Finding something you need on the internet without the help of a good search strategy can be like driving from Boston to Los Angeles without a road map. You know the general direction, but there are too many options.
With billions of web pages in cyberspace, you could waste a lot of time — or worse, money, should you get scammed — scouring for what you’re after and, in many cases, coming up empty.
If you need some help with your searches, consider the following tips and tricks for getting the most out of Google, the most popular search engine on the planet, with about 86 percent market share. Many of these search suggestions will work for other solutions, too, like Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia and more, but they might require a little trial and error.
1. Be specific with what you want
If broadly worded searches, such as "car classifieds," yield too many results, try more specific words to find what you want: "used car classifieds," "Corvette classifieds," "Chicago used cars" or "used cars classifieds Chicago BMW." Choose your words carefully to narrow down your search and to save you time, regardless of the search engine you are using.
2. Use + and -
Use a minus (-) sign to exclude words you don’t want searched. Doing so filters out stuff you don’t need. For example, type "pets -cats" (without the quotation marks) if you’re looking to adopt an animal but have a feline allergy, or "best movies -horror" (without quote marks) to omit scary flicks from your search. Do not put a space between the minus sign and the word you want omitted.
You can also add a plus (+) sign to tell the search engine that specific words must be present in the search results and not to show you results that don't have it. For example, you can type "Christmas sweaters +trees" (without quote marks) if you want to see only Christmas sweaters with trees on them.
3. Put key phrases in quotes
Put phrases inside quotation marks to help the search engine find exactly what you’re looking for.
If you want to search a certain sequence of words together, use quotation marks on the outside of the phrase. An example is the 2021 movie Godzilla vs. Kong. Without quotations on each end of the title, a search engine would independently search for websites containing the words "Godzilla" and/or "Kong," in any order.
This works with most search engines, including Google, Yahoo! and Bing.
4. Use tabs to specify what you're looking for
Most of the popular search engines let you specify the kind of content you’re looking for.
After you do a web search for, say, "vaccination passports" (without quote marks), you can click tabs at the top of the screen marked for Websites, News, Images, Videos, Shopping, Maps and more. Google and some other search engines also have advanced photo search features.
Save yourself some time by clicking on one of these tabs to help narrow the options of what you’re looking to find.
5. Advanced search tips
Similar to the previous tip, the popular search engines let you be more exact about what you’re looking for with some additional search options.
You can click the Tools tab in Google at the top of the screen and search for blogs, textbooks or a specific language or country or time (past hour, day, month, year). After a Yahoo! search, click on the tab that says Anytime and select another time. In Bing, click on Date after a search and change it if you like.
6. Look for something on social media
If you’re looking for someone or something on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, many search engines can scour these social media platforms if you specify which one you’re interested in. Or you can simply go to websites like Twitter and do a search there.
For all major search engines, type in the word or phrase and then add @ in front of the platform you'd like to search. For example: "politics @twitter" or "beach photography @instagram" (without quote marks).
To search hashtags (#), put one in front of a word. For example: "#throwbackthursday" (without quote marks).
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7. Add website info into search
Similarly, if you want to look up something quickly and you know what website you want to visit, type it into the search window to go right to that page.
For example, if you’re partial to the recipe site AllRecipes.com, type the meal you want to make and the website to go directly there, such as typing "chicken wings allrecipes" (without quote marks) into Google. If you don’t add "allrecipes," you will find chicken wing recipes from many other cooking sites.
Another example is a movie review of Casablanca. If you just type in "Casablanca review," you may see reviews from tourists about the biggest city in Morocco. Rather than type "Casablanca movie review" (without quote marks), you can also include the popular IMDb (Internet Movie Database) website in your search; therefore, type in "Casablanca imdb" (without quote marks) to go right to what you need.
If that doesn’t work, Google says you can also add the word “site:” (with a colon at the end), followed by the URL, to find what you want at that exact site. For example, if you want to read articles about LeBron James only published at NBA.com, type in "LeBron James site:nba.com" (without quote marks).
8. Definitions, equations, language translations
If you’re looking for a definition of a word, most search engines will let you add the word “definition” right after the word and then take you to search results from various online dictionaries. For example, type "terabyte definition" (without quote marks). The answer: "A terabyte is a measure of computer storage capacity and is 2 to the 40th power or approximately a thousand billion bytes — that is, a thousand gigabytes."
You can also do math questions in a search engine by simply typing in the equation, like "20x38=" (without quote marks). You'll get the answer "760."
Or you can learn how to say “thank you” in Mandarin or any other language. Type "thank you mandarin" (without quote marks), and you’ll see it’s "xièxiè nǐ." You'll also see an audio button that will tell you how to say it.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.