T need the square brackets. I used this convention to mark off where the formula or example starts and ends. So, if you want to learn about weather in California, I would put [ weather in California ] in the Google search field without the [ ].
Solid Tactics for Finding Exactly What You Want
These search techniques pretty much behave as advertised. As Google continues to evolve their search engine, no doubt things will change and some new features will be enhanced while others dropped. These tactics are valid as of April 2016.
Issue: You need a keyword or phrase in the search results
Default Google search focuses first on highly ranked websites and then on your keywords showing up somewhere on the page. If it’s important to focus on the keyword, the double quotes helps prioritize that. As example, if you google [chemical] vs. [“chemical”] you will may find that Chemical Bank shows up as the top hit on chemical vs. the wikpedia article on chemical substance which is what you get with “chemical.”
That may seem odd but that’s because Chemical Bank is more highly ranked than the wikipedia article. For many search cases, you will find a lot of overlap in the results but where they show up on the results page may vary.
And if you’re searching for multiple keywords in the form of a phrase, let Google know it’s the phrase that you’re interested in so use double quotes around it. Otherwise, Google can retrieve hits with all keywords simply showing up anywhere on the page.
- Use double quotes around the keyword or phrase to emphasize its importance. General formula is for one keyword, [“keyword 1″]; for multiple keywords [“keyword1” keyword2”]; for phrase of keyword1 keyword2 [“keyword1 keyword2”].
- Usage examples: [“chemical”] for chemical; [“Gates” “Buffett”] for articles with both Gates and Buffett somewhere on the page; [“pattern recognition”] for pattern recognition though the difference is minor.
Also, if you absolutely need the word order preserved but it’s not a phrase, you can put double quotes around double quotes as in [ “ “ABC” “CBS” “NBC” “ ]. This example will find pages that have the cluster of ABC, CBS, NBC (in that order) as opposed to results from [“ABC” “CBS” NBC”] where the later shows pages where ABC, CBS, and NBC can be in any order and not near each other. If it’s important to maintain the distance between keywords, then use the AROUND() operator listed later.
Issue: You need the keyword or phrase to be on the search result (even when you used double quotes)
Have you ever came across a search result and wondered why on Earth it was selected? You can’t find your keyword anywhere on the page. I once did a search on [ “Lost in Space: The Game” planet-sized ] (Don’t ask) and I got a hit on “Boost Your Inside Sales Career with these 7 Skills” (as of 3/22/16). I looked all over that result and for the life of me can’t find why it picked it. That’s where intext: operator helps since it enforces that the search term be present on the web result.
- Use intext: operator to make sure your keyword or phrase is actually on the result webpage. General formula is [intext:”keyword”] or [intext:”phrase”] for one keyword or phrase, respectively. Do not put space between : and search target.
- Usage examples: [intext:“Lost in Space: The Game” planet-sized ] vs. [“Lost in Space: The Game” planet-sized]. In the former I got the relevant webpage as the latter gave me the strange results with “Boost Your Inside Sales Career” which had nothing to do with my search phrase. In this example, the phrase I wanted was in quotes and I added planet-sized as a search term filter since I was looking for something specific and not all the webpages that had “Lost in Space: The Game”
- Note: this operator only works for single keyword and phrases. If you need multiple keywords to all be present but they don’t have to be near each other, then use allintext: (listed further down as a so-so tactic).
Issue: You need the search term to either be in the title or the website address
At first, when I came across this I thought, “Why would I want to look for something specifically in the title or in the URL? Shouldn’t it be in the body?” So, I started to look for examples and discovered this could be useful for a couple of scenarios:
- If it’s in the title or the url, the keyword or phrase is likely to be the focus of the webpage.
- If you’re looking for particular kind of articles, for example, you want to find all the ultimate guides that talk about ramen. You can try [ intitle:”Ultimate Guide to Ramen” ] or [ ramen intitle:”Ultimate guide” ]. The former gave me only 2 hits (as of Mar 24, 2016) and the latter 5000+. The former is more specific but you might be interested in the latter as well. Another example is you want to find all the articles written by a particular author. For example, [ “Jon Morrow” intitle:”headlines” ] gives you a pretty good idea of web hits that mention Jon and the topic of headlines. That doesn’t mean that Jon wrote those articles but his name shows up on the webpage somewhere so is likely to be relevant.
- If you need ego stroking and want to know how many websites or articles mention you in some way. Caution: you may freak out on how many websites collect information on you.
- You want to find out who stole your cool website name.
- Use intitle: operator to find your search target in the article title or inurl: operator if it needs to be in the website address. General formula is [intitle:keyword] for keyword and [intitle:phrase] for phrase in the title. For url, formula is [inurl:keyword] or [inurl:phrase] for keyword or phrase respectively.
- Use [allintitle: keyword1 keyword2 keyword3] if you need, for example, all 3 keywords in the title or in the case of the url [allinurl:keyword1 keyword2 keyword3]
- Usage examples (see above): [intitle:”Ramit Sethi”] for articles that have his name in the title.
A lot of authors use the title as part of the URL so they often produce redundant results but try both to see if you get different hits.
Issue: When you want to use keyword variants (e.g. synonyms)
You’re lazy and you don’t want to run independent searches on keyword variants, well the OR operator is one approach. As an example, you’re in interested in learning subjects quickly so you can Google with phrases like “how to learn fast”, or “how to learn quickly.” WIth the OR operator you can just run one search.
- Use the OR or | operator to find pages that use your keyword synonyms. General formula can be either: 1) [keyword1 OR keyword2 ], 2) keyword1 | keyword2. OR must be in all capitals for this operator to work.
- Usage example: [how to learn fast OR quick] where keyword1 is fast and keyword2 is quick.
Note: I have used OR when dealing with singular vs. plural keywords along with synonyms such as [speed reading technique OR techniques OR methods].
Remember Google focuses on ranking so if given the choice between keyword1 or keyword2, it will be biased towards the keyword that is higher in ranking so you may have to dig quite a bit or run separate searches on each keyword if the results seemed skewed. Translation: say, your friends want to go out for lunch and 50% want pizza and the other 50% want spaghetti. Ideally you may want to find a place that is highly ranked for both. But if you try running a search on [ spaghetti OR pizza cityname ] to find restaurants in your area, you may find most of the top hits on pizza. This despite you thinking ahead and speculating “Oh there might be more pizza places so I should emphasize by putting spaghetti first”. Nope, chances are there are more pizza places than spaghetti so the order got overruled by ranking.
Because of the conflict ranking issues may introduce with keyword importance, I prefer to use a separate search on each synonym and manually do an intersection. You could also just skip the OR operator and use the intext: operator. For example, [pizza intext:spaghetti] might be a good way to find spaghetti being served at top pizza places.
Issue: You want to restrict the search results to a particular site or domain
You’re interested in finding allergy treatments but you only want information from authoritative sources like from government websites in the US. You could restrict Google to only examine .gov sites via [ site:.gov allergy treatment ]. Or if you want to search a particular site and it doesn’t have a search feature, you can use Google to do a site specific search. For example, if you want to know if WebMD wrote any articles on allergy treatment, you can use [ allergy treatment site:webmd.com ]
- Use site: operator to restrict search to top-level domains (.gov, .edu, .com, .org, .net, etc) or to only one particular website such as site:aaa.domain where aaa.domain is the primary domain name. General formula is [site:.domain] or [site:XYZ.domain]. Don’t forget the . in the domain.
- Usage examples are [site:.edu] to restrict to US educational sites or [site:time.com] if you want to search only on Time’s website. Recommend you do not include the http:// or the www part when focusing on webpages. Also, it doesn’t matter if the search expression is before or after site:. As a matter of usability, I tend to follow keyword site:yyy.domain convention just so I know what’s what.
Note: while I have issues with the exclude operation, “-“, (described later) when combined with site: it can be quite powerful. For example, if you don’t want any Wikipedia results to show up in your search you can use [ keyword -site:wikipedia.org ], see combination tactics below. Also, remember not to have a space between the : and top-level domain or the website name. For example, site:time.com is good, site: time.com is not. Check out this video from Google discussing the site operator in more detail (courtesy of Dan Russell’s blog on Google search)
Issue: You are looking for results in the form of specific document types (e.g. PDFs)
Ever wanted to just get a concrete example of a document or template? Then filetype: can help you find that by filtering results to containing only that filetype, such as Word or Excel files.
Another use case is you may be looking for free reports on a subject. These are often in the form of pdf or Word files. The filetype: operator can find webpages listing those documents.
- Use filetype: operator with your keyword to find documents related to your keyword. General formula is [keyword filetype:document_suffix] where document_suffix can be any filetype such MS Office (doc, docx, xls, xlsx, ppt, pptx), images, video, pdf, etc.) to restrict search to retrieve results only containing that filetype.
- Usage example: [Gantt chart filetype:xls] to find possible Excel templates of Gantt charts as opposed to webpages that talk about using Excel to make Gantt charts.
Note: this is the “go-to” operator if you really want examples to work with rather than reading about theory. Just remember, as you are downloading files, make sure your virus checkers are up to date.
Issue: You want webpages where it’s important that the keywords are in close proximity to each other
Imagine you’re searching for articles where it’s important that the keywords be close to each other but they aren’t necessarily part of a phrase. For example, you’re looking for articles that collectively talk about Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, then AROUND(n) is the operator to use.
- Use AROUND(n) operator with your keywords to find search results where the keywords are within a fixed range of each other, designated by the number n. General formula is keyword1 AROUND(n) keyword2 where n is the maximum distance between the keywords.
- Usage example: [“Elon Musk” AROUND(3) “Bill Gates” AROUND(3) “Steve Jobs”]. This will tend to find sites where the 3 names are often grouped together (say, they formed a panel or worked together on a project) as opposed to results where their names show up at different areas of the page independently. For example, a hit without AROUND(3) may be a news site where the names show up in 3 separate articles, where one is about Elon , another about Bill, and the last on Steve but none of the 3 are mentioned together.
Note: you may have to play around with n to see what distances are the most meaningful. I initially used n = 2 for the above example and didn’t get any results but when I set n=3, got something. Also, if Google can’t find anything within the limit, it may just do a regular ranking of the terms without AROUND.
Issue: You want webpages that focus on defining the keyword
Instead of going to a dictionary site, Google can lookup word definitions for you via the define operator.
- Use define operator to find sites that focus on defining the search terms. General formula is [define keyword]. Previous versions used define: but in the current version (4/16) you just use [ define keyword ] and it will work just fine.
- Usage example: define “machine learning” to look up what machine learning means.
So-so Tactics That Are Great When They Work
These tactics aren’t as consistent in behavior as the ones above but when they do work they can be quite useful.
Issue: You want to narrow your search results by eliminating some confounding words
Let’s say your kid is doing a report on jaguars (the animal) but you keep getting hits from Jaguar the British car. You want to remove all the non-animal hits like cars. This can be done using – operator with search.
- Use – operator to exclude certain words from your results. General formula is [ keyword1 –excludeThisWord].
- Usage example: [jaguar -car] to filter out pages referencing the car Jaguar.
Note: I’ve had mixed results with this operator. In fact, if you wanted to get rid of all car references, you can try [ jaguar –car –auto ] but I still got a stray car result that leaked in (3/22/16). You could do better using [ jaguar animal ] and the search results were far cleaner. Again an example of specifying what you want to find on your result.
Issue: You want to use numeric ranges to filter your results via the cheapest, lowest, expensive, most numerous, etc.
What if you want to get some metrics on a website content? For example, what Amazon product has the most number of reviews? You can use [ 20000..10000000000 intext:”customer reviews” site:amazon.com ] as a start. I arbitrarily picked 20,000 and 10,000,000,000 since I had no clue what to find. While I can’t definitively say I found the answer, this tactic is useful when you don’t have any other choice. Also, I tried this for airline tickets and it’s ok but you are still better off using travel websites but it does provide you with what’s available even if it’s outside your range. I tried to check out cheap airline tickets by searching [ $50..$200 airline ticket between SFO NYC] just to see what popped up and the best I saw was for $279.
- Use .. operator along with numbers to numerically filter search results. General formula is [keyword/phrase number1..number2].
- Usage example: [tv $200..$500]. If it can’t find data in that range, it will provide what is available, though this may not entirely be the same as what you specified.
Note: in my example on Amazon, I was looking for the book that had the most number of reviews and while I tried to restrict the search to book/books/Publisher/ISBN-10 and other tricks the best I could get was with [ 20000..10000000000 intext:”customer reviews” site:amazon.com ]. You can also use “positive reviews” in place of customer reviews but it still is not specific enough. Incidentally, someone on Quora answered the question “Which book is the most reviewed on Amazon or BN?”) and some of the results overlapped with my query results above. Unfortunately, the search feature the writer used to find the answer on Amazon isn’t available anymore so the above trick may be the next best thing.
Issue: You want webpages where all the keywords must be present irrespective of proximity
Sometimes you need to find all the words to be on the page but they aren’t part of a phrase. Say, you’re looking for a result that has words apple, orange, and lime in them. Intext: works for both single keywords and phrases in double quotes but if you aren’t looking for the phrase “apple orange lime” and simply just need all three words to be on the page use allintext: .
- Use allintext: operator when you need webpages that list all the keywords on the page. General formula is [alltext: keyword1 keyword2 keyword3].
- Usage example: [alltext:apple orange lime].
As an example, when I search on [ apple orange lime] I get a slightly different result than [ allintext:apple orange lime ]. The results are more or less the same but the result ordering is different as you can see in the images below.
Issue: You need to find webpages but you can only remember parts of your target keyword phase
There are times I remember a song or a quotation but can’t recall every word in it. This is where using a wildcard operator * can come in handy. It’s best if you use this with the double quotes operator. For example, say you can’t remember the quote “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. You can use [ “* in the hand * bush” ] and you will retrieve the quote.
- Use * operator wherever you want the wildcard/placeholder to be and populate the rest of the search phrase. General formula is [ “* keyword1 * keyword2” ] if you want placeholders before keyword 1 and keyword2.
- Usage example: [“* in the hand *bush] will find “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Very specialized searches
The following are for searching extremely specific data and is listed for completeness.
- Use + to search for Google+ pages or blood types, such as AB+
- Use @ to find social tags as in @favoriteauthor
- Use $ to find prices, such as $500 laptop
- Use # for popular hashtags , such as #hottopic
Old Tactics That Aren’t Supported
- Using ~ to find results using words related to your keyword
I wasn’t aware of this capability and when I first heard of it was excited since I figured I wouldn’t have to use synonyms anymore. But when I used it, I didn’t find it to be particularly intelligent and later while researching for this article I found out that they have discontinued this functionality as of 2013.
- Using parentheses to prioritize keyword search
Based on this quora answer, parentheses are not used.
- Using + operator to make sure that term is emphasized in the search
Previously, if you wanted to make sure that a particular keyword was in a search you would put a + in front of it to “reinforce” its importance to Google. This has now been replaced by various other operators described earlier.
Cool Google Tricks To Play With
If you’re interested learning more about a website that grabs your interest, either to find similar websites or to see where traffic to a popular website comes from, these tactics can be handy. Just remember you don’t put in the entire URL address as it is usually enough to just put the top level domain such as abc.com, abc.org, abc.net. You can put in the www in front but it’s not necessary. And don’t put in the http:// as that won’t work.
Trick: Finding webpages similar to one you’re interested in
Say you’re curious about what other webpages might be similar to one you have in mind. Examples could be looking for competitor websites or simply looking to see who else is publishing similar types of content. For example, if you want to see what sites are similar to Time Magazine, you can try [ related:time.com ] to see what other websites are out there.
- Use related: to find similar websites to your target site. General formula is [related:website].
- Usage example: [related:cnn.com] to find websites like CNN.
Note: you may want to run the search in both directions. In other words, I was expecting to see newsweek.com in my search from [related:time.com] but it didn’t show up on the first page but when I ran [ related:newsweek.com] , time.com shows up on the first page. This is also hit and miss as in when I wanted to find websites similar to quora.com (Q&A website), I was expecting to find reddit.com but I didn’t as of April 4, 2016. I got better results when I typed Q&A websites but it may be an oddity with reddit as it didn’t show up in the hits but was referred to by websites talking about Q&A sites.
Trick: When you need to find an old version of the website or when the site is currently down, you can look at Google’s cached version of the site.
This tip is handy when you need to find information and the site for some reason is either taken down or the server it’s on is out. Google periodically caches the websites and you might be able to access an older version of the website,
- Use cache: operator to find a cached version of a website. General formula is [cache:targetwebsite].
- Usage example: [cache:time.com] to see an older version of the Time.com website but it may not be very different from what you see now. This is more useful for sites that aren’t updated as often.
Note: the cache is based on Google’s schedule so if you’re trying to find some missing content from a site that has been down for a while then the cached version may not look any different from the current site. This operator does the same thing as the cached option you see on a website from Google’s search results.
Trick: When you want to find out what links are connected to the website
Say you want to know who is directing traffic to a website you’re currently looking at or if there are other websites that share quite a bit with your target, link is one way to do this.
- Use link: operator to find which websites are connected to the target. General formula is [link:targetwebsite.com].
- Usage example: [link:time.com] to find sites that are connected to time.com.
Note: I’ve had mixed reaction to this tactic as it’s not unusual to get “circular” results. In other words, you get links of the website back to the website you’re interested in. For example, if I use link:time.com the first hit is an article on time.com.
Trick: When you want a concise way to learn “everything “ connected to a website
This is the go to command to use if you want to learn pretty much all you can about the website from Google search.
- Use info: operator to view pretty much anything on the website (cache, similar web pages, other web pages that link to it, web pages that come from the target website, web pages that contain the name of website of interest.) General formula is [info:targetwebsite.com].
- Usage example: [info:time.com] will provide you with a summary of links to learn more about time.com’s web relationships but that doesn’t mean it’s complete but it’s a start.
Note: this is basically a combination of many of the popular website operators
Building Your Toolkit To Be Expert Google Power Searcher
The above methods will take you from newbie to proficient. If you really want to be a Google search expert, then follow the tactics below.
Tip: For sophisticated, targeted searches use combo’s
While the above tactics are powerful by themselves, combining them actually gets you the most mileage. For example, say you want to find a marketing report on the size of chemical market for fermentation-based products. So some of the attributes could be: 1) market research, 2) the word fermentation in the result, 3) most likely a PDF report, and 4) ideally from some marketing company. One search could be [ intext:”market research”” fermentation” site:.com filetype:pdf ] and you will find several reports on the above topic. As said earlier, if you combine above with the – operator you can eliminate several sites you aren’t interested in.
Tip: Use combinations of the above tactics (both solid and so-so) to create more targeted searches.
What you gain in specificity, you lose in robustness. In other words, the more focused the search the greater the likelihood you might be missing something while relevant you hadn’t thought about. Again this is because Google is trying to fulfill your request based on what you’re specifying as relevant. So, it’s important to balance between targeted and loose searches to get the diversity you need.
Tip: Other Google sites to find more specific information
All of what was discussed applies to the generic vanilla Google search. If you use any of Google’s more specialized searches, such as patent, video, images, scholar, etc., you can use specialized commands like the ones below:
- Use author:author_name in Google scholar to find specific articles written by the author of interest
- Use inblogtitle:, inposttile:, inpostauthor:, blogurl:, to find information about various blogs under Google’s blogger.com site
- Google’s advanced search features
It’s ironic that Google doesn’t make it obvious where its advanced search features are. It almost feels like they don’t want users to find it. But if you want a more fill out the web form approach to Google search that uses many of the above tactics or simply can’t remember all the commands, then Google’s advanced search page is the way to go.
- Use Google’s advanced search page, here.
Tip: Take Dan Russell’s class on Google Powersearching
Dan Russell is Google’s guru of search and actually offers classes on power searching with Google which I have taken and I highly recommend if you want to stay up to date on the latest in Google and want to know more about the nuances of Google search.
Google doesn’t vet the Internet but is an effective means to navigate the waters. At the end of the day, you can dredge as much garbage as well as gold even with the most effective Google search tactics. So, it’s important that you do a sanity check and cross-validate your results as best you can with multiple sources that ideally are not coming from the same source.
I wrote this article as Google search plays a vital role in learning about anything, whether it’s a concept or skill. If you’re interested in building up your cognitive toolkit and want to stay up to date, please sign up on email list.
Some Useful References
- Google’s support page
- Dan Russell’s blog on Google search
- Power searching with Google class
- MIT library on Google help
- Cool infographic on Google search
The tactics I describe above are valid as of April 2016.
If you enjoyed this post, get updates. It's free.
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.