Google is the go-to destination when you need to find something on the web—the verb "to google" even made it into the dictionary. But while everyone's heard of the popular search engine, very few know how to make the most of it.
Behind the unassuming Google interface, you'll find a host of useful tricks to help you zero in on what exactly you want to find. Looking for an obscure recipe or rare photo? Read on to start using Google like an expert.
Include and exclude keywords
When you type a bunch of search terms into Google, it's smart enough to understand—more or less—what you want. However, the search engine sometimes provides results that match most of, but not all, of the words you typed. To be more specific, you can point out which keywords are the most important: Put a plus symbol (+) in front of words you want to force Google to include. What if the results you want get pushed off the page by similar, but irrelevant, articles? There's an easy fix: Just add a minus symbol (-) in front of keywords that you don't want to see.
Google has to match any word preceded by a plus, and exclude any word preceded by a minus. Keywords that lack a preceding symbol are considered important but not essential. For example, search for "+Chicago +coffee -starbucks" to make sure you see results for non-Starbucks coffee shops in Chicago. Running that search without the symbols would bring up a very different list of results. Search for "dolphins -miami -football," meanwhile, to look up the aquatic mammals without seeing any mention of the football team.
While we're talking about symbols, don't forget quotation marks. Put these around a specific phrase you want to find. For example, if you want to look up the Walt Whitman poem "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer," you don't want articles about astronomers with hearing problems. So put the title in quotation marks to ensure more specific results.
Search within websites
One of the most useful Google tricks to learn is the site-specific search: Just add "site:url" (replacing the "url" part with the relevant website) to the end of your search query to look on one particular site.
For example, let's say you want to find what Popular Science has written about frogs. Simply go to the Google homepage and search for "frogs site:popsci.com." The results will only include pages from the specified site, and Google will apply its usual weighting, so you'll see the most relevant hits (based on factors like how many other sites link to a page, its timeliness, and so on) first. When you need to find something on a website, then this trick often works better than a site's own built-in search option. Try combining it with the keyword manipulations we mentioned above to narrow down your results even further.
Google also lets you search within a top-level domain. Say you're trying to look up technical scientific information—you'll probably find more reliable results on a university or government website than you might see on a random blog. So add "site:.edu" to your search query to limit results to university websites. Or if you want, say, NASA's take on space information, add "site:.gov."
Limit the time period
Google has been indexing the web for a long time now. While that's great for pulling up stuff from decades past, it also makes it more difficult for searchers to cut through the noise to find the exact site or page that they're after. Searching within a specific time period can help with that.
After you've run a search on the main Google search engine, click Tools and then the Any time drop-down menu to limit the results to more recent hits. This tweak is helpful for focusing on very recent stories.
On the other hand, if you want to look for archived news that has since been replaced by more current stories, then you might want to specify a date range. Choose Custom range, and you get to specify a start and end date.
Google's search results mainly concentrate on webpages, but it also indexes publicly available files. You can look for them using a "filetype:" command at the end of your normal query.
So looking for "report filetype:pdf" will return PDFs with "report" in the title. Try "report filetype:xlsx" to do the same for Excel spreadsheets. This also lets you search for images, though Google already has a handy image search tool.
Remember, this will only work for publicly available documents and files uploaded to the web. You're not going to suddenly come across some secret government files...or at least we hope not.
Advance your search
These tricks are great for getting started, but if you really want to get specific, you should take advantage of Google's more specialized search options. On any Google search results page, click Settings from the toolbar at the top, and then choose Advanced search. The subsequent page will give you a host of extra ways to focus your searches, from looking at a given region to finding images you have the right to reuse.
Some of the operators, such as specific phrases, will be familiar by now. But the extra region and language options can be helpful. By default, Google prioritizes hits from the country or continent where you're currently located, so you should use these settings to get better results for the rest of the world.
The advanced search page is also worth visiting if you forget one of the tricks we've mentioned above, like searching on a certain site or excluding keywords—or doing both at the same time. Once you've typed in all your parameters, click Advanced Search to see what you can find.
Want to sift through the emails and files you've stored in Gmail or Google Drive? You don't have to visit those apps—Google will let you search through your personal accounts from the main search engine page. However, this will only work if whatever you're looking for is in a Google app and you're signed into your Google account. So don't worry: Your emails won't pop up when somebody else googles you from a strange computer.
For example, type "my flights" into the Google search box to see information on flights you've previously booked. "My trips" will reveal upcoming trips you're taking. (Side note: Google will pull this data from your Gmail account, so if you didn't receive a confirmation email, you won't see trip information.) You can look through your Google Photos too—try searching "my photos of..." with the name of one of your contacts.
Recently, Google has been making personal searches a more prominent feature. You can find a dedicated Personal tab at the top of the results page, alongside the usual News, Images, and Videos ones. It's a one-stop searching shop for all the stuff you've stored in Google's various services.