As Anachronistic as a Phonebook
Once upon a time, directory approaches to navigating the internet were actually useful. Yahoo! and DMOZ curated lists of sites broken into hierarchical categories and one could drill down several layers to find their destination. Now, it’s evident that this approach was both unsustainable and inefficient. Search engines, with their massive banks of full-text indexes, have won the war.
But as the number of websites grows exponentially so too do their diverse purposes. When you look for something on the web, you typically have a particular type of site in mind. If you want a funny cat video, YouTube is your destination; if you want a quick overview of reductio ad absurdum, Wikipedia is a helpful source; if you want an image of Barack Obama eating, an image search is requisite; if you want real-time updates about an Olympics event, then Twitter will serve you best. Monolithic search engines like Google or Bing are rarely the most effective approach to fulfilling niche needs.
Bookmarks, the Digital Kind
In a recent Parks and Recreation episode, Jerry searches AltaVista for “please go to yahoo.com” to get to his email, causing Tom to exclaim “Do you have any bookmarks?!?” Anyone who uses the web regularly recognizes the value of bookmarks. It’s silly to type the same site’s name into Google again and again when one can go directly to it. Yet this is essentially what we do with search engines themselves; we visit the search engine home page. Most of these home pages mimic Google’s stark layout, a clue that there’s no reason to ever go there. Our browsers already have search bars, so why not forego this unnecessary step?
That’s the goal of keyword searches. In modern web browsers, you can shortcut straight to search results. At its simplest, this involves typing your search terms directly into the browser’s address bar; a query in the default search engine is magically performed. 1
But using the default search over and over is limiting; sometimes we want to search Amazon, Yelp, or Facebook. Such searches are possible if you set up keyword searches in your browser, such that typing [ fb election celebration ] searches Facebook for “election celebration” and [ wk duck duck go ] takes you directly to the Wikipedia page for DuckDuckGo.
The mechanics of setting up a keyword search vary. The easiest way is to right-click on a search bar and select a menu option resembling “Add as Search Engine…” A dialog will appear and let you select a name and keyword for the search engine. You should make the keyword short and memorable.
You can also add search engines manually; in Google Chrome, this is done by visiting chrome://chrome/settings/searchEngines. Why would you manually add search engines? If you start fiddling with their URLs, some powerful options reveal themselves. In Chrome, the keyword search URL replaces the text “%s” (without the quotes) with your search terms. So the typical Google URL looks like
http://www.google.com/?q=%s in a keyword search. But what if you extended that vanilla URL with some of your favorite settings or special operators? Here’s a couple recipes to get you started:
Google .Edu Site Search
You can quickly access some of Google’s search niceties, like word definitions and site-specific search, by extending the base URL a bit. Once you understand the pattern and know where to put “%s” obvious use cases appear everywhere. One common search I perform is in Google Maps; about half of my Maps searches are phrased “how do I go from place X to my home.” I can make that into a convenient keyword search easily:
Now, if I live in the White House, I can type something like [ goto bier baron ] to quickly get directions to my favorite bar in DC.
Not Everything Looks Like a Nail
Using your web browser effectively is not a micro-optimization. Glancing at my Google search history, I perform 20 to 40 searches a day (and that doesn’t include my non-Google keyword searches, which probably double that figure). Granted, I’m a librarian and I probably spend more time looking for information than your average person, but saving myself a little time with each search adds up quickly.
What is perhaps most important, using copious keyword searches encourages you to use the right site for each situation. Google and Bing, despite their wonderful ability to anticipate the type of information you’re seeking, are one-size-fits-all tools that do everything well but nothing perfect. Configuring specific searches (real-time news, your social circle, sports statistics, etc.) gives you far more control. You can not only construct more effective searches, you can save yourself a second or two by doing so.
1. Different browsers have different default search engines, for reasons both economic and ethical. Internet Explorer has Bing while Chrome has Google, which makes sense because the company behind each browser obviously wants to support their search engine as well. But Mozilla gets most of their income from a contract with Google that sets the search titan as the default search provider. Under various other circumstances, DuckDuckGo or StartPage might be set as default because of their strong privacy stances. In any case, you can easily change the default search provider for any browser to whichever one you like best.
2. You have to know a little bit about URLs to unlock all of the fantastic potential of keyword searches. For instance, if you do a Google search with spaces in between your terms, look at the URL and Google has inserted “+” where you had spaces. The “+” is a URL-encoded space. What the hell does that mean? Well, URLs cannot have empty spaces in them so spaces (and some other special characters) get swapped out. It may not be entirely necessary to construct your URLs with pluses instead of spaces but I’ve done so here in my examples.
You should also understand how a search engine processes information from a URL. Look again at a Google search URL; what is all that gibberish in there beside your search terms? URLs store key-value pairs separated by ampersands that look like “key1=value1&key2=value2.” They occur after the question mark in the URL. Everything after the question mark is called the query string. Google’s query string is immensely complicated, but if you look at the URLs of other search engines you can collect clues about what different key-value pairs do, e.g. there might be a “sort=relevance” pair that sort results by relevance but could be set to date or alphabetical order. Your search terms will typically be the value of a certain key-value pair; in Google, the key “q” is matched with your search terms.
About the Author: Eric Phetteplace is Emerging Technologies Librarian at Chesapeake College. As a technology librarian, he spends more time fiddling with HTML and spreadsheets than pulling books off the shelf and wouldn’t have it any other way. He blogs at PataMetaData and breaks stuff on his personal website.