I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.
As the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.
Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.
Go back in time
One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.
Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:
In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:
The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.
The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.
Gallery of Google Map Mashups
The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.
Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:
Wildcards in Google Maps
(Update: Google dropped this map feature, which is a bummer. It was extremely useful and I hope they bring it back.)
Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.
If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.
For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:
Force Google to search for certain words
By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.
Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.
And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.
That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?
Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.
If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”
Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.
To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.
Customized site searches
Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?
Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.
This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.
Control F is your friend
Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.
This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.
Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.