Search smarter, not harder!

Search Smarter, not Harder!

Google hasn't yet achieved self-awareness, and those who fear the emergence of Skynet are probably safe for at least the next few PageRank updates. That said, Google is pretty darn smart.

In many domains, you can simply ask a natural language question and get an answer. For instance:

  • Math problems. Type "pi ^ 2" and you will see a working calculator appear in the browser, with the value of π2 filled in.
  • Weather. Type "weather Pittsburgh" and you'll see current conditions and a 7-day forecast from
  • Weights and measures. Type "ft in a mile" and you'll get a little unit converter app with dropdowns for inches/meters/miles, etc. (It doesn't do furlongs directly, but if you search on furlong, you'll find out it's 201.168m!)
  • Facts. For example, "population of china."
  • Various codes. Google recognizes and gives appropriate, specific search results for things like zipcodes, area codes, UPS tracking numbers, vehicle VIN numbers, etc.

If you know you have a patent number or are looking for a particular blog, Google has many "niche" search engines that specialize in those areas; you can see the full list of these (and all other apps) here.

Find a Needle in a Haystack

Not Quite Star Trek

Even outside the domains where Google can reliably understand direct questions, you can leverage natural language processing (NLP) to your advantage. You won't find any sexy aliens, but your mission will last a lot less than five years.

The Google search box is simple by design, but that one line gets you more than a "bag of keywords." There is an unobtrusive, but powerful, query language behind it.

The most basic feature of this query language is the word vs. phrase distinction; using it will immediately and drastically improve the precision of your results. If you want Google to interpret "Shake and Bake" as a phrase (and search for exact matches), just quote it. Otherwise, it will search for "shake" and "bake" as single words, anywhere and in any order.

The next important thing to understand is that Google searches assume you want to find documents containing all the query terms. The (unquoted) query 'alligator crocodile' would return documents containing both animals. If you want one or the other, you can use the OR keyword: 'alligator OR crocodile'.

Advanced Search

What if these techniques still aren't quite cutting it? For instance, maybe there is a "distractor term" that brings back unwanted results. The query "stars" might find all the dirt on your favorite Hollywood actress with a heavenly body -- but will also return references to actual heavenly bodies. The "-" operator can mitigate this by excluding terms: e.g., "stars -space".

What if you're thinking of a song but don't know the whole title? Or don't know how to spell the word you want? The "*" operator is a wildcard, and works any time you know only part of what you're looking for. * "of the Serengeti" will bring back "Treasures of the Serengeti," "Predators of the Serengeti," "Lions of the Serengeti," and so on.

The "~" operator is even more powerful. It is a more specific wildcard that will return synonyms of a term. For example, "~small dancer" will get "small dancer," "little dancer," and of course, Elton John's "tiny dancer."

If you think you might have trouble remembering all these details, you don't have to; Google provides an easy query builder on the Advanced Search page.

Stupid Google Tricks

Google engineers work hard -- and deserve to have a little fun now and then. Type these queries into your search prompt:

“do a barrel roll”


“answer to life the universe and everything” (reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe)

“once in a blue moon”


Google also has random cool things created by momentarily bored engineers, such as Google Gravity -- a version of the search engine where all your results "fall" to the bottom of the screen.