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10 Back to School Google Tips and Tricks

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Here are some great tips and commonly overlooked tricks from Dan Russell, a research scientist at Google. He researches search behavior and often gives educators workshops on effective search. I spoke with him to find out some common tricks people often ignore and ways teachers and students can become fantastic Google searchers.

1. Think of the Essential Words for the Concepts

He gave an example of a student that wanted to find information on Costa Rican jungles and searched for "sweaty clothes." It's doubtful that student will find anything useful. Instead, you should focus on using the essential word or words that describe the concept (Costa Rica, jungle).

You should also use the terms you think the perfect article will use, not the slang and idioms you'd ordinarily use. As an example, he said someone might refer to a broken arm as "busted," but if they want to find medical info, they should use the word "fractured."

2. Use Control F

If you're trying to find a word or phrase in a long Word document, you'd use control f (or command f for Mac users). The same thing works from your Web browser. The next time you land on a long article and need to find a word, use control f.

This was also a new trick for me. I normally use the highlighter tool in Google Toolbar. It turns out I wasn't alone. According to Dr Russell's research, 90% of us don't know about control f.

3. The Minus Command

Are you trying to find out information about Java the island, but not Java the programming language? Are you looking for websites about jaguars - the animal, not the car? Use the minus symbol to exclude sites from your search. For instance, you'd search for:

jaguar -car

Java -"programming language"

Do not include any spaces between the minus and the term you're excluding, or else you've just done the opposite of what you'd intended and searched for all the terms you wanted to exclude.

4. Unit Conversions

This is one of my favorite hidden search tricks. You can use Google like a calculator and even convert units of measure and currency, such as "5 cups in ounces" or "5 Euros in US dollars."

Dr Russell suggested instructors and students could really take advantage of this in the classroom to bring literature to life. How far is 20,000 leagues? Why not Google "20,000 leagues in miles" and then Google "diameter of the Earth in miles." Is it possible to be 20,000 leagues under the sea? How big is 20 cubits in feet?

5. Google's Hidden Dictionary

If you're looking for a simple word definition, you can use the Google syntax of define: term. While using it without the colon will usually get results, you'll have to click the "Web definitions for" link. Using define: (no space) goes straight to the Web definitions page. 

Using Google instead of a dictionary site is particularly effective for new computer-related terms, such as Dr Russell's example "zero day attack." I also use it when I run into industry specific jargon, like "amortize" or "arbitrage."

6. The Power of Google Maps

Sometimes what you want to find can't easily be defined in words, but you'll know it when you see it. If you use Google Maps, you can find a campground slightly left of that one mountain and catty corner to the river by clicking and dragging on Google Maps, and your search query is updated behind the scenes for you.

You can also use geographical data in the classroom in a way that previous generations never could. For example, you might find a KML file of Huck Finn's river journey or use NASA information to interactively study the moon.

7. Similar Images

If you're looking for pictures of jaguars, German shephards, famous figures, or pink tulips, you can use Google's similar images to help you. When in Google Image Search, rather than clicking on an image, hover your cursor over it. The image will get slightly larger and offer the "Similar" link. Click on it, and Google will attempt to find images similar to that one. Sometimes the results are eerily accurate. A bunch of pink tulips, for instance, will yield entirely different fields of pink tulips.

8. Find It in a Library

Google Book Search is pretty amazing as a tool, current settlement controversy aside. Students no longer have to make appointments to see original copies of rare books or wear white gloves to turn the pages. Now you can see an image of the book and search through the virtual pages.

However, what if you do want to find the book in a library? Click on the "Find in a library" while browsing a book in Google Book Search, and you'll be taken to a WorldCat search for that title. Enter your zipcode, and you'll find the nearest library that contains the book. Perhaps that library is some distance away if it's a rare book, but at least you still have the scanned image. If it's in the public domain, you can even download the book to your desktop.

9. The Advanced Menu

If you're using Google's search engine, there's an Advanced Search link next to the search box that allows you to do things like set the safe search level or language options. If you're using Google Image Search, you can use the Advanced Image Search to find reusable, copyright free, and public domain images.

As it turns out, there's an Advanced Search option for just about every type of Google search. Take a look at your options to see what you can do in Google Patent Search or Google Scholar.

10. More: Even More

More: Even More on Google
Screen Capture

Google has a lot of specialized search engines and tools. They've got far too many to list on the Google home page. So if you want to use Google Patent Search or find a Google Labs product, what do you do? You can either use the more: dropdown and then navigate to "even more" and then scan the screen for the tool you need, or you can just cut to the chase and Google it.

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