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How to be efficient with “internet searches” OR find information in documents
8 minute read (4 if you ignore one part).
This article is to help anyone who would like to improve their electronic search skills. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a wider range of people unsure of, or unaware of, search techniques I take for granted. To cut to the chase, read these two articles from Lifehack.org and Lifehacker.com
LifeHack for internet searchesLifeHacker for keyboard searches (any document)
Or this list of search operators from Google’s support site.
Or, Scroll down to the video tutorials below, because before I give search tips I’ll write why I’m doing this. I won’t put much time into editing it; as Mark Twain said, “I’m sorry I didn’t write a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time,” so scroll down to the techniques if you’re not interested in my ramblings. I’ll indent my missive. so you can more easily scroll down to my tutorial.
I used to be surprised how few people new how to efficiently find information on the internet, or within long documents, until I read an article that 90% of people don’t, according to research by Google employees. (I’m not making that up. To verify that statistic, JFGI.)
All joking aside, these techniques are important. But surprisingly few people are good at it. I have, unfortunately and regrettably, been sarcastic to the point of being cruel when joking about internet search skills when people, including clients, have asked how I “know so much” (their words, not mine).
I realized I was being hurtful after helping a local nonprofit with a wide range of things, helping them help at-risk kids in our community find free and fun resources for education. When they asked how I “knew so much,” I replied, “The internet, just like we’re trying to help the kids learn how to do!” I thought I was attributing my knowledge to publicly-available sources of learning, for which I’m grateful, but the looks on their faces indicated that they felt stupid. Ouch! That’s especially cruel considering that they were trying to help under-served kids in my community, which is a euphemism for kids living in poor neighborhoods, often from multiple generations of poverty, obtain an equitable education.
That story is a primary reason why digital search skills is important; when the majority of teachers in under-served aren’t efficient at using the internet or searching electronic documents for information, they are perpetuating an archaic education system where the teacher gives “facts” for kids to memorize and regurgitate on tests, missing the point that the future of education, and the future for these kids to change their situations, depends less on “facts” and more on what they’d like to accomplish, how to access, critically analyze, create, and use information that helps your team obtain their goals.
This approach to education is part of “Project-Based Learning,” where kids are coached rather than taught, starting with a common goal that teams try to achieve, similar to how the real-world works when a project-manager leads a team, or an inventor starts a new company and hires people who haven’t learned the new invention yet, or a civic leader wants to coordinate community action. In other words, we start with a goal, and learning occurs along the way, sometimes guided by a person who doesn’t know all of the information but is good at embracing ambiguity and adhering to a general process rather than a rigid formula.
This is also key to the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, which are new science standards for over 20 states that focus on observing phenomena and learning through observation, research, and experimentation. Again, information is no longer valuable; what you can do with existing information, and the process for discovering new information, is education for the future.
It’s worth noting that NGSS introduces “engineering” as a core science, which, like internet searches will be challenging to teach if the teachers don’t understand it themselves, or aren’t comfortable embracing ambiguity and being a “co-learner” with students.
If you’re interested in helping provide equitable education, find schools in your community that could use your help helping kids, especially under-served communities. To find them, JFGI.
Finally, to the point of the bad joke earlier (“which one?” you ask), if you doubt anything, or would like to confirm something before repeating to to others, it’ critical to have effective internet search skills. If more people had these skills our society wouldn’t be plagued with “fake news,” and we’d all be happier and at peace, discussing what we’d like to accomplish and how we obtained information rather than arguing over what to do about inaccurate information.
For me, it continues to surprise me how, as a consultant, I end up answering questions available, for free, on the internet in less time than it takes to review my consulting contract. I started subtly incorporating search-skills into my workshops, mixing teams for group-work to distribute skills, and noticed that people seem to learn quickly without realizing they’re learning, but only when starting with a team-centered goal, similar to project-based learning.
As your first goal, what does JFGI mean? As a hint, one answer is the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis. Neither is it the Jacob’s Financial Group, Inc. Neither are what JFGI means in the context of this article, though several of my friends refer to the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis when someone asks an easily-answered question. The point is, words are weaker than context, so use the context of what you’re looking for, and why you’re looking for it, to help you phrase searches or navigate results.
Search any document or web page
Please, please, please learn to use cntrl+F on a personal computer (PC), or cmd+F on an Apple computer. When a document or web page is open on your computer, simultaneously press the “control” button and the letter F on a PC, or the “command” button and “F” on an Apple computer. This will open a small window to Find any word, symbol, or combination of words or symbols. You type what you’d like to find, our computer will list them, or highlight them, and take you to them. Smart phones have similar features.
use cntl+F to find every time I wrote “JFGI” in this articlefind every time I wrote the phrase, “search for phrases”
For more keyboard tips, read LifeHack for keyboard tricks.
Search the Internet
Don’t rely on Google. Try Bing,Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo. As a society, if we all use the same source of information we may become biased towards incomplete or inaccurate information, more so than we already are.
How to choose words or phrases to search
This is a genuine and useful skill that will become better with practice. There’s no “shortcut key” for rewiring your brain to think like a computer search engine, but it happens so subtly that you’ll eventually take it for granted. In other words, it’s not like a golf score or bowling handicap where you can track progress, you simply get faster at it, with results closer to what you really need. To get started, watch this video, or read the text below it, or both.
Here are basics:
Use quotation marks to “search for phrases.” In this example, typing search for phrases would return search results for all combinations of those words, but typing “search for phrases” would return results for the one phrase you needed.
Conversely, if you want random combinations of words, not just the sequence in which you type them, don’t use quotation marks. In the previous example, search for phrases would be similar to for phrases search, and would show results from Yoda (just kidding, I am).
Use an asterisk (*) when you don’t know a word in a phrase, and Google will replace your * with probable words. For example, “Jewish * of Greater Indianapolis”
Use a hyphen (-) to omit words. For example, type JFGI -jewish to omit the word “Jewish.” (Whether or not you use capital letters is irrelevant to most searches.)
Use the word “site” and a colon (:) to search specific sites. For example, search for colon cancer in the government’s national cancer institute by typing colon cancer site:cancer.gov.
Combine techniques. For example, “colon cancer” site:cancer.gov
Use Google’s tips for refining web searches in Google, which, unsurprisingly, was the #1 ranked result from Google. They may seem obscure, but can be useful. For example, when I was designing medical implants by researching competitive products, used “cache:” to find files from sites that no longer available, perhaps because the owners had deleted them but didn’t know that Google ‘caches’ search results. I believe this is ethical (it was originally public information), and am sharing that information so you’re reminded that the internet is public, even for “secure” sites, and even after you delete something, so don’t upload anything if you’d be uncomfortable if someone saw it.
A great way to practice is using the internet to play Jeopardy! or any trivia game for random information, especially if it’s drastically different than your most common sources of information, which will exercise your search-engine skills more than doing what you already know. For example, Who was the childhood actor famous from the 1980’s television show “Different Strokes” and running for governor of California?
If you’d like to try a trivia game I wrote, try this game of Celebrity Jeopardy that I created to teach medical device regulations. I created it for a similar reason as the blog you’re reading now, to help people focus less on “facts” and more on the process of asking the right questions to find information, and using that information to achieve goals. If you used the internet, you could become an expert in almost any law or regulation, especially if you cross-reference that information with things you already know, called “lateral transfer,” which is a technique for, and indication of, deeper understanding.
Learn more techniques by, you guessed it, searching the internet. But, nothing beats practice, so I’ll reiterate that you’ll get faster and faster without noticing it. One day, people will ask you “how do you know so much?” and you can reply, “JFGI.”
Sometimes searching for images, even when you want text, can be more effective.The second tip is the reason for the first tip: understand Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.
Many web pages are great at Search Engine Optimization, SEO, which is a fancy word for they know how to show up in your searches more than they know how to answer your question. But, for some reason, they aren’t as careful with their images, so finding an image that matches your search and then going to that web site may help find information, especially specific information that is swamped with SEO-driven sites trying to sell you something rather than help you.
Watch this video to understand SEA, or read the following text, or both.
SEO is a reason most articles you find using text-based searches are written with the same words being repeated again and again, like:
So you are a Jewish person in Indianapolis, who wants to learn more about what a Jewish person can do in our city of Indianapolis? Or, you’d like to find greater knowledge about the Jewish faith, and perhaps you live in Indianapolis, or are a Jewish person who knows there’s no greater place to visit than the city of Indianapolis. Well, you’ve come to the right place, home of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, a federation in the Indianapolis greater region, for Jewish people, in Indianapolis.
The first clue that this not a useful page, but is a page designed to rank high in SEO for a wide range of search styles, using any combination of Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, including people who didn’t type quotation marks when searching for the “Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis,” or for someone who typed “Jewish Federation of * Indianapolis,” is that it assumed someone wanted to visit Indianapolis. I mean, come on.
The second is the phrasing. Legitimate sites don’t need all of that. In fact, many fake web site are generated by computer programs that mix up keywords from legitimate sites to gain viewers, which, unfortunately, increases their rank in search engines to get viewer “hits,” not to solve your problem.
For more advanced tips, JFGI.
Now, you’re ready for nerd humor, like this video where a guy looks up information asked as if people were typing on Google. Warning: it’s PG-13, which doesn’t mean to omit the number 13. If you’d like to know more, JFGI.