How To Google Your Way To Better Search Results

Google search engine page with search results displayed on a computer monitor
Getty Images/Oleksiy Maksymenko

Most of us are used to typing a search into Google and getting back roughly what we're looking for. We are accustomed to getting quick answers to relatively straightforward questions, and as long as we need basic information, Google (and other search engines on the Web) serve our needs just fine.

However, what happens when our searches go beyond the ordinary? What do we do when our information needs become more than what our simply framed queries can handle? When we reach the limits of what Google can do (and yes, there is definitely a limit!), how do we handle it?

Recent statistics reflect the fact that there is a lot more to efficient, successful Google searching that we might think. In fact, in a recent study on basic student research skills, three out of four students couldn't make their searches come back with anything remotely useful. That's a large percentage of the population that are relying on Google and other Internet sources for information that they can't even track down.

Even though Google and other Web search tools have become remarkably sophisticated over the past few years, it's still important to remember that nothing substitutes for human intuition and logic. This is especially clear when using search engines for research purposes. The information is definitely out there, it's just a matter of finding it.

In this step by step article, we're going to give you practical steps on how you can improve your Google skills with just a few simple refinements, as well as give you useful Web tools that you can bookmark for your next research project.

Common Google Operators

An infographic showing the most common search operators.

Google can figure out what you want; up to a point. Much of what we use Google for is relatively simple: for example, you need the nearest pizza place, you're looking for a movie theater, or you're needing to look up when Mother's Day is this year.

However, when our informational needs get more complicated, as they invariably do, our searches start to stumble, and our frustration level starts to soar.

A simple way to refine many Google searches is with operators, terms and punctuation that can make searching into more of an exact science rather than a "needle in the haystack" exercise.

Let's go with the example shown in the infographic above. You need information from the New York Times about college test scores, excluding the SATs, and only between 2008 and 2010.

First, you would use the site operator, which tells Google you only want results from one site, the New York Times.

Next, you get to utilize the seldom used tilde, found on most keyboards directly in front of the number one on the top row. This tilde, placed in front of the word "college", asks Google to search for related words, such as "higher education" and "university".

A search for the phrase "test scores", using quotation marks, tells Google that you want that exact phrase in the exact order that you typed it in.

How do you tell a search engine that you don't want certain information? Seems impossible, right? Not with simple Boolean search operators like the minus sign. Putting that minus sign in front of the acronym SAT tells Google to exclude SAT-related information from your search results.

Last but not least, a couple of periods between two dates (in this case, 2008 and 2010) tells Google to return information only between those dates.

Put it all together and your turbo-charged Google search query now looks like this: ~college "test scores" -SATs 2008..2010

Don't Be Vague: Tell Google Exactly What You Want

An infographic showing how to use Search Operators to find specific files online.

There are three different search operators involved in the slide above: filetype, intitle, and the * (asterisk).


Most of the search results we see are in a couple of different formats: videos, HTML pages, and maybe the odd PDF file. However, there is a whole world of different kinds of content that we can unearth with just a few easy search tricks.

Using our example above, let's look for scholarly information on the different air speed velocities of common swallows. Instead of just typing what we want into Google without any qualifiers, we can use the filetype operator to tell Google exactly what we're looking for (along with the other search operators we've already talked about). 


The intitle operator only brings back results with whatever word you specify in the title of the Web page. In our example, we are telling Google that we only want documents brought back that have the word "velocity" in the title. This is a very specific filter that can get a little too restrictive, but you can always take it off if it ends up not bringing back satisfactory results.

The asterisk

In our example above, the asterisk placed in front of the word "swallow" will bring back commonly searched words that are found with that word; for instance, different kinds of swallows.

Putting it all together

If we put all these search operators together, we get this:

filetype:pdf air speed intitle:velocity of *swallow

Type this search string into Google and you'll receive an extremely filtered set of results that are of a much higher quality than what you might normally see.

Use Google Scholar To Find Scholarly Information

An infographic that shows how to use Google Search Operators to find scholarly or academic works.

Google Scholar can track down scholarly and academically approved sources of information, usually much faster than a query through regular Google search channels. The service is easy to use, but there are a few search operators you can use to make your searches as targeted as possible.

In our example above, we're looking for papers about photosynthesis, and we want them from two very specific sources.

Google Scholar Search By Author

Many research projects benefit tremendously by containing citations and information from authors who are experts in their fields. Google Scholar makes it easy to find authors, simply by using the author: operator in front of the writer's name.


This parameter not only tells Google Scholar that you're looking for someone, but that you are looking for that word (green) as attached to an author rather than just on the page somewhere.

How to Frame Your Search

The word "photosynthesis" is right after the author tag, then the other author's name in quotes. Using quotes in searches tells Google that you're interested in those words, exactly in that sequence, and in that exact proximity.

author:green photosynthesis "tp buttz"

Find A Word Definition, Solve a Math Problem

An infographic explaining how to use specific Google search operators for math function and word definitions.

The Define Operator

Rather than hauling out that ten pound dictionary the next time you need to find the meaning of a word, simply type it into Google's search bar and see what comes back. Use the define: search operator to do this, as shown above in our example:


Don't have a calculator? Not an issue with Google. Use + (addition), - (subtraction), * (multiplication), and / (division) for common mathematical functions. Google also recognizes higher math equations, including many algebra, calculus, or trigonometry formulas.


Common Keyboard Shortcuts

An infographic showing keyboard shortcuts to use with searching on pages.

If you're looking for a specific word or phrase on a Web page, it can be somewhat time consuming, especially if you've got a page that is especially text-heavy. There's an easy way around this dilemma - keyboard shortcuts.

How to Find a Word on a Webpage

Our example above is directed primarily towards Mac users, since statistics show that most university and college students tend to use Mac machines. This is how it looks like on a Mac:

Command + F

Simply press the Command key then the F key, type in the word in the search bar that is presented to you, and all instances of the word will be highlighted instantly on the webpage that you're currently looking at.

If you're working on a PC, the command is a little bit different (but does exactly the same thing):


Browser Tabs and Software Applications

Additional keyboard shortcuts to help with naviations while searching.

If you have a lot of Web browser tabs open, it can get old fast trying to keep them all straight. Instead of wasting precious navigational time using your mouse to go to the address bar, use a keyboard shortcut.

For Macs: Command + L

For PCs: CTRL + L

Rotate Windows

Many times, we've got multiple software applications going along with a great number of browser tabs open with all the different work and research we might be doing. You can use keyboard shortcuts to sift through all of this in a hurry.

For Macs: To flip through windows in a software application, try Command + ~ (this key is found above the Tab key on the upper left side of your keyboard).

For PCs: try CTRL + ~.

For Macs: To quickly go from tab to tab in your Web browser, try Command + Tab.

For PCs: CTRL + Tab.

Find Reliable Sources of Information Outside of Google

Additional suggestions for searching on the web.

The Web is an incredibly valuable source of information. However, not all the information we find online can be verified using outside sources, which makes it unreliable at best. The following tips are good ones to keep in mind when conducting any kind of informational hunt online.


Your school library website should offer a wide variety of amazing resources that you wouldn't normally come across in a simple Google search. This includes databases that can offer scholarly information directly related to what you're looking for.

Use Wikipedia With Caution

Wikipedia is certainly a valuable resource. Since it is a wiki, and can be edited by anyone all over the world (editorial guidelines do apply), it should not be used as your ultimate source of information. In addition, most universities and colleges do not view Wikipedia as an acceptable source.

Does that mean you can't use Wikipedia? Absolutely not! Wikipedia should be viewed as a funnel to primary source resources. Most of the articles on Wikipedia are written with several outside reference links at the bottom of the page that will lead you to more acceptable content for citation. If you're not allowed to use Wikipedia, try an alternative

Sources Within Sources

One of the best ways to find really useful information is to mine what you already have for possibilities. For example, say you've found an academic paper on the subject you're researching. This paper should contain a bibliography of what the author used for his or her research, which in turn you can then utilize to widen your stable of resources.

Note: The infographic in this article was used with kind permission from Hack College. You can see the infographic in its entirety here: How to Get More Out Of Google.