We all know how to search for things quickly with Google, but there are lots of ways you can customise your search to find what you want
Google’s home page still looks much as it did when the service launched in 1998 – but the kind of information it will give you has been transformed. In the past when you made a search, you would simply be given 10 blue links to external websites.
Today, whenever it can, Google tries to provide answers rather than links – whether you asked for them or not. A search for ‘Apple’ shows just how much Google’s search engine results page (SERP) has changed.
On a normal laptop screen you can only see one organic link and, as it happens, that duplicates the ‘top hit’, which is an Apple ad. The right side of the page is dominated by a so-called Knowledge Graph panel, which provides a potted guide to the company.
Scroll down to look for more links and you’ll find that the next item is a map of your area with links to shops. Keep scrolling for carousels of Top stories from Google’s news section, videos, and icons for other technology companies. There’s also a People tab, plus an ever-expanding list of related searches.
Google’s AI (artificial intelligence) system comes up with different panels for different searches. Search for Venice or cats, for example, and it gives you a pack of images. For searches with social media connections such as Kim Kardashian, you might get a carousel of tweets from Twitter. Search for a product such as a Fitbit Charge and you would see sponsored (paid for) shopping links.
Whenever it can, Google replaces links with instant-answer boxes, carousels, featured snippets, widgets and Knowledge Graph panels. This solves one of the problems with Google search, which is that there are different pages for different searches. These include News, Images, Maps, Video, Shopping and Books: Google is no longer trying to send you to another website as quickly as possible, which was the original idea. Instead, it invites you to browse a selection of things you didn’t search for, but might find useful or interesting.
In some cases, Google goes further. It provides widgets or mini apps that replace external websites altogether. Most people discover widgets by typing in something they want to know, such as 34 inches in cm or how many gb in a petabyte. Searches like these bring up the unit-converter widget, which can handle all sorts of conversions from arc minutes to wine firkins.
You can summon many of these little utilities by typing in key words. These include: define, calculator, unit conversion (aka unit converter), currency converter, mortgage calculator, stocks, colour picker, timer (aka stopwatch), metronome, sunrise and sunset and tip calculator.
You will get local results for things such as weather unless you specify somewhere different such as weather Auckland). Typing in a stock exchange ticker symbol such as GOOG or APPL will bring up an answer box with the latest share price, basic financial information and a graph. If you don’t know the symbol, you can use stocks: with the name of the company (eg stocks: Microsoft instead of MSFT).
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Some boxes only appear if you type in a recognisable piece of data. For example, typing in a flight number such as MH001 or BA314 will bring up an answer box containing airport and flight information.
Solve only works if you say what you want to solve, such as solve circle or solve rhombus, although Wolfram Alpha is a better search engine for maths and science calculations.
There are answer boxes for many sports teams (Barnsley FC, Boston Bruins, etc), and there are featured snippets – try CEO Apple, for example.
If you want to search for results on a specific website, Google’s site: command is particularly useful for sites that don’t have good search facilities. You can use other Google search commands to dig deeper on a website, such as AND and OR.
The site: command is easy to use: type site: followed by the web address, such as site:which.co.uk or site:theguardian.com – and then what you want to search for. For example, if you wanted to find out about peanut allergies, you could limit your search to the NHS (site:nhs.uk peanut allergy) and avoid getting answers from Wikipedia, special interest groups and so on. You could also look at the results from a different source, such as site:mayoclinic.org peanut allergy or combine the two (site:nhs.uk OR site:mayoclinic.org peanut allergy).
A similar command is inurl:, which searches for words in internet addresses. For example, inurl:peanut allergy will find pages that have the search words in the address, such as nutrition.org. uk/nutritionscience/ allergy/peanut-allergy.html.
Searching for intitle:peanut allergy will find things where the search words are in the title. These commands tend to produce better-quality results as the search terms are in the web address or the title, not just in the text. If there’s a specific word or phrase you want to appear in the results, put it in quotation marks. This is handy for finding pages that contain a particular phrase – perhaps someone posted an image containing that text on social media. You can exclude words by putting a minus sign in front of them (peanuts -snoopy).
You can also use an asterisk to find a missing word or to see options. Search for ‘the * of the world’ and the missing word could be edge, end, history, map and many other things.
If you want to find a particular type of file, use the filetype: command. For example, filetype:mp3 will find music, while filetype:pdf will find PDFs (try mozart filetype:pdf, for example).
If you want to use an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting, search for home budget template filetype:xlsx to find some options.
Finally, you can search using number and date ranges. For a number range, put two dots between the numbers (eg android smartphone £100..£200). For dates, use the daterange: command with start and end dates separated by two dots. This is useful for contemporaneous coverage of events (such as Bradley Wiggins daterange: 2012-06- 23..2012-07-25), although the results can be mixed. In this case, it’s probably easier to use the menu command.
It's worth creating shortcuts in your browser to some of Google's advanced tools:
- Advanced Search google.com/advanced_ search
- Google Images google.co.uk/imghp
- Google News news.google.co.uk
- Google Books books.google.co.uk/bkshp
- Google Translate translate.google.co.uk
- Google Trends trends.google.co.uk/trends
Once you have done a search, you can usually use a menu command to refine it. Most of the menu items are just links to more specialised search pages, such as Images, News, and Videos. The useful one is Tools, on the far right.
Clicking Tools provides another two options: Any time and All results. Clicking Any time lets you choose a restricted time period from Past hour to Past year. There is also Custom range, which lets you type in specific dates or pick them from a calendar. You don’t have to be too specific. Entering, say, 2000 and 2001 will search from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2001.
Google’s search results now pay less attention to quality than to ‘freshness’, which means that the top results are usually recent, even if they are spammy. Sometimes you really want the latest hits, but if not, you can use the time command to remove them. Clicking All results offers one more option, Verbatim, which was introduced in 2011 to pacify cranky users.
Selecting Verbatim tells the search engine to use what you actually typed in (spelling, verb tense, singular or plural noun etc) instead of correcting typos and adding synonyms. Make a typo and the SERP will show web pages that contain the same typo. Verbatim is supposed to get rid of all the suggested, vaguely related synonym-based and personalised results. In fact, even Verbatim will show results that don’t include all your search terms, but it’s better than nothing.
The most useful menu option, however, seems to be virtually unknown – Google’s Advanced Search page. To find it, click on Settings and then Advanced Search. This lets you use several of the advanced search terms without knowing anything about things such as site:, filetype:, inurl and so on. If you want to search by number, there are two empty boxes for from and to, but custom date ranges aren’t supported. When you run the search, your form entries are converted into a single search string using the commands described above, so you can copy and paste it for future use, or email it to a friend.
Some searches produce amusing results. Try these: (most should autocomplete): askew, do a
barrel roll, flip a coin, roll a die, spin a dreidel, spinner, wubba lubba dub dub, and zerg rush.
Searches for pacman, minesweeper, snake, solitaire and tic tac toe bring up playable games, and for a trip back in time, search for Google in 1998.