Search Engine Best Practices

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on search engines, and I have come up with a list of personal best practices in my attempts to be efficient at finding information.  While I don’t think most business research projects projects should start with a search engine, being efficient at filtering through all the information out there is still important.These tips are not exactly rocket science, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on how to search as effectively as possible:

  • Try to scan the results pages quickly and use tabs to open all the relevant-looking links.  Avoid going to results one at a time because the constant context-switching between the results pages and the destination pages will kill your train of thought.
  • As you go through the tabs, quickly close the ones that turn out to be unrelated or redundant.  Bookmark the ones worth reviewing in more detail so that you have an easy reference if you need to return to those pages.
  • Iterate on your search terms.  Once you find company-specific or domain-specific terms, include those to get more targeted results.
    • For example, many information technology related sources use the term ICT (information and communication technologies) instead – when that term pops up, jot it down or start a separate search using it to catch additional sources.
    • Also consider including terms like top company executives, products, or divisions.
    • If results aren’t what you wanted, try changing the word order of your search, as this will generate different results.
  • Make liberal use of the not operator (the minus sign on most search engines).
    • If you find many e-commerce sites coming up, adding -“add to cart” to your search can knock a lot of them out.
    • Also keep a file with domain names that you find commonly clogging up your results and exclude them from the results.
  • On Google in particular, check out the various types of searches under the options that show up on the search results pages.  These include blog search, forum search, and book search.  While these types of sources are included in a general search, you could miss relevant results if they do not show up on the first couple of pages of results.
    • Customizing your search options in general is very useful.  I usually set the options to show 30-50 results per page rather than 10, to avoid having to flip through several pages of results.
  • I don’t want to turn this post into yet another search engine operator guide, but I did come across a couple recently that I was unaware of:
    • In Google, the tilde (~) searches for synonyms of the term, and the asterisk is used as a wildcard (e.g., “Banana Republic * marketing” would potentially match both “Banana Republic social marketing” and “Banana Republic search engine marketing”)
    • Yahoo has a region operator – for example, “region:northamerica” or “region:europe”.  However, the usefulness is a bit limited because the operator only works based on country of domain extensions (.com would be part of North America, would be part of Europe, etc.).

More generally, plan your research process using a framework before you start.  I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post, but it helps to know ahead of time what points you want to hit.  For instance, if you’re doing general background research on a company, you might want to include a brief overview of financials, executives, marketing strategy, recent initiatives, and so on.  Each of these topics would warrant a few specific searches.  In contrast, a sales force benchmarking project would be much more focused on headcount, locations, the breakdown of positions and responsibilities, and marketing programs.  Spending much time researching financials (with the exception of SG&A spend), for instance, might not be the best use of time for that project.  If you’re careful, you can map out a strategy that will cover the right bases effectively and help you prioritize different topics.

I hope a couple of those tips are helpful.  What processes or search strategies do you use for making the most out of search engines?

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  • Mike Lee

    Here's another tip: enable your search history on Google. This can help if you've been making a lot of searches and want to return to a previous item you've forgotten. Or when your browser decides to randomly crash on you. ;)

  • Greg4

    Good point. I'm also a big fan of Google's starred search results, whichnow show up at the top of your results if they match the search. I've neverbeen a huge fan of personalized search in general, though. There's no wayto say, “this time I want different results.” I'm always concerned aboutmissing good data.

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