Tag Archives: Search Strategies

Essential Non-Google Search Tools for Researchers – Top Tips

This is the list of Top Tips that delegates attending the UKeiG workshop on 7th September 2016 in London came up with at the end of the training day.  Some of the usual suspects such as the ‘site:’ command, Carrot Search and Offstats are present but it is good to see Yandex included in the list for the first time.

  1. Carrotsearch http://search.carrotsearch.com/carrot2-webapp/search or http://carrotsearch.com/ and click on the “Live Demo” link on the left hand side of the page.
    This was recommended for its clustering of results and also the visualisations of terms and concepts via the circles and “foam tree”. The Web Search uses eTools.ch for the general searches and there is also a PubMed option.

    Carrot Search Foam PubMed Foam Tree
    Carrot Search Foam PubMed Foam Tree
  1. Advanced Twitter Search http://twitter.com/search-advanced
    The best way to search Twitter! Use the Advanced Search http://twitter.com/search-advanced or the click on the “More Options” on the results page. There is a detailed description of the commands and how they can be used at https://blog.bufferapp.com/twitter-advanced-search 
  1. Yandex http://www.yandex.com/
    The international version of the Russian search engine with a collection of advanced commands – including a proximity operator – that makes it a worthy competitor to Google. Run your search and on the results page click on the two line next to search box.

    Yandex Advanced Search
    Yandex Advanced Search

    Alternatively, use the search operators. Most of them are listed at https://yandex.com/support/search/how-to-search/search-operators.xml. There is also a /n operator that enables you to specify that words/phrases must appear within a certain distance of each other, for example:

    "University of Birmingham" nanotechnology /2 2020

    There are country versions of Yandex for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkey. You will, though, need to know the languages to get the best out of them and apart from Turkey they use a different alphabet.

  1. Millionshort http://millionshort.com/
    If you are fed up with seeing the same results from Google again and again give MillionShort a try. MillionShort enables you to remove the most popular web sites from the results. The page that best answers your question might not be well optimised for search engines or might cover a topic that is so specialised that it never makes it into the top results in Google or Bing.Originally, as its name suggests, it removed the top 1 million but you can change the number that you want omitted. There are filters to the left of the results enabling you to remove or restrict your results to ecommerce sites, sites with or without advertising, live chat sites and location. The sites that have been excluded are listed to the right of the results.
  1. site: command
    Use the site: command to focus your search on particular types of site, for example include site:ac.uk in your search for UK academic websites. Or use it to search inside large rambling sites with useless navigation, for example site:www.gov.uk. You can also use -site: to exclude individual sites or a type of site from your search. All of the major web search engines support the command.
  1. Microsoft Academic Search http://academic.research.microsoft.com/
    An alternative to Google Scholar.“Semantic search provides you with highly relevant search results from continually refreshed and extensive academic content from over 80 million publications.”This was recently revamped and although it now loads and searches faster than it used to the new version has lost the citation and co-author maps that were so useful. It can be a useful way of identifying researchers, publications and citations but do not rely on the information too much. It can get things very wrong indeed. For example, I’ve found that for some reason the affiliation of several authors from the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava is given as the Technical University of Kenya!
  1. Wolfram Alpha https://www.wolframalpha.com/
    This is very different from the typical search engine in that it uses its own curated data. Whether or not you get an answer from it depends on the type of question and how you ask the question. The information is pulled from its own databases and for many results it is almost impossible to identify the original source, although it does provide a possible list of resources. If you want to see what WolframAlpha can do try out the examples and categories that are listed on its home page.
  1. OFFSTATS – The University of Auckland Library http://www.offstats.auckland.ac.nz/
    This is a great starting point for locating official statistical sources by country, region or subject. All of the content in the database is assessed by humans for quality and authority, and is freely available.
  1. Meltwater IceRocket http://www.icerocket.com/
    IceRocket specialises in real-time search and was recommended for inclusion in the Top Tips for its blog search and advanced search options. There is also a Trends tool that shows you the frequency with which terms are mentioned in blogs over time and which enables you to compare several terms on the same graph.

    IceRocket Trends
    IceRocket Trends

    Very useful for comparing, for example, mentions of products, companies, people in blogs.

  1. Behind the Headlines NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx
    Behind the headlines provides an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news. It is a good source of information for confirming or debunking the health/medical claims made by general news reporting services, including the BBC. For each “headline” it summarises in plain English the story, where it came from and who did the research, what kind of research it was, results, researcher’s interpretation, conclusions and whether the headline’s claims are justified.

Google Verbatim on the way out?

Update: 1st September 2016 – Verbatim seems now to be working as it should. I hope it stays that way but on three occasions this year I have seen it work one day, then not the next and then back to working again.

We have become accustomed to Google rewriting and messing about with our searches, and dropping search features that are infrequently used. The one option that could control most of Google’s creative interpretation of our queries was Verbatim but that now looks as though it could be destined for the axe as well.

A reminder of what Verbatim does. If you want to stop Google looking for variations on your terms, ignoring double quote marks around phrases,  or dropping words from the search Verbatim is, or rather was, the quickest way to do it. If you are using a  desktop or a laptop computer,  run your search as normal. On the results page click on ‘Search Tools’ at the end of the line of options that appears at the top. Then, from the second line of options that should appear,  choose ‘All results’ followed by Verbatim. The location of Verbatim on other  devices varies.

Verbatim has been invaluable when searching on titles of research papers, legislation or researching topics for which you expect or want to retrieve very few or zero results. You might be researching rare adverse events associated with a pharmaceutical drug or wanting to confirm that what you are about to patent has not  already been published and is out there for all to see. Or the topic is so specific that you only expect to see a  handful of documents, if that. So, sometimes, no or a low number of results is a good thing. But Google does not like zero or small numbers of results and that is when Google’s search rewrite goes into overdrive.

I had noticed for a few months that Verbatim was not always working as expected but had hoped it was one of Google’s experiments. The problem has not gone away and the really confusing part is that Verbatim is still doing something but not what I would expect.

I was working in Penryn in July and took the opportunity to wander around the place. Inevitably, I googled some of the sites I had seen for further information but one threw up the Verbatim problem.  I was particularly interested in what looked like a memorial but didn’t have time to seek out information on site. Looking at the photo afterwards I can where the plaque was (to the right and next to the flagpole) but I missed it on the day.

Memorial Garden Penryn
The memorial and garden commemorates 18 residents of Penryn who were killed during an air raid in May 1941.

I did see a sign on the wall surrounding the area, though, telling me that it was “two” on the Penryn Heritage Trail.

Penryn Heritage Trail

A quick, basic search told me that it is called the Memorial Garden but I wanted to find out more. I searched  on Penryn memorial garden heritage trail.

Google test search omitting terms 1

This gave me 15,900 results but Google had decided to leave out Penryn so I was seeing plenty of information about heritage trails but they were not all in Penryn. I prefixed Penryn with intext: to force Google to include it in the search but then the word heritage was dropped. I applied Verbatim to the search without the intext: command.


This gave me 732 results but even though I had applied Verbatim Google had dropped ‘memorial’ from the search. I prefixed memorial with intext: and got 1230 results with little change to the top entries. And no, I have no idea why there are more hits for this more specific search. I can only assume that other terms were omitted but I was not seeing that in my top 50. I then did what I should have done right from the start and searched on Penryn, and “memorial garden” and “heritage trail” as phrases. When Verbatim was applied this came back with  22 results but no detailed information about the garden. I started to tweak the search terms a little more. Verbatim would drop one, I would ‘intext:’ them and they were then included but I began to suspect that I was being too specific. So I dropped “heritage trail” from the search and cleared Verbatim: 19,300 results with all of the top entries being relevant and informative.

Search on Penryn memorial garden

This emphasises that it often pays to keep your search simple, and I mean really simple. Including too many terms, however relevant you may think they are, can be counter-productive. I would have realised earlier that my strategy was too complex had Verbatim behaved as I assumed it would and it had included all of my terms with no variations or omissions.

I ran a few of my test searches to see if this is now a regular feature. One was:

prevalence occupational asthma diagnosis agriculture UK

The results came back as follows:

Ordinary search – prevalence missing from some of the documents, 1,750,000 results
Verbatim search – diagnosis and agriculture missing from some of the documents, 15,300 results
Verbatim with quote marks around missing terms – same results as plain Verbatim with diagnosis and agriculture still missing
Verbatim search but prefixing missing terms with intext:, 14,200 results

I changed the search slightly to:

incidence occupational asthma diagnosis agriculture UK

Some of the results were:

Ordinary search – incidence and agriculture missing from some of the documents, 2,210,000 results
Verbatim search – incidence and agriculture missing, 15,500 results
Ordinary search on intext: incidence occupational asthma diagnosis intext:agriculture UK, 848,000 results
Verbatim intext:incidence occupational asthma diagnosis intext:agriculture UK, 15,000 results

I saw the same pattern with a few other searches. I also tested the searches in incognito mode, and both signed in and signed out of my Google account. There was very little difference in the results and Verbatim behaved in the same way.

It looks as though Verbatim still runs your search without any variations on your terms or synonyms but that it now sometimes chooses to omit terms from some of the documents.  To keep those terms in the search you have to prefix them with intext:. Double quote marks around the words are sometimes ignored. This is an unnecessary change and defeats the object of having an option such as Verbatim.

More worrying, though, is that Google obviously thinks Verbatim needs “fixing”. But what it has done is to make the option more difficult to use, which in turn will result in people using it less often than they do already. And if Google sees that use is decreasing it will simply get rid of it altogether. Time to swot up on the few remaining Google commands, or use a different search tool.

If you are interested in learning more I am running workshops about Google and alternative search tools in September in London.

Alternatives to Google: Carrot Search and eTools.ch

Two of the services I cover in my workshop for researchers on alternatives to Google are Carrot Search and eTools.ch, and recently one of the people who had attended the session in April asked me to confirm what Carrot Search used  to provide its main results. Strictly speaking, neither Carrot Search nor eTools are Google free: eTools is a metasearch tool that has Google as one of its sources and Carrot Search uses eTools for its web search. At the start of the year, Carrot Search offered 7 options for searching under tabs across the top of the search screen including Web, “wiki”, Bing, News, Images, PubMed and Jobs. Web search used eTools.ch to provide the results.

Carrot Search
Carrot Search – beginning of 2016

The range of options has now been reduced to just three: the more transparently labelled eTools Web Search, PubMed and Jobs.

Carrot Search options July 2016
Carrot Search options July 2016


This makes sense as the number of accesses to Bing via the api was always limited and I could never get the news or images options to work. eTools in any case is a metasearch engine covering 17 tools including Google, Bing and Wikipedia so the extra Carrot Search tabs did seem to be unnecessary. The full list can be seen on the eTools home page.

eTools list of search engines
eTools list of search engines

This is where it gets interesting. It appears that Carrot Search does not just copy the results from a search on eTools.  I ran a search on Brexit in Carrot Search and compared the results from eTools Worldwide and eTools United Kingdom. All of the sets  were different so Carrot Search must be doing some additional analysis and processing.

Carrot Search doesn’t just list the results but also organises them into topics or Folders that are displayed on the left hand side of the screen. These can be a useful way of narrowing down your search.

Carrot Search Brexit results

Carrot Search offers two other ways of displaying results: Circles and Foam Tree.

Carrot Search Circles
Carrot Search Circles


Carrot Search Foam Tree
Carrot Search Foam Tree – 13th July 2016

Both show the density of terms in the top 100 results and allow you to click on an area to add the term or phrase to the search.  In addition I am finding that the Foam Tree is an interesting way of monitoring changes in news coverage and social media discussions on a topic, product or company. Yesterday, when I ran the search on Brexit, there was an area representing Theresa May.  Today, that had been replaced with one for David Cameron. I assume that is because the news coverage has been concentrating on David Cameron’s last day as Prime Minister and his last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) in Parliament . Later he goes to see the Queen to officially resign as Prime Minister. Tomorrow,  with Theresa May as our new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet, the Foam Tree could have a very different structure so I shall be looking at it periodically to see if and how it reflects changes in events.

As I mentioned earlier eTools.ch, which is behind the main Carrot Search web search, is a metasearch engine covering 17 tools. It also has options to select a country from a drop down list (Worldwide, Swtzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain,  UK) and a language (All, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish). Either or both of these give you completely different views and opinions on a subject.

eTools - Switzerland, all languages
eTools – Switzerland, all languages


eTools – Switzerland, French


eTools - Spain, all languages
eTools – Spain, all languages

It is a convenient way of gathering a range of foreign language information, especially on European events, and is easier than searching individual country versions of Google or Bing. The disadvantages are that the range of countries and languages is limited and many of the articles will not be in English. Nevertheless, I often find it helpful at the start of a piece of research as I get a general feel for the type and range of information that is available.

Carrot Search and eTools.ch are just two of the tools that I cover in my workshop on alternatives to Google. If you are interested in finding out more, the next session is being organised by UKeiG and will be held in London on Wednesday, 7th September 2016. Further details are available on the UKeiG website.

Searching for the height of Ben Nevis – how hard can it be?

If you have attended one of my recent search workshops, or glanced through the slides, you will have noticed that I have a new test query: the height of Ben Nevis. It didn’t start out as a test search but as a genuine query from me.  A straightforward search, I thought, even for Google.

I typed in the query ‘height of ben nevis’ and across the top of the screen Google emblazoned the answer: 1345 metres.  That sort of rang a bell and sounded about right, but as with many of Google’s Quick Answers there was no source and I do like to double or even triple check anything that Google comes up with.


To the right of the screen was a Google Knowledge Graph with an extract from Wikipedia telling me that Ben Nevis stands at not 1345 but 1346 metres above sea level. Additional information below that says the mountain has an elevation of 1345 metres and a prominence of 1344 metres (no sources given). I know have three different heights – and what is ‘prominence’?


After a little more research I discovered that prominence is not the same as elevation, but I shall leave  you to investigate that for yourselves if you are interested. The main issue for me was that Google was giving me at least three slightly different answers for the height of Ben Nevis, so it was time to read some of the results in full.

Before I got around to clicking on the first of the two articles at the top of the results, alarm bells started ringing.  One of the metres to feet conversions in the snippets did not look right.

Height of Ben Nevis search results 3

So I ran my own conversions for both sets of metres to feet and in the other direction (feet to metres):

1344m = 4409.499ft, rounded down to 4409ft

4406ft = 1342.949m, rounded up to 1343m

1346m = 4416.01ft, rounded down to 4416ft

4414ft = 1345.387m, rounded down to 1345m

As if finding three different heights was not bad enough, it seems that the contributors to the top two articles are incapable of carry out simple ft/m conversions, but I suspect that  a rounding up and rounding down of the figures before the calculations were carried out is the cause of the discrepancies.

The above results came from a search on Google.co.uk. Google.com gave me similar results but with a Quick Answer in feet, not metres.


We still do not have a reliable answer regarding the height of Ben Nevis.

Three articles below the top two results were from BBC News, The Guardian and Ordnance Survey – the most relevant and authoritative for this query –  and were about the height of Ben Nevis having been remeasured earlier this year using GPS. The height on the existing Ordnance Survey maps had been given as 1344m but the more accurate GPS measurements came out at 1344.527m or 4411ft 2in. The original Ordnance Survey article explains that this is only a few centimetres different from the earlier 1949 assessment but it means that the final number has had to be rounded up rather than down. The official height on OS maps has therefore been increased from 1344m to 1345m.  So Google’s Quick Answer at the top of the results page was indeed correct.

Why make a fuss about what are, after all, relatively small variations in the figures? Because there is one official height for the mountain and one of the three figures that Google was giving me (1346m) was neither the current nor the previous height. Looking at the commentary behind the Wikipedia article, which gave 1346m, it seems that the contributors were trying to reconcile the height in metres with the height in feet but carrying out the conversion using rounded up or rounded down figures. As one of my science teachers taught me long ago, you should always carry forward to the next stage of your calculations as many figures after the decimal point as possible. Only when you get to the end do you round up or down, if it is appropriate to do so. And imagine if your Pub Quiz team lost the local championship because you had correctly answered 1345m  to this question but the MC  had 1346m down as the correct figure? There’d be a riot if not all out war!

That’s what Google gave us. How did Bing fare?

The US and UK versions of Bing gave results that looked very similar to Google’s but  with two different quick answers in feet, and neither gave sources:

Bing UK


Bing US


I won’t bore you with all of the other search tools that I tried except for Wolfram Alpha. This gave me 1343 meters or 4406 ft. At least the conversion is correct but there is no direct information on where the data has been taken from.


The sources link was of no help whatsoever and referred me to the home pages of the sites and not the Ben Nevis specific data. On some of the sites, when I did find the Ben Nevis pages, the figures were different from those shown by Wolfram Alpha so I have no idea how Wolfram arrived at 1343 meters.

So, the answer to my question “How high is Ben Nevis?” is 1344.527m rounded up on OS maps to 1345m.

And the main lessons from this exercise are:

  1. Never trust the quick answers or knowledge graphs from any of the search engines, especially if no source is given. But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?
  2. If you are seeing even small variations in the figures, and there are calculations or conversions involved, double check them yourself.
  3. Don’t skim read the results and use information highlighted in the snippets – read the full articles and from more than one source.
  4. Make sure that the articles you use are not just copying what others have said.
  5. Try and find the most relevant and authoritative source for your query, and ideally a primary source. In this case it was Ordnance Survey. GB officially taller – Ben Nevis  https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/about/news/2016/gb-officially-taller-ben-nevis.html

Bing extends date search option

Bing has at last extended its date search options. Until recently one could only limit results to the past 24 hours, past week or the past month, and then only in Bing US.  Bing has now added a custom range on a par with Google.


The UK version of Bing has not had a date option until now but bizarrely has added the old, limited US selection.

Bing-Date-UK-2It seems very strange that they haven’t implemented the full US list. One can but hope that it will happen soon rather than in several years time, which is how long it has taken for this version to appear in Bing UK.

Advanced Google workshop – Top Tips

This collection of Top Tips is a combined list nominated by those who attended the UKeiG workshop on “New Google, New Challenges”. The next UKeiG Google workshop will be run on 8th September 2016.

1. Do not trust Google’s facts and answers
Google tries to provide facts and quick answers to your queries at the top and to the right of your results. These are computer generated extracts from pages and several different sources may be used to produce an “answer”. They are sometimes misleading or completely wrong. At the time of writing, the answer provided for a search on frugivore is an excellent example. (It explains why your cat is so fussy over its food – it is obviously craving its 5 a Day!) Always go to the original source to double check the information, but this is not always provided by Google.

2. Country versions of Google and /ncr
Country versions of Google give priority to the local content. This is a useful strategy when searching for research groups, companies and people that are active or working in a particular country. Use the standard ISO two letter country code, for example http://www.google.fr/ for Google France, http://www.google.it/ for Google Italy.

It is also worth trying your search in Google.com. Your results will probably be more international or US focused but you may see new search features or layouts in Google.com that are not yet available elsewhere. If Google insists on redirecting you to your own country version, go to the bottom right hand corner of the Google home page and you should see a link to Google.com. If there is no link then add ‘/ncr’ to the Google URL, for example http://www.google.com/ncr .

The downside of using country versions of any search tool is that the prioritised information is likely to be in the local language.

3. Search history
Your search history, which is recorded and available for you to view if you are signed in to your Google account, is used by Google to help personalise your results but it can also be useful as a record of past searches. If a user comes back to you having forgotten or lost the search and documents you gave them your search history should be able to help you find both. On any search results page click on the cog wheel in the upper right hand area of the screen and select History. You can then browse your history or select a date from the calendar (upper right and area of the History screen).

4. Verbatim
This is an essential tool for making Google carry out your search the way you want it run. Google automatically looks for variations on your terms and sometimes drops terms from your search, which is not always helpful. To use Verbatim, first run your search. Then click on ‘Search tools’ in the menu that runs across the top of your results page. A second row of options should appear. Click on ‘All results’ and from the drop down menu select Verbatim. Google will then search for your terms without any variations or omissions. Note that Google will search for documents and pages in which the words appear in any order. If you are searching on the title of a paper place the title within double quote marks to force an exact phrase match. If Google still alters your search then run Verbatim. 

If you are carrying out in-depth research it is worth trying out Verbatim even if the “normal” Google results seem OK. You may see very different and possibly more relevant content.

5. filetype: command.
An important advanced search command that is available not only in Google but in many alternative search tools. Use the filetype: command to limit your research to PowerPoint for presentations, spreadsheets for data and statistics, or PDF for research papers and industry/government reports.

For example:

plasmonic nanoparticles filetype:ppt

The command must be all lower case and there must be no spaces between the colon and the command or the file extension, otherwise Google will treat the command as a searchable word. Also you must search for pre and post Office 2007 file extensions separately as Google does not automatically pick up both.

For example

plasmonic nanoparticles filetype:ppt OR filetype:pptx

Note that Google’s Advanced Search screen pull down menu for filetype: only searches for pre Office 2007 extensions.

6. Minus sign to exclude information
Use the minus sign immediately before a term to exclude documents containing that term, but use with care as you may lose valuable information. It can also be used with commands to exclude file formats or websites from your search.

For example:

occupational asthma UK site:gov.uk -site:hse.gov.uk

7. Combine search commands
Combine multiple commands such as filetype: and site: to focus your search. Use the OR command to search for alternatives, for example:

occupational asthma UK site:ac.uk filetype:ppt OR filetype:pptx

8.Personalise Google News
Personalise Google News (http://news.google.co.uk) page when signed in to your account  and change what content is automatically displayed or add your own searches. Click on the Personalise button at the top of the right hand column. 

9. Google Scholar Cite feature
Click on the Cite link under a reference in Google Scholar and Google will give you options to import a citation in MLA, APA, Chicago, Harvard or Vancouver style into BibTex, EndNote, RefMan or RefWorks. Note that if the article is only available online you may need to add a doi or a URL, and the date of access.

10. Use Google site: search on Google scholar
This is one I had not thought of but was recommended by one of the delegates as a way of using Google’s advanced search commands on Google Scholar instead of Scholar’s own. (I have not had time to test this one out myself).

Slides from my talk given at the Anybook Oxford Libraries conference

The slides from my talk at the Anybook Oxford Libraries Conference in July 2015 are now available on Slideshare via the Bodleian Staff Development account.

Google: The Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything  http://www.slideshare.net/BodStaffDev/karen-blakeman

As well as advanced Google search features and alternative search tools I comment on the direction Google is going in. Note that this presentation was given before the Alphabet announcement. Those of you who have attended my Google and non-Google search tool workshops should know most of what is in the slides, but they might serve as a useful reminder.

It is also available on authorSTEAM at http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/karenblakeman-2553775-google-answer-life-universe-everything/

UKeiG Article: New Google, New Challenges

From "Introducing Spot", Boston Dynamics, Introducing Spot - YouTube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8YjvHYbZ9w
From “Introducing Spot”, Boston Dynamics, Introducing Spot – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8YjvHYbZ9w

My article on major changes at Google, “New Google, New Challenges”, is now available in UKeiG’s latest issue of eLucidate at http://www.cilip.org.uk/uk-einformation-group/elucidate-ukeigs-journal/elucidate-current-issue/new-google-new-challenges

As well as the general dumbing down and relentless removal of search options, it covers the new technologies that Google is experimenting with: artificial intelligence, driver-less cars, robotics, home environment sensors and controls. Some of this is already being integrated with search and “mobile”.

I am running  a “New Google, New Challenges” workshop for UKeiG this autumn in Manchester and London. It concentrates on search, how the changes at Google are impacting the way it manages our search and presents results, and how to use what is left of the advanced search techniques and specialist databases for more relevant research results.

Google dumps Reading Level search filter

It seems that Google has dumped the Reading Level search filter. This was not one that I used regularly but it was very useful when I wanted more serious, in-depth, research or technically biased articles rather than consumer or retail focused pages. It often featured in the Top Tips suggested by participants of my advanced Google workshops.

It was not easy to find. To use it you had to first run your search and then from the menu above the results select ‘Search tools’, then ‘All results’, and from the drop menu ‘Reading level’. Options for switching between basic, intermediate and advanced reading levels then appeared just above the results.

Google Reading Level comparison
Slide showing Google Reading Levels from one my search workshops

More details of how it worked are in the blog posting I wrote when it was launched in 2010 (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2010/12/13/x-factor-web-pages-are-advanced-says-googles-reading-level/).

So another tool that helped serious researchers find relevant material bites the dust. I daren’t say what I suspect might be next but, if I’m right, its disappearance could make Google unusable for research.

Top ten Google search tips from Oxford

Training room with a view

These Top Ten search tips comes from an advanced workshop I recently ran for a group in Oxford. If this is the first Top Tips that you have read on this blog, a few words of explanation as to how these are generated. These are not my own personal tips but are nominated by people who have attended my full day workshops and tried out the various commands and techniques during the practical sessions.

The participants on this particular workshop were experienced, heavy duty researchers so I was keen to see what they came up with.


1. Verbatim
This is a regular in the Top Ten lists on this blog. It is an essential tool for making Google behave and forcing it to run your search the way you want it run but is well hidden. Google automatically looks for variations on your terms and sometimes drops terms from the search. To make Google carry out your search exactly as you have typed it in, first run your search, then click on ‘Search tools’ in the menu above your results. In the second line of options that appears click on ‘All results’ and from the drop down menu select Verbatim. This is very useful when searching for an article by title and Google decides to ignore the double quote marks, which it sometimes does if it thinks you don’t have enough results. If you are carrying out in-depth research it is worth using Verbatim even if your “normal” Google results seem to be OK. You may see very different content in your results list.

2. site: search and -site:
Use the site: command to focus your search on particular types of site, for example site:ac.uk for UK academic websites, or to search inside a large rambling site. If you prefer you can use the Advanced search screen at http://www.google.co.uk/advanced_search and fill in the site or domain box. You can also use -site: to exclude sites from your search.

3. filetype:
Use the filetype: command to limit your research to PowerPoint for presentations, spreadsheets for data and statistics or PDF for research papers and industry/government reports.

4. Asterisk * betweem terms
Use the asterisk between two words to stand in for 1-5 words. This is useful if you want two of your keywords close to one another but suspect that there may often be one or two words separating them. For example solar * panels will find solar photovoltaic panels, solar water heating panels etc.

5. Numeric range search
This command is unique to Google. Use it for anything to do with numbers – years, temperatures, weights, distances, prices etc. Simply type in your two numbers separated by two full stops as part of your search. For example to limit your search forecasts covering a future time period.

6. Incognito/private browsing
Even if you are not signed in to a Google account, Google personalises your results according to your search and browsing behaviour using the cookies that are stored on your computer. If you want to burst out of the filter bubble, as it is often called, use a private browser window or incognito (Chrome). Google will then ignore tracking and search cookies on your machine. To call up a private browser or incognito window use the following keys:

Chrome –  Ctrl+Shift+N
FireFox – Ctrl+Shift+P
Internet Explorer – Ctrl+Shift+P

7. Public Data explorer
The Public Data Explorer is one of Google’s best kept secrets. It can be found at http://www.google.com/publicdata/ and allows you to search open data sets from organisations such as the IMF, OECD, IM,  Eurostat and the World Bank. You can compare the data in a number of ways and there are several charting options.

8. Repeat search terms
If you are fed up with seeing the same results for a search repeat your main search term or terms. This often changes the emphasis of your search and the order in which the results appear.

9.Change order of terms
Changing the order in which you type in your search terms can change the order of your results. The pages that contain the terms in the order you specified in your search are usually given a higher weighting. This is another useful tip for when you are stuck in a search rut and are seeing the same results over and over again.

10. Different country versions
The country versions of Google give priority to the country’s local content, although it might be in the local language. This is a useful strategy when searching for research groups, companies and people that are active in a specific country. Use the standard ISO two letter country code, for example http://www.google.fr/ for Google France, http://www.google.it/ for Google Italy. It is also worth trying your search in Google.com. Your results may be more international or US focused and Google usually rolls out new search features in Google.com before launching in other country versions. If Google insists on redirecting you to your own local country version, go to the bottom right hand corner of the Google home page and you should see a link to Google.com.