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Selecting Search Terms

The search terms you enter and the order in which you enter them affect both the pages that appear in your search results and the order in which they appear. In the examples below, click on the similar ways of specifying various searches and note how the results differ.

For simplicity sake, in this course we will use square brackets to denote Google's search box. For example, to search for a cheap hotel in Philadelphia, we'll put the words "cheap," "hotel," and "Philadelphia" in square brackets, [ cheap hotel Philadelphia ] to indicate you should type those three words in Google's search box. You should not type the brackets, although Google will ignore them if you do type them.

Furthermore, in the examples that follow, clicking on [ cheap Philadelphia hotel ] returns the Google results page for a search on those three words.

(Did you notice how a change in the word order (cheap hotel Philadelphia vs. cheap Philadelphia hotel) changed what Google found? Google places more emphasis on the words at the beginning of your search query and less on those at the end.)

Use words likely to appear on the pages you want.

Google follows your instructions exactly. It will search for exactly the words you specify in your search. Therefore you should avoid using words that you might associate with your topic, but which you wouldn't expect to find on the designated page(s). For example, queries that include "articles about," "discussion of," "documentation on," and "pages about" are likely to return fewer results since information on the web is rarely labeled with such terms.

USE [ lasik eye surgery ]
NOT [ documentation on lasik eye surgery ]

USE [ volunteer opportunities ]
NOT [ listing of volunteer opportunities ]

Suppose you want to know how old someone is, such as Barbara Bush (the former first lady of the US). Pages with "birthday" or "age" might be more than a year old. Searching for pages that include "Barbara Busha" and "born" are likely to include either "Barbara Bush born" or "Barbara Busha was born" followed by her birth date. You can figure out her age from knowing when she was born.

USE [ Barbara Bush born ]
NOT [ Barbara Bush birthday ] or [ Barbara Bush age ]

When Google detects very common words such as where, do, I, for, and a, known as stop words, it ignores them so it can return the relevant results faster. If you're looking for pages that include a stop word, e.g., "how the west was won," you will learn how to force Google to search for a complete phrase or a specific word in the section Crafting Your Query.

If you're not sure what word or phrase is likely to appear on pages you want. consider running a word or phrase popularity contest with GoogleFight, which you can find at This third-party application reports which of two terms or phrases Google estimates to be more prevalent on the web (actually on more web pages than Google has included in its index).

Suppose you were trying to decide whether to use "screen shot" or "screenshot" in your query. You could run a GoogleFight using the two terms to find out which is more commonly used. Try it here.

Be specific: Use more query terms to narrow your results.

If your query is too vague, it's unlikely to return relevant results. Consider, for example, the query [ java ]. What do you suppose Google includes in the first page of results? An island in Indonesia, a beverage consisting of an infusion of ground coffee beans or a computer network-oriented platform-independent programming language developed by Sun Microsystems?

USE [ Java Indonesia ], [ java coffee ], or [ java programming language ]
NOT [ java ]

How can you come up with more specific search terms? Consider answers to the questions, who?, what?, where?, when?, why?, and how?

When you search for [ Tom Watson ], on the first page of results you get references to a member of Parliament, a golfer, an IBM executive, and a Populist Party candidate for President in 1900 and 1904. If you're searching for something that could return many different types of results, you should add a term that distinguishes among them. This way you'll get only results about the specific Tom Watson you're interested in.

USE [ Tom Watson MP ], [ Tom Watson golf ], or [ Tom Watson IBM ]
NOT [ Tom Watson ]

USE [ Betty Ford Center drug addiction ]
NOT [ Ford Center ]

Be brief.

Note: Google limits queries to 10 words.

For best results, use a few precise words. For example, a program on quitting smoking is more likely to include the terms "quit smoking program" than the words "program on quitting tobacco cigarette smoking addiction."

USE [ quit smoking program ]
NOT [ program on quitting tobacco cigarette smoking addiction ]

You don't have to correct your spelling.

There's a good chance that Google will recognize your mistakes and suggest an alternative more common spelling, usually faster than you can look up the term in an online dictionary. When you enter a misspelled word as in [ Anna Kornikova tennis ], Google responds: Did you mean: Anna Kournikova tennis

Note: Before clicking on Google's suggested spelling, consider whether it's what you want. Spelling checker, like people, make mistakes. For more information on Google's spelling correction system, see the section Spelling Corrections.

For more information on the basics of Google search, visit


These problems give you practice in selecting search terms. For hints and answers to selected problems, see the Solutions page in the Appendix.

  1. Find a page with "Google doodle."

  2. Find the Dilbert cartoon that Scott Adams developed by using Google's logo.

  3. What's Google's history?

  4. Find contact information for your representative(s), e.g., senator, congresswoman (or congressman), or member of Parliament.

  5. How long did it take the first person to cross the United States by car and in what year was it first done?

  6. In the summer of 1997, an email message was widely circulated featuring the text of a "commencement speech" purportedly given by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT. The imaginary speech began "Wear sunscreen." What's the story behind this email hoax? What did this funny well-written fantasy "commencement speech" say?

  7. Learn about the recommended tours of the Hearst Castle.

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