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January 5, 2017
Tips for using Google like a Ninja
January 5, 2017
[caption id="attachment_82714" align="alignleft" width="200"] (Google Logo by Google Inc. (google.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.) -[/caption]This is the second in a series of posts on the topic of how to be an educated consumer of online information. Most online information searches begin with Google, so it only makes sense to kick off the in-depth portion of this series with a bit about the “Big-G” and how to get the most from it. Google certainly isn’t the only search engine on the block, but with a 64.5% market share, it might as well be. Since Google casts such a large shadow on the web - in addition to so much else - let’s focus on what it has to offer, which is actually quite a bit once you begin peeling back the layers.Google was brought into the world shortly after Sergey Brin and Larry Page met as PhD candidates at Stanford University. Brin and Page aren’t exactly household names in the field of computer technology at least like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but their contributions and those of the company they founded rival, and in some respects, exceed those of Jobs and Gates. The search engine project begun in their dorm rooms at Stanford has formed the backbone of the company they founded and is what has allowed the wealth of random information scattered across the web to be readily accessible.Typing a search query into your browser’s address bar or Google search box can certainly take you a long way, but familiarizing yourself with a few of the additional features Google provides will refine your searches and make you a better consumer of online information. At the top of every Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is a handy tools menu shown in the screenshot below:
Clicking on the “Tools” link will display a sub-menu where you are offered options for showing results from a particular time period ranging from the past hour to the past year to any time at all. This is handy if you’re looking for fast-breaking news results (past 24 hours) or technical info or product reviews that are no older than the past year. There is even a “Custom” option to specify results within a particular time range. I typically begin most searches by selecting a time period for displayed results.Google also provides a handy set of search operators. You may already be familiar with some of them. The hashtag (#) operator allows you to find popular hashtags for trending topics on social media and the ‘@’ operator performs a similar function by returning results for the social tags you specify. A popular search operator that has been redefined in recent years is the ‘+' operator. Previously, you would prepend it to a word within a search query to indicate to Google that the results it returned must include that particular word. Since the advent of Google+, the ‘+’ operator has been repurposed to search for Google+ pages or blood types. Um, I guess that could come in handy in a blue moon, but I still prefer the original definition of this operator.A feature that you probably use on a regular basis with Google while being unaware of its name is Google’s Universal Search. This is the feature that allows you to request search results from a particular category of items such as videos, news results, books, images, shopping results, and more. This is often referred to as “blended search.” The impetus for Universal Search was actually the horrific events of 9/11/2001.While reports began trickling out about planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York people rushed online to search on “World Trade Center.” The fledgling search engine found itself blindsided like the rest of the world on that dark morning and instead of serving up results for fast-breaking news stories on the tragedy, Google served up bland, stale results such as “how tall is the World Trade Center?” and “guided tours of the World Trade Center.” Vowing never to be caught unawares again, Google developed Universal Search with news stories as its first category. Google continues to expand the categories under Universal Search with a recent focus on e-commerce.A very handy feature in Google and one that I’m often surprised many people are either unaware of or fail to take advantage of is the ability of Google to answer questions. The most basic of this ability is performing math and conversion calculations. Want to know how many liters are in a gallon, ask Google. Or how far is it from New York to Moscow, ask Google. And want to convert dollars to Euros, yep, ask Google. Below is a rather complex mathematical function that Google will cheerfully plot out for you. Send it to that special geek in your life this Valentine’s Day and tell them to copy and paste it into Google’s search box. You’ll be sure to melt his or her heart!sqrt(cos(x))cos(300x)+sqrt(abs(x))-0.7)(4-x*x)^0.01, sqrt(6-x^2), -sqrt(6-x^2) from -4.5 to 4.5Taking Google’s ability to answer questions a step further, it now displays answers directly into the search results, essentially eliminating the need to click through to websites to find the information you searched for. This feature is referred to as rich snippets, or rich answers, and sometimes as direct answers. In any event, you’ve certainly encountered them. An example from my own work occurred just last night. I’m writing a post on the various types of equipment used in commercial snow removal. What I know about this topic couldn’t fit on the head of a pin. Google provided a nice assist to answer my question: "what the heck is a skid steer?" And I didn’t need to wade through a bunch of search pages or even click on a single link!
Perhaps one of Google’s coolest features - at least to my mind - is the ability to drag and drop images into the search box on Google Image search and let it search its extensive image database on your behalf. I’ve used this on many occasions to identify a location in an uncaptioned photo. For example, if you’re not of a certain age and from the DC, MD, and VA area, you might be unfamiliar with the structure pictured below. No worries! Google Image Search has you covered:Before we leave the topic of Google Image search, it also conveniently provides the ability to search images by usage type. This refers to the license type of the image. I used this feature while putting this post together to find an image of Google's 'G' logo that allowed reuse with attribution.At its core, Google is still a search engine, though the algorithms behind it have evolved significantly since its inception almost thirty years ago. Prior to Google, there were the dinosaurs of search engines that roamed the web such as AltaVista, InfoSeek, Lycos, Yahoo!, and even Archie. These search engines were easily gamed since they relied on the keywords that appeared on a web page. Stories abound of companies stuffing words such as “Viagra” or even “sex” hundreds of times in the meta keywords tag as well as within the page HTML in order to achieve top rankings in these now obsolete search engines.The tact taken by Brin and Page was to use links pointing to a web page to determine its relative importance for ranking position. In fact, a core component of the Google search algorithm is referred to as “PageRank” – a contraction of Larry’s last name and the word “rank.” However, even Google has and can be gamed and the company has been engaged in a cat and mouse game with those who specialize in ranking pages in Google – referred to as Search Engine Optimizers/Optimization specialists or SEO for short. Google’s platform has gotten a lot better at thwarting such attempts at manipulation, but the fact that an entire industry exists around ranking pages in search engines should put you on guard whenever evaluating its search results.Things aren’t all peaches and roses with Google Search. There are cases when you should be suspect of what it serves up. A case in point is my quest for determining the proper spelling of “cybersecurity.” Google Search chased its tail when entering both variations – single and two words – and provided spelling corrections suggesting the alternate form for each search. More insidious is the suggestion that Google favors results that conform to its own political viewpoint. The rich answer for what is California’s Proposition 63 provided a decidedly biased answer. I’ve noticed this for other controversial searches and believe this is simply Google’s algorithm deciding to display the highest ranking search result as the rich answer and is not indicative of the company’s political positions.And lest we forget, more than 90% of Google’s revenue comes from paid advertising. The company has done a commendable job in not letting ads influence the organic (unpaid) search results, but it’s something that is always lurking in the background. At the end of the day, I think a watchful online community will continue to keep Google honest in this regard.Even in this rather lengthy discussion, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the Google search engine provides and I haven’t even touched on all the other projects Google has its hands in from Android, to autonomous vehicles, to broadband internet service, and the list goes on. Two areas of Google Search that warrant mention are Google’s focus on mobile and voice search. Google has given a clear indication that it feels this is the future and it’s hard not to agree with them.Next up: Getting the most bang for your buck when using online shopping and review sites.