Searching the web is an art and a science. Understanding how people search is essential to tuning your website so they can find you, and knowing how to search effectively and quickly will help you get the best results from the web. Anyone new to computers or the Internet has surely found themselves staring at their web browser and wondering, “how do I find what I’m looking for?” If you yourself are web-savvy, you’ve doubtless been the recipient of questions from friends and family asking what to type into that mysterious search box. My dear ol’ mom has commented hundreds of times, “with 139,242 search results, how can I find anything at all?” I have to admit, to the un-initiated, those kind of numbers must seem daunting!
Finding the answers we seek, and the search results we need, is made much easier when we know the right questions to ask. This has always been true – any wise old sage or tasty fortune cookie will tell you that knowing what you want is an absolute prerequisite to actually getting it. When discussing web searches, this almost seems a bit over-complicated. We know what we want! Or do we, really?
Consider finding a new store to shop for clothes. Spring is coming, and it’d be nice to sport the latest fashions, not to metion that you favorite white shirt was attacked in the laundry by your favorite red socks, becoming a ghastly shade of pink. Computers have come a long way since they crawled off the desk, bidding their slide-rule ancestors goodbye. But, they still aren’t very smart, and will throw in the towel if we simply ask, “Hey Google! Can you recommend a new place to pick up some clothes? Some place that’s hip, and not too expensive?”
So first, define your question. Clothing stores. Where, in your city? How about nearby townships? What kind of store – a department store? Trendy urban outfitter? Perhaps you’re looking for discount or clearance items, or maybe premium designer threads are your thing. Once you have a handle on this, you can begin to form your question. Boil it down to the most important aspects of what you’re looking for.
To best ask a computer for information, you have to think like a computer. Don’t worry if you’re a luddite, it’s easier than you may think! First, understand that search engines have a lot of information to sift through, and so they tend to ignore the boring and uninformative words. These include all the shorter connecting words, like: a, and, the, of, in, etc. So you can leave these out of your search query.
Second, computers don’t understand language very well, and so asking them questions with a full sentence generally doesn’t turn out well. (There are some exceptions, and it never hurts to try it, just don’t expect to hold a conversation!) The most important thing to keep in your mind is the concept of keywords – these are the most important, concise, and descriptive words you can use to describe what it is you want. (You do know what it is you want by now, right?) If you had to tell your friend what you wanted, using three to six words only, what would they be? You can see here that you have to pick these words well. Choose your search keywords by thinking of unique attributes of what you seek, that may not be found in combination elsewhere. Link concepts together, like trendy, clothing, store, Chicago, spring fashions. Search using these keywords.
Once you’ve tried your search, glance over the first page of results and see if you are getting things that are close to what you want, or at least make sense. If not, change your search terms around a little bit. Try synonyms, or similar ideas. Eliminate words that seem to take you in the wrong direction – oftentimes certain words are used in a completely different way on the Internet, and your searches will go astray. Remember that spelling counts, too, although some search engines are sly, and will suggest other search terms if you happen to spel wun rong. (They will also suggest misspellings, if that particular mangled version of the word is common!)
Some things are easier to find than others, but these days there is so much on the Internet that it’s getting easier to find useful information. Searching is an artform, and takes practice. These basic concepts will help you along your way to becoming a web sleuth! And of course, knowing how to search, and how other people search, will help you to optimize your own website so your mom can find it among those 139,242 results.
In the second article on this topic, I’ll go into some of the more advanced search engine features that will help take your web searching into the realms of mastery.