Google is the go-to destination when you need to find something on the web—the verb “google” even made it into the dictionary. But while everyone’s heard of the popular search engine, 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? This guide will help you track it down.
1. 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. But the search engine sometimes provides results that may not quite match the words you typed. To get more specific results, you can indicate which keywords are the most important: Put a plus sign in front of words you want to force Google to include. There’s also an easy fix if the results you want get pushed off the page by similar, but irrelevant, articles: Just add a minus sign in front of keywords 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 significantly different list of results. You could also search for dolphins -Miami -football to look up aquatic mammals without seeing any mention of the football team.
While we’re talking about symbols, don’t forget quotation marks. Put these around any specific phrase you want to find. If you’ve had the song lyric “go out and buy a brand new pair of shoes” playing over and over in your head, you’ll need quotes around those words to find out it’s from Maggie M’Gill by The Doors. Without quotes, you’ll get an assortment of other results, mostly about, well, shoes.
2. Search within websites
One of the most useful Google tricks is the site-specific search. Just add site:url to the end of your search, replacing “url” with the website you want to focus on.
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 first (based on factors such as how many other sites link to a page and its timeliness). When you need to find something on a particular website, this trick often works better than that 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 NASA’s take on space information, add site:.gov.
3. Limit the time period
Google has been indexing the web for a long time now. Unfortunately, the way it organizes search results can make it more difficult for searchers to cut through the noise to find the exact site or page 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 more recent stories.
On the other hand, if you want to look for archived news that has since been replaced by more current stories, you might want to specify a date range. Choose Custom range, and plug in start and end dates.
4. Find files
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.
5. Advance your search
So far, we’ve covered the basics, 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 you’re currently in, so you can 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.