Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

What You Should Know About Web Searches

Doing a search in Google or Yahoo seems as easy as falling off a log. You just type in a word, and almost instantly you get a page of links to Web sites that bear some relevance to that search term.

But too often your search results aren’t exactly what you’d like. Irrelevant links can clutter the page, especially when your search term is ambiguous. If you type in “chips,” the search engine has no way of knowing whether you mean computer chips, potato chips or chocolate chips. In fact, when I tried searching Google for that term a few days ago, the top result was a reference to the old “CHiPs” TV show.

A few simple tips and tricks can help you get much more out of a Web search without becoming a professional researcher. Some are better techniques for general searches, others are simple ways to do more-targeted searches, which can often yield answers, rather than merely links. For instance, most people don’t know that Google and Yahoo (the biggest, most-popular search engines) can perform math calculations and currency conversions, look up addresses based on phone numbers, and more.

The easiest way to get better search results is to use two or three words, every time, instead of just one. Search engines do much better when they have a little context to help narrow the results. If you’re thinking of going golfing in Scotland in the summer, a search on “Scotland” is a waste of electrons. But using three words — “Scotland,” “golf” and “summer” — is much more on target and takes only a few seconds more. Similarly, typing in “chocolate chips” or “computer chips” yields a results list on which that old “CHiPs” TV show is nowhere to be found. (You don’t have to type the word “and” between your search terms, because Google always assumes it’s there.)

Another great tip is to surround your search terms with quotation marks if you’re looking for an exact name or phrase — say a song title made up of common words. When Google or Yahoo (or most other search sites) see words in quotes, they interpret the words as an exact phrase and look only for instances where the words appear in their entirety, in the order you entered them.

Combining these techniques is even better. If you’re looking for lyrics to the Bob Dylan song “I Want You,” the best thing to do is enter the title in quotes, followed by the words “Dylan” and “lyrics” not in quotes.

You can also sharpen searches in Google by instructing the search engine to exclude certain topic areas that might clutter the results. This is done by following your search term with a space, then a minus sign followed by the topic you want to exclude. For instance, my search for “chips” would have excluded its very top listing, for the old TV show, if I had typed “chips -TV.”

Or, you can focus your Google search on a certain topic area by using the “+” sign. A search for “Washington +mountain” is very different from a general search on “Washington.” (You’ll get narrow info on mountains in the state, rather than links ranging from the University of Washington to the Washington, D.C., transit authority.)

Other search-sharpening methods can be found on the Advanced Search pages of both Google and Yahoo. These are essentially forms you fill out that let you customize your search in numerous ways.

Both Google and Yahoo also are packed with hidden search tricks that make getting information faster. They aren’t foolproof, but they will frequently turn up an answer right on the results page, without requiring you to click on a link.

Here are some examples:

In both search engines, typing in a stock symbol gets you the company name, latest price and a price chart, right at the top of the results page.

Typing in a U.S. street address in Google gets you a link to a map of the location. Yahoo goes one step better — it actually shows the map on the results page.

Entering a U.S. land-line phone number in Google or Yahoo gives you the name and address of the person to whom it belongs.

Current weather conditions for U.S. cities can be displayed in Yahoo by typing the city name followed by the word “weather.” In Google, you type the word “weather” first, followed by the city name.

In Yahoo, if you type in the name of a sports team and the word “scores,” you will get the current score of a game in which the team is involved.

In Google, you can type in certain fact-based questions, like “population of Boston” or “birthplace of Tom Brady” and you get the answer, not just a link to the answer.

If you type simple math problems, like 5×8.1999, into the search boxes of either search engine, the sites act like calculators, spitting back the result.

Both sites will also perform conversions of weights and measures, and currency conversions, right in the search box. In Google, you just type in questions like “37 centimeters in inches” or “7,000 yen in us dollars.” In Yahoo, you begin such questions with the word “convert,” as in “convert 7,000 yen to dollars.”

Both sites will let you type in certain kinds of numbers, like package-tracking numbers, to get immediate information. A vehicle ID number will get you links to basic information about the car and an offer to buy more detailed reports on the vehicle.

If you want to dig further into these hidden features, Google has a guide at: www.google.com/features.html. Yahoo has a similar guide at: tools.search.yahoo.com/shortcuts/.


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