Search Ninja: You’re doing it wrong.
Can’t find that ever-elusive result you’ve been searching for? Tired of thinking there’s no way to find a result without wading through pages-upon-pages of results? Have you ever wanted to enrich your search experience but have no idea how or where to start? Is your search engine anthem U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For?”
If you jumped straight out of your chair and exclaimed, “YES,” then this could very well be the post series you’ve needed. Not to mention, with all the complaints recently about Google and how their results are supposedly deteriorating, the time for boosting your search skills may just be at hand. If the results are in Google’s index, they canbe found, so sit back, relax, get your learn on and prepare to become a search ninja!
Caveat: The information in this post is a lot to take in if you have never performed advanced searches in Google, so please be patient and don’t treat this post as a “read once and done” deal! You may well get confused, so please ask questions via the comments if you do and I will be happy to clarify what I can for you. Don’t worry about feeling stupid, either. I truly want you to understand this stuff since I know how much it will enhance your search experience! Make sure you click on all the examples I’ve provided throughout the article as they will really help you visualize much of the information I discuss — especially if what you’re reading becomes confusing. Seeing it really can make it “click” for you. Take this post in bits and pieces if you need to, add it to your favorites, etc. but just remember to be patient, keep an open mind, experiment on your own, and most of all, HAVE FUN!
Now, before we proceed, I want to give you a scenario to consider. I will use this as the series-wide example for you to reference for all points to come. With that said, let’s say you’re interested in C++ programming. You type “C++ programming” and a couple of similar queries into Google but you’re just not satisfied with the results you’ve looked at. It’s not Google’s fault, because they do seem to be returning extremely relevant results, but they’re just not the ones you feel cater to your method of learning. So, you think to yourself, “I know I should probably just take a class or buy a book, but I really wish there was a way to find “Introduction to C++” presentations/documents from colleges online.”
Well, if you were a search ninja, you would realize the cornucopia of results surely awaiting you for such a query, and as such, your initial query on that train of thought may look something like this: site:edu intitle:Introduction intitle:C++ filetype:ppt | filetype:pdf | filetype:doc
Now, just what does that query tell Google? My fellow search ninjas out there know the answer to this, but this series isn’t catered to them, so let’s break it down! I’ll delve into the site:, intitle:, filetype:, AND and OR operators, and more. A very critical point to remember is that your search terms should be placed directly after the operator with no spaces.
For example, site:edu funny is correct where site: edu funny is not. All the same, intitle:funny is correct where intitle: funny is not. Of additional note is that Google operators are case-sensitive but your search terms are not! siTe:edu funny will not work where site:edU fUnnY and site:edu funny will work one-in-the-same. Lastly, the order in which you specify your search terms doesn’t matter. For example, site:edu funny will work exactly the same as funny site:edu (you may see a different total number of results, but if you actually clicked through every single page of results, they would match and they would both end at exactly the same total number of results).
Keeping this section “short ‘n sweet,” the usage of quotes tells Google that you want it to return results for your *exact* search term. This applies to using 2 or more separate words/letters/numbers. For instance, searching for Windows 7 is different than searching for “Windows 7” in that the first example will return results that could include the number 7 and the word “Windows” *anywhere* within a page and not necessarily grouped together. The second example, however, will return results that contain Windows 7 as an *exact* phrase. Google does a great job of guessing what you’re searching for with or without quotes most of the time, but certainly not all of the time — especially if you’re searching for an exact phrase that includes a word like “the” which Google has a tendency to ignore. For instance, if you’re searching for lyrics that contain the following phrase, the cat on the fence will yield drastically different results than “the cat on the fence” will. Get to know the usage of quotes if you don’t already, because I use them frequently throughout the examples here (and you’ll really start to understand why if you don’t already)!
AND and OR
The AND and OR operators can be incredibly useful in your search endeavors. Perhaps confusing at first, I urge you to give these operators some time to marinate. I promise you they will “click” for you and you’ll be happy you stuck it out! To discuss these two operators, I’ll break them down individually.
AND: This operator tells Google “I only want to see results that contain all of what I’m searching for.” For example, doing a search for cats dogs has the potential to return results about only cats, only dogs, or cats and dogs. If you want to see to it that you see only results including cats and dogs, your search query would be (you guessed it) cats AND dogs. This really comes in handy if you are interested in finding pages that contain multiple search terms, like cats AND dogs AND birds AND lizards. It’s also great for building up searches using qualifiers like “beginner,” “introduction,” etc. For example, Introduction AND C++ AND Beginner. Of all the operators I use, I use AND the least by far. But if I’m going to discuss OR (which is next), then I couldn’t negate AND!
OR: What this operator does is tell Google “I only want to see results based on what I specify, but not results that have to contain all of what I specify.” For example, if you do a search for “Search Engines” OR C++, what you’ll get are results that are about either search engines or C++. It’s entirely possible that a result from that search could contain both C++ and search engines in the same article, but that would be a coincidence! Remember, if you wanted to see only results that must contain both search engines and C++, you would use the AND operator like so: “Search Engines” AND C++.
Now, it’s very important to note that OR is interchangeable with |. That means you can use either one to achieve the same end result. For example, “Search Engines” | C++ is the same as “Search Engines” OR C++. Personally, I like to use | because it lets Google know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I mean OR in terms of an operator and not a word. For instance, what if I did a search for “Search Engine” ORC? Did I mean “Search Engine” OR C as in a search engine OR a programming language named C, or did I mean “Search Engine” ORC as in a search engine fantasy creature? Because spaces don’t matter with the OR operator, “Search Engine”|C is the same as “Search Engine” | C is the same as “Search Engine” |C is the same as “Search Engine”| C.
Now, try all four (1 2 3 4) of those using OR instead of | and you will get two sets of very different results! Lastly, it’s important to note that you can have multiple OR operators in one search query. This can be really helpful if searching for multiple qualifiers to give you more results to go through without having to type individual queries. Take, for instance, a scenario where a product goes by multiple names. Let’s say I want to search for Windows 7-related stuff. Well, I may want to cover as many bases as I can and try something like “Windows 7” | “Win 7” | “Windows Seven” | “Win Seven”.
Without getting all convoluted and intricate here, the site: operator basically tells Google “I want you to only show me results from specific Web sites or domains I specify.” So, to give you an example using just this operator, site:edu “Search Engines” would tell Google that you want to see results about “Search Engines” from .edu domains only. Getting even more specific, you could try something like site:harvard.edu “Search Engines” to see results about “Search Engines” from only the harvard.edu Web site! As you can see, just the site: operator alone can help to greatly filter and fine-tune your results, but don’t let the edu examples above pigeonhole your creativity and thought process. If you’re looking for Windows 7 Service Pack 1-related material and you want to see only what’s on Microsoft’s site, you could try site:microsoft.com “Windows 7 Service Pack 1” and BOOM, highly-relevant, fine-tuned results!
Yellow Belt Search Ninja Exercise: Think of a topic you’re interested in and try to think of a couple of sites you feel would contain the most helpful/insightful information based on that topic. Now, create one search query based on your topic that will show results from both of the sites you thought of and onlythose two sites. Hint: Remember the | operator! On the next page, I discuss the filetype: and intitle: operators, as well as the solution to the opening example and the conclusion of part 1.
Next up on the docket is the filetype: operator. This operator tells Google “I want you to show me results that are of the type of file(s) I specify.” This is probably my favorite operator to use since I just loooove to search for documents and presentations! Some of the most common file types that I like to search for using the filetype: operator are ppt, pps, ppsx, pptx, xls, xlsx, doc, docx, txt, pdf, rtf, and more. You can search for database files (mdb, dbf, et al), music files (mp3, m4p, et al), movie files (mpg, avi, et al), archive files (zip, rar, et al), image files (jpg, png, et al) and many, many more.
Through my experiments, I’ve found that defining each file type that you’re interested in searching for — all separated by the | operator — yields the best results. At one point, you could define multiple file types within parenthesis but the results were pretty wacky (example: filetype:(ppt|pptx|pdf|doc) ). In the example I provided at the beginning of the post, you can see that I use three filetype: operator statements separated by the | operator: filetype:ppt | filetype:pdf | filetype:doc
To note, you would probably be shocked by what kind of data you can find based on a filetype: search alone. I once found a database file from an online retailer chock-full of full names, addresses, email addresses, and — get this — full credit card information. Scary stuff, huh? That was back in my Google hacking days, but make no mistake that there’s a whole world of advanced Google searchers out there who can find some very revealing information. And come to think of it, it’s off of that very premise alone that I started my own Microsoft investigative journalism blog back in 2007! I would find confidential information sitting around on people’s servers about future Microsoft products I was interested in and I decided I wanted to blog about them.
My methods have since then improved exponentially and branched out well beyond finding such information contained only within documents, but if for nothing else, it just goes to show how using an operator like filetype: to do some experimenting can be quite fun, revealing, and maybe even turn into an entity all its own for you. In the case of our example at the beginning of the article, though, we’re using the filetype: operator to search for three types of files: ppt, pdf, and doc.
Put simply, this operator tells Google to only show you results that include your search term in the title of a result. If you’re unfamiliar with a title, most pages and documents have them and they’re typically what you click on when you click to see a result in Google. For example, intitle:ginormous shows the word “ginormous” in bold in the title of each result. Using the intitle: operator is perfect for narrowing down results to show your most important search terms right there in the title of a page or document.
Now, if you’re feeling particularly mischievous, you can try some searches along the lines of intitle:index.of mymusic and see what all you can dig up. Naturally, I don’t condone downloading any illegal content you might find doing such a search, but expanding out into searches like that will show you just how many people out there are ignorant to the true power of search engines. You would be astonished at how many people carelessly leave illegal/copyrighted material up on their Web servers. Never mind the people who leave personal and/or confidential information floating around directories on their Web sites.
So, if you’re one of those types of people, now you have a good reason to check and make sure you’re not serving up some things that could potentially get you in a heap of trouble! How can you do that? Simple! Try the site: operator using your site to see what all Google has indexed of yoursite! You may just be surprised at what you find. If you’re an SEO, you may consider this a value-added service to your clients. I’m sure you’ve undoubtedly used the site: operator to get a rough idea of how many pages of your clients’ sites are indexed, right? Well, imagine what they would think of you if you approached them and said, “we found a security issue with your site, but we can clear it right up for you!” Good stuff. 😉
Solution to Opening Example
Do you know what that query is telling Google to show you now? 🙂 If not, here’s the solution: Google will return results from .edu domains (site:edu) with the terms “Introduction” and “C++” in the title of each result (intitle:Introduction intitle:C++) and of those results, it will only show you ppt, pdf, or doc files (filetype:ppt | filetype:pdf | filetype:doc). And that’s it!
There’s a Catch…
You just knew there had to be one, right? Luckily, it’s typically not a major one. You see, the only problem these days with performing such advanced queries is that Google oftentimes flags such searches as potential automated queries (queries run by programs, scripts, etc.). Google is pretty adamant about keeping that from happening, so as you continue to run some of these advanced queries in short amounts of time, Google will either give you the option to fill in a captcha to continue searching or they will simply show you a page apologizing to you that they can’t complete your search query (which I find to be very frustrating, personally — especially if I’m on a roll researching with advanced queries). If the latter happens, then you can either try the same query in a different Internet browser, wait it out, change your IP address, or go to a different computer. The good news is that you really have to be digging into some advanced queries like the one in the solution above to get flagged by Google.
Wrapping Up Part 1
How is this post even remotely SEO-related, Stephen? Good question! As for putting an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) slant to this whole thing, you may consider this an excellent reason to correctly purpose your content whether it’s on the Web or in a presentation/document. While you’re not going to see a huge amount of traffic whatsoever from people searching for documentation/content so specifically, you never know if that one person who does will spread the word about what they find. You can get as specific as you want with your content and delve into keyword research if you so choose, but just remember one person really can make a difference if they find your content, enjoy it, and decide to share it! Additionally, the more you know how to dig into Google, the more you learn how to understand it as a search engine. It gives you perspective, a unique skill set, and the ability to do some really detailed investigation into your clients’ sites if need be. No, it’s not a requirement to know how to use Google to this extent, but it absolutely can’t hurt you to understand everything you can about search engines. The more you understand them, the better you can optimize for them and take yourself outside the realm of simply following what you read from others.
Now, while you may think to yourself “it’s a waste of my time to have to learn how to search like this,” I would highly encourage you to keep an open mind and try to shift your thinking. It’s a skill to be able to search like this and it has the capacity to greatly enrich your life! That statement may seem like an exaggeration, but once you start thinking deeper into what you’re searching for and how to find it, your reliance upon others and caring about Google making search results more relevant to the everyman query will decrease tremendously.
A prime example is the main one I used for this article. I would wager that there’s not a single curriculum I can’t access — in part or in whole — from educational establishments world-wide. If I want to learn about computer programming without signing up for classes, I can. If I want to learn about world religions without signing up for classes, I can. Now, I’m not promoting thievery by any means, but if I have the power to find and access information without using any deceptive measures, then I’m going to make use of that power. In my humble opinion, that is the true power of Google — not its ability to try to read minds as it attempts to make its results more relevant using less search terms.
To close part one of this series, I’d like to remind you to exercise patience and experiment, experiment, experiment! You’re not hurting anyone by getting creative with your searches, so think big! Also, think outside of the box. While there are right and wrong ways of performing searches, sometimes it’s interesting to see what you’ll get when doing a search incorrectly. So get out there and get searching!
If you have any questions or need help formulating a query based on a set of terms/ideas, I’ll certainly try my best to help you out. Either way, stay tuned for the second part of the series where I will show you how to drill your results down even more than we have here in this post. I’ll also go into more ideas and scenarios where you can use your newly-acquired search ninja skills to truly enrich your life and help you begin to think “let me Google that” with things you may have never thought possible before. Stay tuned as it only gets better as you continue the journey of becoming a… (wait for it)… SEARCH NINJA!