How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques

Daniel Russell stood in front of a crowd of investigative journalists in Boston last week and showed us this picture of a random skyscraper in an unknown city:

Google challenge by Daniel Russell

Russell posed a riddle:

What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?

Let that sink in. He wasn’t asking for a phone number for the skyscraper in the picture, which sounds hard enough. He wanted the phone number of the precise office where the photographer was standing when the picture was taken.

Nothing in that office was even in the photo. Yet in a few minutes, Russell, a research scientist at Google, revealed the answer by paying attention to small details and walking us through a series of smart Google searches.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for Google“Once you know these tricks, you can solve problems that look impossible,” Russell said.

There are plenty of Google search cheat sheets floating around. But it’s not often you get to hear advice directly from someone at Google who offers you his favorite search tools, methods and perspectives to help you find the impossible.

Here are some of my favorite tips shared by Russell at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Some of these techniques are powerful but obscure; others are well-known but not fully understood by everyone.

  • Most of what you know about Boolean is wrong.

    Don’t bother typing AND in your search queries – Google treats it like any other word.

    But OR in all caps actually works. OR is great for finding synonyms and boilerplate language. Typing “Smith denied” OR “Smith claimed” OR “Smith argued” will find more pertinent websites about the controversy involving Smith.

    Avoid using NOT if you want to exclude a search term. Instead, type a minus sign in front of the word. So if you’re visiting San Antonio but don’t want to visit the Alamo, type:

    “San Antonio” -Alamo

    That will search for the phrase “San Antonio” on web pages that don’t have the word “Alamo.” There’s no space between Alamo and the hyphen.

  • Part of the skill here is being fascinated about language. You’ve got to think about equivalent terms.”

  • Think about how somebody else would write about the topic.

    Search is all about someone else’s language. Think about synonyms and use OR operators. Google’s “related search” feature on the search page also offers suggestions.

    “Part of the skill here is being fascinated about language,” Russell said. “You’ve got to think about equivalent terms.”

  • Use language tools.

    Knowing which words to search for means understanding their meaning. Typing define [space] [search term] in Google search will offer dictionary definitions. “‘Define’ ‘space’ ‘word’ is your friend as a writer,” Russell said. “Trust me on this.”

    You even get a definition if you type define pwned and other lingo. “That means we have words that aren’t in the dictionary,” Russell said.

    What if you know descriptions but not the actual word? Find one of the many reverse dictionaries online. Type the descriptions you know and you’ll get the matching words.

  • Use quotes to search for phrases.

    Typing “San Antonio Spurs” will show you the websites with the phrase “San Antonio Spurs.” If you don’t use the quotes, Google will search for the terms “San,” “Antonio,” and “Spurs” individually and you might miss pages related to the basketball team.

  • Force Google to include search terms.

    Sometimes Google tries to be helpful and it uses the word it thinks you’re searching for — not the word you’re actually searching for. And sometimes a website in the search results does not include all your search terms.

    How do you fix this?

    Typing intext:[keyword] might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Russell’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website. So if you type:

    intext:”San Antonio” intext:Alamo

    It forces Google to show results with the phrase “San Antonio” and the word Alamo. You won’t get results that are missing either search term.

  • Minus does not equal plus.

    Russell didn’t talk much about this but it’s worth noting. Since putting a minus sign in front of a word removes it from a search, many people, including me, incorrectly assumed that adding a plus sign in front of the word forced Google to include it.

    Actually, that search operator simply stops Google from changing the word into a synonym or correcting the spelling. It’s still possible that Google will drop the word from some search results, so it’s different from intext:.

    (After Google+ was unveiled, Google dropped the plus sign operator and replaced it with double quotes. Typing “Alamo” is now the same as +Alamo.)

    If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches.”

    That’s not to say the plus sign — now double quotes — is not a useful search operator. But note how it’s different from intext: If you want to force Google to include an exact word or phrase in all your search results, use intext:
  • “Control F” is your friend.

    Use this keyboard shortcut to find a word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page for a specific word or phrase. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Russell said.

  • Limit the time frame.

    If you only want search results for web pages published in the past week, past month, or some other time frame, you can click on that option on the left-hand side of the search results page under “Show search tools.”

  • Search by region.

    If you only want web pages for a particular area, you can search by region on Google’s advanced search page.

  • Find relational search terms.

    What if you’re curious about search terms that are near each other on a website? [keyword] AROUND(n) [keyword] is incredibly handy for finding related terms such as “Jerry Brown” near “Tea Party.” (“n” is the number of words near the search terms.) Typing “Jerry Brown” AROUND(3) “Tea Party” will show you all the websites where the phrase “Jerry Brown” was mentioned within three words of “Tea Party.”

  • Google maps as a search tool.

    Let’s say you’re searching Google Maps for hotels in San Antonio for next year’s IRE conference and check out the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel:

    Google map view of the Marriott Hotel in San Antonio, Texas

    Click image for map view

    This screen shows the “hotel” search in Google maps. But what if you want to know what’s near the Marriott?

    In the Google Maps search bar, type an asterisk. The results will show you every single place Google knows about in that map view. So you can see nearby businesses, stores, and whatever else is around:

    Denny's restaurant on Google maps in San Antonio

    Click image for map view

    Now you know where to find — or avoid — the Denny’s across the street.

  • Restrict your search to a specific website.

    The search operator site:[url] restricts your search to that particular website. It’s one of the most useful searches out there. I used this when I worked on a story about racehorse accidents and wanted to search the Texas Racing Commission’s website for any mention of injuries. Typing injuries site:txrc.state.tx.us led me to a little-known state database of accidents that showed how, in a five-year period, 300 horses had died on Texas racetracks.

  • Find a particular type of file.

    Typing filetype:[extension] is useful for limiting your search to particular types of files, such as Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, pdf’s, Word documents and just about any other file type you can imagine. Typing filetype:xls in a search will show only spreadsheets. It’s incredibly useful for finding public data. Check this list for file extensions you can search for.

  • Think like a reporter.

    When Russell teaches his students search skills, he tells them: “Think like a reporter.” What do you know, and how can that information help you find what you need to know?

    A big part of a reporter’s job is knowing where to find information. Which state agency regulates the issue you’re interested in? How might that information be documented? Who would know more about the issue?

    “You have to have a concept about what’s possible,” Russell said.

  • Time travel.

    Typing cache:[url] or clicking on the cache function in the search results will show you an older version of the website. Handy if the site owner takes something down or edits it because of a brewing controversy.

  • Mashup search.

    Computer-savvy journalists create interactive maps of public data. Searching for the term “mashup” and the issue you’re interested in will show you what’s already been published and might give you some good ideas.

  • This is a very good thing because you can now follow a topical area.”

  • Stay up to date.

    All these search terms work with Google Alerts. Google will email you whenever it crawls new websites containing terms you’re interested in.

    “This is a very good thing because you can now follow a topical area,” Russell said.

  • Search your own browsing history.

    Visit Google.com/history to search your past searches. Handy if you vaguely remember a search but forgot the details.

  • See what the world is searching for.

    Google Insights shows queries people are doing over time and how they compare.

  • Google hot trends.

    Let’s you view Google’s rising search trends by day.

  • Beyond YouTube.

    As popular as it is, YouTube is a subset of all the video services indexed by Google. Searching video.google.com searches every service, not just YouTube.

  • Google Public Data Explorer.

    Search and analyze public data in interactive charts that you can share online:

  • Try a diagram search.

    If you’re looking for a part of a machine or gadget but don’t know the name of it, try including the term “diagram” in your search. A search for “bicycle diagram” gives you tons of images with parts:

    Bicycle diagram

  • Combine these methods to make awesome sauce.

    You can use all these search operators together. So let’s say you’re curious about what kind of forms and documents the city of San Antonio has posted online. You can type:

    site:sanantonio.gov filetype:doc

    This is a cool way to find interesting story ideas.

  • Epic image search.

    Sometimes, you don’t even need to type words to search Google. Upload a picture of an object, place or other type of photograph you want to learn more about, and Google can search for similar images. Google might find a match and it offers relevant search terms for that image. This video walks you though it:

  • Use what you’ve got.

    So how exactly did Russell figure out the riddle of the office phone number?

    The first step is using the available information in the picture, as scant as it might be. Scrutinize the image and see if you can pinpoint any telling details. There might be a clue.

    Still stuck? Check out the answer at Russell’s blog, where he regularly quizzes people about riddles that aren’t so impossible after all.

    Updates: More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

    New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell


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