Under the Desktop: Ogling Google and Other Creative Search Strategies
"We want information," demands Number Two at the top of each episode of The Prisoner, a cult 1960s television show. Our hero's ritual response is always: "You won't get it." Yet the rise of Internet search engines has turned that paradigm on its head, often to the consternation of users seeking wisdom from its countless pages.
Instead of a nice, small digestible piece of information, Internet users are swamped by thousands, or many tens of thousands, of responses to seemingly simple information searches. Most of the links can prove irrelevant to the question you really wanted to ask, while others can be misleading or simply wrong.
Content creators need quality information to effectively run their businesses. We increasingly use search engines to find product specifications, help pages, and tips for improving performance with both hardware and software.
In addition, content creators may search for images and source material for designs, as well as "googling" clients and checking out their branding on the Web.
Search and Ye Shall Find?
So, how can we find high-quality information without spending a day or two in the process?
That's a tough question, since search engines can be very temperamental. After all, none of us wants to spend a lot of time getting a degree in information science just to make better use of search engines -- in a previous career, I worked in a library, so I've taken an interest in their capabilities (and shortcomings).
Search engines only touch a fraction of Internet resources. Worse, each engine has its own rules for determining the order that it ranks the results of a search. As we've all discovered at times, not all information available to a search engine is good or correct, and search engines have no way of telling what is valid data.
All of these issues proved to be a considerable mystery to the content creators I quizzed at the Seybold San Francisco conference earlier this fall. To most, the beginning and end of a search was typing in a couple of words and receiving the resulting entries. There's more to it than that.
So, here's the first in a series of columns about improving your productivity with search engines and finding the best information available on the web.
This first tip will appear obvious on the surface: The best way to quickly find useful information is to confine your search to a site that has your answer.
If you're like most persons, however, you start searching with a general engine. For example, suppose you want to find information about a particular graphics tool or effect. Would you get better results from searching a general search like Google or from creativepro's search engine?
My guess is that your initial impulse is to perform the wider search with the general engine, even though every piece of content at creativepro is relevant to the search. In addition, creativepro offers a site search engine tailored to its content, which makes searching even more focused.
"This is excellent advice for someone who's familiar with a subject area and the online resources that offer information concerning it," agreed Chris Sherman, the associate editor of Search Engine Watch, a site devoted to searching technology. "This is exactly the strategy used by reference librarians, who are very familiar with the contents of their ready reference shelves, and will pull a specific volume in response to a particular question."
Recognize that most questions are complex, so the strategy is to retrieve some useful answers, not all potential responses. Finding a few good articles is fast and efficient but not thorough. If necessary, the few correct responses can inform any future searches if required.
Sherman also recommended a search site that's different from a general search engine: Teoma. This site "offers 'resources' as part of search results -- these are essentially link-rich pages (often directories or pathfinders) which can lead people to those subject-specific gold-mines."
Method to the Madness
Let's try both methods and see the results. I chose a practical subject for the test: Creating drop shadows in Adobe InDesign.
A simple Google search on the three words "drop shadow InDesign" presented me with a list of 1,190 entries and claimed to take 0.37 seconds (this is the time Google's servers take to perform the search, not the time it takes for the result to be sent to you and displayed on your screen).
The result of the first 10 entries is typical. The first is a link to A Lowly Apprentice Productions' excellent Shadowcaster plug-in for InDesign. The second is to a recent creativepro story. So far so good.
With the third entry, things get dicey: an article in Turkish on InDesign 2.0. There follows a number of news stories about InDesign, most of them a few years old; a number of dubious tutorials; a posting from a Czech message board (in Czech); and so on and on.
Now let's try creativepro's built-in search engine with the same criteria. The difference is quickly apparent.
The results are divided into a handful of categories that let the viewer quickly identify the type of content in the articles: companies, directories, feature stories, hardware products, news, reviews, software products and miscellaneous. Some of these categories are our in-site "homes" for products and companies, while others are articles like this one (a feature story). Each story on the site is tagged with one of these classifications.
These categories make it easy to ignore large numbers of irrelevant results. Searching for information is as much rejecting entries as it is discovering articles.
For example, the Hardware Products category is really out of the scope for our search, still the words (or similar words) contained in the articles triggered creativepro's search engine. In the uncategorized Google list we might be tempted to click the link -- wasting our time.
Still, there are a lot of results in the Features and Reviews categories, 273 and 130 entries, respectively. That's more entries than I would expect, and an eyeball of the list shows that many entries are irrelevant. That's because the search engine is using the broader, default search (more on that in a moment). I opened up a page with all the entries in the Features category and was still able to quickly find several articles of interest scrolling down the page.
But is there a way to easily improve the initial search at creativepro and other search engines?
The Straight and Narrow
The easiest way to improve the results is to employ at least one or two of the "advanced" settings offered by all search engines. These settings vary by each engine and site.
The first optimization is to always specify some criteria for your search terms. Depending on the handling of the words, you can expand or contract your search.
For example, the advanced settings for creativepro's search engine are dubbed Search Options and its link can be found on the search results page. You might want to bookmark it, thus saving a click or two.
The options include check boxes for each of the categories previously described, as well as a set of four radio buttons for handling the search terms: any word, all words, phrase, and Boolean.
The "any word" button is the default and expands the search to include articles with any of the search terms. The "all words" button is the quickest way to limit the search -- it only picks pages that contain all of the words. And "boolean" parses the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT, which you must type in yourself.
Many search engines can have a bit of trouble with phrases because of the indexing scheme for pages. And phrase searches often take longer than the other searches. Still, creativepro's engine does a decent job.
So can a couple of clicks improve our search for InDesign drop shadows at creativepro?
First, I checked the categories I knew that I wanted -- really I just left the hardware products and companies boxes unchecked. Then I clicked on the All Words radio button.
What a difference!
Instead of hundreds of articles, there's now a manageable list of 11 entries. Of the three features, the top listing is for the recent how-to article as well as a couple of reviews for ALAP's Shadowcaster plug-in and Sandee Cohen's overviewof InDesign 2.0.
This same trick works on Google or almost all general search engines.
Google's advanced settings are really divided into two groups: Global Preferences and Advanced Search. The Global Settings let you narrow results by language and the number of returns presented on a page. Of course, asking for English language returns is an obvious benefit, unless your second and third language skills are top notch. These global setting are maintained by a cookie, so if you use a cookie cleaning utility, you will wipe out the benefit (or need to re-enter them frequently).
Google's advanced search presents a long list of choices that determine the handling of terms and where the engine will search for results. It can be confusing.
Like creativepro, Google offers four modifiers for search terms: with all of the words, with the exact phrase, with at least one of the words, and without the words. These are very self-explanatory, but unlike creativepro, they are fields instead of radio buttons, which let you use different modifiers simultaneously in a very complex search. Again, the most practical and simple modifier is "all of the words."
Increasing the number of returns presented is a significant help on its own when performing a search. I usually pick 50 or 100 responses when searching.
Google defaults to 10 entries, a number that can be quickly displayed on the screen. When you increase the number to 30, 50 or 100, it takes longer for the search engine to build the page dynamically and then send that larger page to your browser.
At the same time, the evaluation of entries (both rejecting and accepting) is performed by your brain and eyes, not the computer. It's easier to scan and scroll down a longer list than it is to keep clicking through smaller batches of entries. And often you want to go back to an earlier entry, which is a pain if it's one or two pages back.
In addition, the longer list provides more context, letting you better evaluate the effectiveness of the search itself. The long list lets you know sooner that you're getting nowhere -- a familiar feeling I'm sure to all of us.
As the Mezeritzer Rabbi once said: "Thought is better than words, because it guides them." Same difference when entering the terms to a search engine.
Read more by David Morgenstern.