Web Search 101

The ability to use a search engine like Google or Bing effectively is a fundamental skill in today’s economy. With a vast array of reference materials and expert advice freely available online, the most valuable team members — across a wide variety of jobs — know how to quickly find accurate and reliable information.

Using search engines effectively encompasses three broad skills:

  1. Specifying the information you want
  2. Constructing a query
  3. Identifying reputable sources

Explanation and examples below.

Specify the information you want

Before you perform a search, you need to clarify what information you expect to find online. Specific questions are much more likely to yield results than general questions. If you are searching for information about a large topic, you may need to break your search up into several specific queries. For instance, if you’re trying to refresh your memory on the role and syntax of each CSS pseudo-element, “What do all the CSS pseudo-elements do?” would probably be too broad of a question. Instead, you might do better to start with a pseudo-element that you remember and search for information on that pseudo-element first.

Construct a query

After you are clear about what you are searching for, you need to translate that into terms that a search engine understands. Major search engines are getting better with questions posed in everyday language — known as natural language queries — so the specific phrasing of your question isn’t so important. However, you want to ensure that your query contains words that specifically identify the information you’re looking for. For instance, when searching for syntax information about the CSS :before pseudo-element, the words

syntax CSS :before pseudo-element

all help make your search specific to the topic you’re interested in. Leaving out the word “syntax” might give you more results that are merely lists of CSS selectors, for instance. In general, you want to focus on terms that unambiguously identify the specific information you’re looking for.

Some searches are hard to construct by virtue of the terms involved. For instance, suppose you’re looking for instructions on  how to double-space paragraphs in Microsoft Word. You could use all the main terms:

double-space paragraph word

However, these words together have a generic meaning, and you might find that the search results contain mostly references on how to correctly format term papers. The trouble here is that “word” could refer to a generic word in a sentence, even though you’re using it as the name of a software package. In this case, adding the software maker — Microsoft — to the search query

double-space paragraph word Microsoft

helps the search engine identify the sense in which you’re using the word “word,” resulting in more helpful results.

Sometimes it helps to indicate to a search engine that you only want results where two or more words appear together and in a specific order. To do so, you simply add quotes around that group of words. For instance, in the Word scenario, you could specify

double-space paragraph "Microsoft Word"

to indicate that you are not searching for occurrences of the word “word” by itself, but only when preceded by the word “Microsoft.”

Identify reputable sources

After you receive search results that cover the topic you’re researching, you need to identify which results link to reputable sources. In general, you should trust information on the Internet only when it comes from experts in a field, sources you are familiar with and trust, or when it references research and/or other sources for its statements.

In technical fields, it can take some trial and error to identify reputable sources. In the programming arena, stackexchange.com is widely used by developers. The site includes a mechanism whereby posters establish their credibility through ratings bestowed by other community members.

When in doubt, examine several search results. You may find that one is an outlier, or that there is a healthy ongoing debate among experts in that area that points to multiple possible answers. You may also find over the course of many searches in the same area that one or two sites consistently yield well written and well documented results. You may choose to begin your examination of future results starting with these sites.

In web development in particular, the Mozilla Developers Network (mdn.com) provides a reliable reference. Some developers include the  word “mdn” in their queries to prioritize results on their search topic from this reference.