Whether you use text or image search, knowing a little more about how to use search terms can find your results faster and more accurately in Google and other search engines (yes, they exist – hello Bing and Duckduckgo).
Google is the world's most powerful and pervasive search engine. The company synonymous with search commands a staggering 93% of the Australian search market. Its nearest competitor, Microsoft's Bing, has just under 5% of the market, with others picking up the crumbs.
There are plenty of hidden ways to improve a Google search to ensure you get the fastest and most accurate results, as well as reasons to be wary of the search giant.
The best way to get the results you want is to keep your search simple and trust Google's algorithm. Searching for "time in San Francisco" or "weather in Sydney" will return immediate results.
Privacy concerns aside, for the moment (more on that later), the more Google knows about you, the better results it gives. So, if you allow Google to know your location, it can use that information to better guess the results you're after. For example, a search on "USD $10" will provide an instant conversion to Australian dollars, while a search on "5 foot 6" will show the same measurement in metres.
If you want to go further, Google has shortcuts that will improve the speed and accuracy of your searches. Common examples are using the 'operators' AND, OR and NOT to refine your search by combining or limiting terms. These shortcuts are technically called 'boolean operators', a fun fact for your next dinner party.
A few quick shortcuts to remember:
- Quotation marks Using quotation marks around a phrase will limit your search to that exact phrase. A search for amazing spider man will return results with those three words used anywhere, in any context. A search for "amazing spider man" will only return results with that exact phrase.
- Google search a specific site A search of site:choice.com.au washing machines will only return results from CHOICE.
- Remove words to narrow a search with the minus sign A search of jaguar speed -car will exclude results containing the animal but not the prestige vehicle.
- Use asterisk as a wildcard If you're looking for a phrase but aren't sure of every word, "these are not the * you're looking for" should return the results you're after.
Google continually improves its search to make these commands simpler, or in some cases unnecessary, so today a search for "eiffel tower wiki" will return the same information as "site:wikipedia.org eiffel tower".
One of the most amazing, little-known features of Google Image Search is the Reverse Image Search feature. Simply click on the camera icon in the search bar to upload an image on your computer, and Google will scan and analyse the image and try to identify what's in the frame.
When searching for an image with Google, you have the ability to filter your results based on some powerful criteria. Just click on the Tools button underneath the search bar, and from there you'll see a few hidden dropdown menus allowing you to specify the size, colour, type, time and usage rights of your results.
Two options worth exploring are usage rights and colour. From the Usage Rights menu, you can filter images by their license. "Reuse with modification" means you can take the image, edit it, and reuse it on a website or in a PowerPoint presentation. Noncommercial reuse will still allow you to use the image, but as the name suggests, you'll be limited to using the image in educational or not-for-profit situations.
These classifications are based on the Creative Commons license, so it's worth clicking through on your results to confirm Google is giving you the correct licensing information, and whether you need to attribute the original creator in your work.
Searching for an image with the colour filter of yellow will unsurprisingly return images that are predominantly yellow. This becomes powerful when you're collecting multiple images for a PowerPoint presentation or website, and you want a uniform colour to evoke a certain emotion, or to fit in with your corporate branding.
Despite Google's dominant market share and wealth of talent, even it can make some embarrassing mistakes in search results. Google has found itself caught up in its own fake news controversies of late, declaring Donald Trump the winner of not just the electoral college but the popular vote in the 2016 election, and stating there is no coral bleaching happening on the Great Barrier Reef.
Google has long battled with users gaming its algorithm, mainly to rank higher in search for commercial purposes, but more recently to infect the autocomplete results with hateful information, or to promote false claims.
What makes these mistakes even more disturbing is it is these "instant answers" and "news snippets" that power the voice search of Google's Home Assistant. Without the context of a screen, attribution, and a page of conflicting results underneath, Home's voice answers, no matter how wrong, can sound authoritative.
There are many reasons to choose an alternative to Google, the least of which is its frightening monopoly on search. Google may have the stated mission of "organising the world's information", but it's worth remembering Google makes money off advertising, and part of the company's tremendous success in this area is due to the tracking and profiling it does on its users.
Every search you perform on Google is registered against your IP address – giving Google the ability to create a simple snapshot of who you are, where you live and what your interests are. If you're signed into any of Google's other services – Maps, YouTube, Gmail – then Google has an account to assign that IP address and all data coming from it, further fleshing out their profile of you.
Once Google knows who you are, it will follow you around the internet, thanks to the cookies and Google Ads that adorn almost every popular page. As a general rule, if you can see ads on a website, those ads can see you too, and have followed you across the web.
Even more, if you use an Android phone, Google almost certainly has all your physical location history from the last few years, unless you've specifically asked your phone not to track you. iPhone users are asked to share this same location information when installing any of Google's suite of apps – yes, even the YouTube app will ask you for your location.
This might all sound a little creepy, but this is the deal we make with Google to access its services for free. And, of course, you can choose not to. I use Google Photos, even though Google scans every image I give it to train it's machine-learning robots and extract location information about me, because the service is excellent and the search is incredible. Likewise Gmail and Google Maps.
If you'd like to continue to use Google search, but want to keep your privacy intact, there's quite a few steps you'll need to take
. Sadly, using your browser's privacy mode is not enough. Private Browsing or Incognito Mode is really designed to hide your search and browser history from someone looking at your browser or phone after you, not to hide your history from Google, Facebook, or anyone else that makes money tracking you across the web. The problem is that your IP address (your unique location identifier on the internet) is still shown, so even though cookies are not collected, Google can guess the searches are coming from you.
To go truly private, you'll need to use Google only in a browser that's not logged in to any Google services – including YouTube, Maps, Gmail. Next, use a plugin like Ghostery or Privacy Badger, which will disable Google's (and anyone else's) tracking from website to website. Finally, you may wish to do all browsing behind a VPN service that will cloak your IP address from external eyes.
If all of this sounds like too much work, there are alternatives. DuckDuckGo launched back in 2008 as the Google alternative for the privacy conscious. The service promises to never track your searches, and more importantly, it doesn't follow you around the internet as Google does. DuckDuckGo was relatively unknown until Apple promoted it to a default search option in iOS 8, on par with Google, back in 2014. DuckDuckGo supports many of the shortcuts Google does, and returns equally good results on more broad searches – topics like historical figures and places of interest, for example.
DuckDuckGo even has its own instant answers and display cards for results like flight numbers, the weather, word definitions and movie trivia. Where it falls short is in the guess work and personalisation Google does so well; in knowing when you search for a chemist, you probably want your local chemist, when searching a flight number, you might want to see your upcoming flights, and when searching for a movie, the nearest session time to you.
As an experiment, it's worth using DuckDuckGo exclusively for a week to see how much you rely on Google and everything it knows about you. You may find your searches improve once you step out of the feedback loop of Google, or you may realise how much of your privacy you're willing to trade for instant results.
- Bing: Microsoft's answer to Google. The two search engines are on par in terms of features, but it's always worth supporting the underdog. And what a fascinating world it is where Microsoft is now the underdog.
- Wolfram Alpha: Prides itself on being an answers engine and was one of the first to support natural language queries like "how many days until Christmas", or "who wrote stairway to heaven?"
- Mendeley: A search engine and app designed for students and academics that allows users to search on how many academic papers a result is featured in. The accompanying app allows researchers to easily collect sources for a final paper.
- Twitter search: Still the fastest way to find out what's happening with breaking news and events, although you will often need to wade through users jokes and 'hot takes' before you discover what's actually happening.