When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.
Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.
I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.
You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”
“You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”
I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.
These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.
In Google Maps, you can type a term such as “restaurant” or “golf course” and those specific places will appear in your map.
But what if you want to see every place Google knows about in the map, not just one particular type of place?
In the search bar, type an asterisk and hit enter. That’s it. Google will show you every business and significant named place it knows about.
If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.
When the West Fertilizer facility exploded with the force of a small earthquake and devastated the town of West, Texas, the wildcard search in Google Maps offered a quick way to check what kind of buildings were located near the site. You can see in this Google map that two schools and the West Rest Haven nursing home are just blocks away from Adair Grain — point “D” on the map — where the fertilizer site exploded.
Create custom Google search engines
Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search page. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.
This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs. So when breaking news hits, such as the torrential rains that drenched the region recently, you can type the relevant key words, such as flood OR flooding OR floods, and quickly see how news organizations are covering the story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.
Upload a picture to search for it
Sometimes, you don’t even need to type words to search Google. Upload a picture of a person, place or thing, and Google can search for similar images. Google might find a match and it offers relevant search terms for that image.
Dan said he was showing a photographer friend how the search worked, and plugged one of his picturesque images into the search box. They were both surprised to discover that the picture was being used without permission on other websites — by wedding photographers who should have known better.
This method of finding pictures on the Internet has become a key way to avoid getting catfished, which I quickly learned is a thing when Deadspin revealed that the girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was not actually his friend, or even a girl. She didn’t exist. Te’o had never met her, and her photographs were actually of a 22-year-old California woman who wasn’t part of the bizarre hoax.
Deadspin’s scoop noted that it’s possible to foil the reverse-image search by slightly altering a picture. But it’s still an amazingly useful tool. If you’re searching a popular image and get swamped by the results, you can type contextual terms in the search box to help give Google a nudge in the right direction and narrow the results.
Force Google to search exact words
Last year Dan showed us how the search operator intext: works and I now use it all the time.
Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for — not the words you’re actually searching for. And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.
That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?
Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.
When the San Antonio Independent School District announced it had chosen a finalist for superintendent, it turned out the job candidate carried some baggage. As I was researching Manuel Isquierdo’s background, Google annoyingly suggested changes to the word “Isquierdo,” when in fact that was the exact word I wanted to use. And I wanted to make sure that word was in all the websites in my search results. So I used intext:Isquierdo in my searches to force Google to include that name.
This works for phrases — type double quotes around the words you want Google to look for in the exact order they appear. And you can use intext: multiple times in the same search. Typing intext:”Manuel Isquierdo” intext:”grand jury” forces Google to include those exact phrases in all the websites in the results.
You can also type allintext: at the beginning of your query to apply the command to all words and phrases. But you can’t combine it with other search operators.
I noticed that on rare occasions when I use intext:, the keyword is still missing on a page. In such cases, the website has been updated since Google last crawled it.
In addition to intext:, Google offers a confusingly similar feature called “verbatim” search. You can type double quotes around a word and Google will not change it. You can also click on a drop down menu under search tools and select “verbatim.”
What’s the different between verbatim and intext: searches? With verbatim, it’s still possible Google will remove those words from the pages that show up in your search results in an effort to be helpful. So I prefer intext:.
Use boilerplate language
Many people know that Google ignores the word AND as a search operator. But typing OR in all caps actually works.
OR is great for finding synonyms and boilerplate language. Dan said typing “Smith denied” OR “Smith claimed” OR “Smith argued” will find more pertinent websites about the controversy involving Smith.
This technique can help you perform background checks. Start thinking of terms such as indictment OR indicted OR charged OR lawsuit or any other type of term you’d want to know about in relation to the person or thing you’re checking out.
When I was working on the Manuel Isquierdo story, I was trying to track down hardcopies of tax liens the IRS filed against him to recover $150,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties. My query “Manuel Isquierdo” lien OR liens led to an interesting report by a private investigator in California.
Control F saves you time
The fact that many people don’t know they can easily search for words on web pages is a national tragedy. Even those who know about the “find” function often take the long way by using the mouse to click on the menu option, which drives me nuts.
For the love of all that is holy in this world, hit “Control F” on a PC or “Command F” on a Mac and type the words you want to find on the page.
“It improves your search speed by 12 percent,” Dan said.
Learn the structure of websites
Type site:[domain] [keywords] if you’re looking for a specific topic on a particular website. This is a time-saver if you know what you’re looking for, especially if a website doesn’t offer its own search box.
I used this method several years ago when I worked on a story about racehorse accidents. I visited the Texas Racing Commission’s website and typed injuries site:txrc.state.tx.us. It led me to an annual report that had some statistics, which led me to a little-known state database of horse-racing accidents that showed how, in a five-year period, 300 horses had died on Texas racetracks.
The site: operator also works on directories and sub-domains. So if you know how a website is structured, you can focus on a specific area of interest. For example, San Antonio’s Development Services Department approves new real estate projects. Its web address is sanantonio.gov/dsd. This is the city department that dealt with the collapse of the towering retaining wall at the Rivermist subdivision in San Antonio developed by Centex Homes. So typing site:sanantonio.gov/dsd “retaining wall” shows you a bunch of results showing how the department handled the disaster.
The search operator inurl: is another way to use a website’s structure in your search strategy. On the surface, inurl: and intitle: appear to serve similar roles — both methods help you find websites that focus on a particular term. Typing inurl:[keyword] will show you results with that word in the url of the web page. Typing intitle:[keyword] will show you results with that word in the title of the web page written by the site’s author.
But since the url’s of web pages often reflect the title of the page, what’s the difference?
Using inurl: might help you find more relevant websites because Google changes the titles of web pages in search results in an effort to be helpful. So the url of the web page could be a more accurate reflection of what the author is actually focusing on. I asked Dan about this after his panel and he said he usually uses inurl:.
Find specific files
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 [keywords] in a search, for example, will show spreadsheets that pertain to that issue, which is nice for finding public data. Typing filetype:kml [keywords] shows you relevant Google mapping files. Check this list for file extensions you can search.
Finding more public data and statistics
Google’s data table explorer page offers another way to find public data. Type some keywords and Google will search publicly available Fusion Tables or tables posted on web pages. You can then import that data into your own Fusion Table.
Click on that link and Google walks you through the steps to import the data table on the page into your Fusion Tables account:
Now you can do your own analysis and create your own visualizations.
Google also offers a public data directory with interactive visualizations. When I was working on some stories about delays in the federal stimulus program in San Antonio, the public data directory offered a quick way to compare unemployment rates. Google shows you the source of the information so you can verify it.
Knowing what you don’t know
One of the themes in Dan’s talk was the importance of knowing the right keywords. That means a successful search isn’t so much about typing the words you know, it’s about typing the words that would likely be used by the writer of the information you’re seeking.
“It’s not about your language,” Dan said. “It’s about someone else’s.”
So be on the lookout for industry terms or phrases you don’t recognize. Don’t gloss over them; find out what those words mean. Think about synonyms. Typing define:[keyword or phrase] in Google can quickly give you a definition of a word or phrase. Dan said it’s a powerful tool that lets you learn words that aren’t even in the dictionary.
If you know how to describe something but don’t know the exact word for it, reverse dictionaries can help. Type descriptions of the mystery word, and the reverse dictionary shows you results that match that definition. Here’s a riddle from Dan’s presentation:
Someone told me that in the mid-1800’s, people often would carry around a special kind of notebook. They would use the notebook to write quotations that they heard, or copy passages from books they’d read. The notebook was an important part of their education, and it had a particular name.
“Reverse dictionary is your friend as a writer,” Dan said.
Exclude words and dates
When you don’t want to see a particular word or phrase in your search results, type the minus sign in front of it with no space. One way this is useful is if you’re covering breaking news and want to weed out all the media reports in an effort to see what’s been written before the big thing happened.
After the West Fertilizer facility exploded, I wanted to see if the company had a website and read what others had to say about the company before the tragic accident. But breaking news stories and blog posts were flooding my search results. Typing “West Fertilizer” -explosion helped cut through the noise.
You can also tell Google to search for older results by filtering by date: Type a query, hit return, and click on “search tools.” The date filter is to the left:
Know your way around
When you want to find words or phrases near each other, the AROUND operator can help. I mostly use this when Googling people and need to make sure I find relevant web sites about them, even if they use their middle name or initial, or the page cites their last name first, then their first name.
So typing Manuel AROUND(2) Isquierdo shows all pages that have the name “Manuel” within two words of “Isquierdo.” The results show some pages with Isquierdo’s middle initial. You can use any number you want — typing “5” would show you everything within five words.
Stay up to date
All these search terms work with Google Alerts, your own personal Web-monitoring service. 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 at his presentation last year.
Combine 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. And you want to see references to the term “injuries.” Type site:sanantonio.gov filetype:doc injuries.
This is a cool way to find interesting story ideas.
It’s easy to forget these tricks and strategies. And Google is constantly working on new products. To retain these skills, you have to keep in practice. This is one reason why journalism is so rewarding — and challenging.
“Your job of learning will never, ever stop,” Dan said.