Posts Tagged ‘Google’

New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

Go back in time

One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

Gallery of Google Map Mashups

The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

Wildcards in Google Maps

Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

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.

For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

Force Google to search for certain words

By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

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.

If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

Customized site searches

Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. 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 to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

Control F is your friend

Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

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

Monday, July 1st, 2013
Daniel Russell, research master at Google

Daniel Russell, research master at Google

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.”

Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

“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.

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Become a Google power searcher: Google is now offering free search lessons online

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Google power search lessonsWow, a lot of people are very, very eager to learn how to search the web more effectively. My post about Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques has generated a ton of traffic and great reactions. And today we learn that Google is going to start offering lessons to people to become power searchers.

Course details:

Power Searching with Google is a free online, community-based course showcasing search techniques and how to use them to solve real, everyday problems. It features:

  • Six 50-minute classes.
  • Interactive activities to practice new skills.
  • Opportunities to connect with others using Google Groups, Google+, and Hangouts on Air.
  • Upon passing the post-course assessment, a printable Certificate of Completion will be emailed to you.
  • Guess what I just signed up for?

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

    Thursday, June 21st, 2012

    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.
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    Check out every insurance claim filed against the city of San Antonio

    Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

    What happens when you’re hit by a city vehicle and file an insurance claim against San Antonio? Now you can find out by searching a database that tracks every claim filed against the city in the past decade.

    I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.

    For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type site:sanantonio.gov, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.

    You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”

    Advanced Google search results for the city of San Antonio

    One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.

    Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.

    But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.

    No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.


    Remembering the Alamo — and the media’s role in its fate

    Monday, September 26th, 2011

    Reading Scott Huddleston’s latest update about the turmoil at the Alamo, I wondered how many people remember the roots of the problem and why the state of Texas got involved in the first place. I doubt casual readers know Scott deserves some of the credit for the changes — or the blame, depending on how you view the Alamo’s caretakers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

    Scott Huddleston, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News

    Huddleston

    Newspapers are very good at producing something we all know: the news article. But Scott has been writing article after article about the problems at the Alamo. In fact, his first story was published two years ago. Like many newspapers, we haven’t done a very good job tying those stories together online to give readers the context and history of the controversy. We’re not answering a basic question about the issue: How did we get here?

    Scott got involved when a tipster told him that some members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas questioned the group’s leadership, and were forming their own splinter group to raise money for the Alamo.

    “I wanted the story to be more than ‘she said, she said,’” Scott told me. He began obtaining copies of contracts, emails, letters — anything that would shed light on what was going on at the Alamo. He found examples of questionable spending and a lack of focus. “Their biggest challenge was an inability to raise money for capital improvements,” Scott said.

    Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article

    Before his first article was published, Scott heard that the Dallas Morning News was working on its own story about troubles at the Alamo. Nothing gets a reporter’s heart pumping like another reporter chasing down the same story. He kept digging, partly because he didn’t want to get scooped by the Morning News.

    “I felt like I needed to be shaking the bushes just to keep up with them,” Scott said.

    After his first story about the rift was published, he filed an open records request with the state of Texas to find out how the Daughters were spending funds raised from license plates with Alamo themes. It turned out the Alamo only received a portion of the funds for upkeep.

    As more members of the Daughters publicly criticized the group’s leadership, some were expelled for speaking with the media, which led to more follow-up stories.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker.

    “They deserve a lot of credit,” Scott said of the outspoken critics. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, also took a keen interest in the issue and eventually wrote a bill that shifted more oversight of the Alamo to the state. The bill became law on Sept. 1 and significantly altered the role of the Daughters. The Texas General Land Office now oversees the Alamo, and will determine what role the Daughters will play as a contractor of the state. If a contract between the state and the Daughters isn’t signed by Jan. 1, control of the Alamo and the site’s equipment and property acquired with state funds must be transferred to the Land Office.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker. Most stories were about the turmoil within the organization and its track record at the Alamo. For long, seemingly never-ending sagas like this, newspapers really need to devise a way to help readers see the whole picture.

    Google’s Living Stories project tried to address this problem. It’s no longer supported but it inspired ProPublica to generate a similar design that gives readers a timeline and easy access to past posts about the topic they’re interested in.

    Dipity is also cool — I made this timeline compiling most of Scott’s stories.

    It’d be great if newspapers came up with something like Living Stories. Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article. We ought to figure out a way to systematically tell that story in a compelling way.


    Transform a dull spreadsheet into a compelling, interactive map for readers

    Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

    Check out this amazing presentation at Google I/O 2011 about Google Fusion Tables. The whole video is interesting. But for a journalist’s perspective on the importance of making data accessible to readers, at the 34:50 mark Simon Rogers of the Guardian’s Data Blog offers some interesting examples of how journalists can bring “data to life” with Fusion Tables, a free online tool.

    Google Refine: A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data

    Thursday, November 11th, 2010

    Google unveiled a free tool for journalists who are interested in analyzing public data. Google Refine is a “power tool for working with messy data.” It helps import information and clean up data-entry problems that lurk in many government databases.

    It’s open to everyone but it looks like Google created this tool with an eye on computer-assisted reporting. Google’s introductory video touts “Dollars for Docs,” a data-driven story by ProPublica that showed how drug companies paid doctors to promote their products.

    Analyzing databases is a niche skill in newsrooms. Not all reporters are comfortable doing queries in Microsoft Access or sifting through thousands of computerized records, but those skills can really empower reporters who are trying to make sense of a complicated world. Columbia Journalism Review published a great profile of Daniel Gilbert, a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier who came across a potential blockbuster of a story about unpaid royalties from mineral rights. But the issue was so complex he didn’t know how to unlock it.

    His editor persuaded the newspaper’s publisher to pay for Gilbert to attend a database boot camp at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gilbert learned skills that helped him piece together the gas royalties puzzle. The result: “Underfoot, out of reach“, a series of stories that showed how millions of dollars owed to landowners had been tied up in an “an opaque state-run escrow fund, where it has accumulated with scant oversight for nearly 20 years.” Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize.

    I haven’t played around with Google Refine yet, but I hope it encourages more journalists to take the plunge into computer-assisted reporting. There are some amazing, data-driven stories to be told out there. We just need more people to tell them.

    (h/t: Jennifer Peebles)

    Express-News joins Google Fast Flip

    Thursday, December 17th, 2009

    Google Fast Flip

    Google announced it added more news sources to its Fast Flip experiment, and the San Antonio Express-News is now flippable.

    Fast Flip is part of Google’s re-imagining of how readers find and consume news. Google takes snapshots of a publisher’s stories or blog posts. You can flip through pages like a magazine until something catches your eye, click on the page, and go to the actual Web site that interests you. Google also recently launched Living Stories, where a news article is treated not as the end, but as the beginning of a conversation with readers.

    For some reason, in Fast Flip the Express-News pages aren’t as visually appealing as other publications because Google isn’t capturing the pictures and graphics on our Web site. Fast Flip has also been criticized. Is this Google tossing the media industry a bone to appease publishers who blame Google for their financial woes?

    I think Google makes a strong case that newspaper Web sites are instantly recognizable as newspaper Web sites — they’re often clunky and difficult to navigate. Fast Flip and Living Stories are attempts to try something different.

    Maybe the day will come when a reader visits the home page of a news site and have the option to change the format. Like reading stories chronologically in a blog format? Click that option. Like the Fast Flip style or the Living Stories style? Click on those options. Everyone has a different preference … let them choose the one they like best.

    Living Stories: Google’s new method of packaging news online

    Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

    Paul Bradshaw wrote an interesting review of Living Stories, Google’s vision of how news should be read, shared and discussed online. Partnering with the New York Times and the Washington Post, Google has created an experiment that tries to move beyond the limitations of typical newspaper Web sites.