Once we understand that search engines can’t do everything, we can look at what search engines can do. Since most of us use Google, I’ll start with a few ways to zoom in on useful information and ignore the rest.
Searching on Google
Find a specific phrase with “
“black skin, white masks” find pages that use that phrase.
It’s not perfect, as sometimes Google thinks it knows better than you, but it’s a good place to start.
Avoid irrelevant pages with –
intersectional -feminism finds pages about intersectionality but excludes feminism.
rock -roll will tend to find you pages about stones instead of music.
Again, it’s not perfect. But any time you’re looking for a word with multiple meanings or applications, exclude the others if you can.
Find missing words with *
With “writing your * review”, Google tries to guess the missing word, and gives you pages about writing lit reviews, annual reviews, and performance reviews. This can help you think more broadly.
Search a whole range of numbers
“poet laureate” 1920..1930 will pull pages mentioning any number (year) between 1920 and 1930.
Useful when you don’t know which exact number, price, or date you’re looking for.
Filter by time period
Once you’ve got Google search results, click Tools and choose a time period. This pulls articles published within the last week… or only the ones written between 2000 and 2002.
Look only for PDFs
fieldwork Taiwan 1990s filetype:pdf will give you a direct link to download PDFs.
In this focused search, the results are solidly academic articles and nonprofit reports. You can use this to find other file types as well, such as doc, ppt, and xls files. This can be powerful, but obviously you only want to download from open and reputable sites, and you should run malware and antivirus checks before you open a file.
Look for pages that contain PDFs
One downside of filetype:pdf is that you may download the file directly and miss its abstract or contextual information.
If you pause and switch over the Bing search engine, you can run a search for onomastics kazakh contains:pdf
This finds pages about Kazakh names that contain an uploaded PDF. It’s one way to turn up academic journal sites and full text articles.
Search within a site
site:cdc.gov nuclear finds pages about nuclear testing at the CDC website.
A super useful variation is to search a single site for PDFs:
- site:berkeley.edu anthropology filetype:pdf gives you PDFs about anthropology at Berkeley.
- site:gov filetype:xls “global warming” gives spreadsheets on global warming from any government site.
Exclude a site
-site:berkeley.edu Berkeley anthropology will get you pages about anthropology and Berkeley, but will exclude Berkeley’s website as a source.
-site is useful to get an outside perspective, or to exclude related sites that you know are of poor quality.
Find related sites
related:sapiens.org finds blogs similar to Sapiens, such as culanth.org, anthronow.com, ethnography.com, and popanthro.org.
This can be good when you’ve found a good source of news, articles, or editorials, and want to find something similar. I’m not sure how Google determines this, though, and know of comparable sites that Google misses. Again, that’s where asking an insider about their competition can be better!
Find nearby words
“ethnographic fieldwork” AROUND(3) library will find words or phrases that are near each other on the page.
Many researchers do fieldwork and visit a library… but if I want pages that are about fieldwork in a library, I probably want to see those words close together. AROUND(10) would find two words within ten words of each other, etc. (This doesn’t appear to work on Google Scholar, which is unfortunate).
Search only text, URLs, or titles
intitle:rite would find “rite” in the header or title of a page, while inurl:tabu would find “tabu” in the site’s web address.
Things like allintitle:ritual rite are useful to find an article with both ritual and rite in the title, not just somewhere in the text. And book:title returns book titles in a general Google search. There are plenty of variations, but I think this is useful only in fairly rare circumstances.
Upload an image to find images like it
On Google Images, you can drag and drop an image to find other sizes, sites that show it, and similar works. This is called “reverse image search,” and TinEye as well as other sites will similarly help you find other copies of an image.
If remembering these tips is too complicated, you can actually do a lot of this just by entering words in boxes on Google’s advanced search pages for text, images, scholarly articles, or books. The pages differ, but may let you search by language, book title, author, image size, file format, site, etc.
Searching on Google Scholar
Google Scholar indexes scholarly materials like papers, dissertations, books, and abstracts. Quality varies, and librarians have commented that its search results have grown less relevant in recent months. However, it’s still an okay source for academic articles, and doesn’t require a subscription like other large academic search sites such as Scopus and Web of Science. Some tips from my own explorations:
It seems that Scholar searches authors first, so rock gives me articles by people named Rock. intitle:rock gives me articles with rock in the paper title.
- anthropology nader gets you articles either written by or mentioning Laura Nader, whereas
- anthropology intitle:nader gives you articles with Nader in the title. This is useful for sorting out writing either by or about someone.
- author:”L Nader” gives you articles authored by Nader. If you find a good author, this is a great way to find more.
source:”Central Asian Survey” gets articles published in this journal.
Once you see the search results, look before a useful article:
- “Cited by” to see more specific or recent sources that mentioned this article.
- “Related articles” will show you what Google things is related.
- If you need older or more general work, click through to the article and look at what they’re citing.
Find a dead link
It used to be that Google searches for cache:URL would find an older page version, but it doesn’t seem to work now. If you find a link that doesn’t work, try entering it on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Look up quick facts and data
Wolfram Alpha can pull basic census, weather, and demographic data from other sources (examples). For instance, black people in Maine gives an estimated number of people, changes in population over time, percent of population, and comparison to other race categories in the US census. This is good for getting a quick number, with limited source information, but it couldn’t handle anything too complex.
Avoid the filter bubble
If you’re concerned about privacy and tired of the “filter bubble” of overly customized search results, use DuckDuckGo to search across Bing and Yahoo, or Startpage to search Google.
Finally, Check out librarians’ specialized guides for more
Many librarians like to curate and organize good sources on library guides, or “libguides.” This is what I search for when I’m looking for what other librarians have already evaluated. If I search libguides middle east treaties on Google, I find tax law at New York University.
If I search middle east treaties on the Libguides community website, I find primary sources at the Naval Postgraduate School. This doesn’t mention the Middle East, but Greta’s guide to government sources looks detailed and useful.
Because librarians try to highlight only the useful or hard-to-find information, these results may be higher quality than Google. Some of the databases on a library guide can be accessed only by students at that university, but others are open to everyone. If you find a subscription-only resource that looks useful, see if your local university has a public-access computer for searching databases… or if you know someone at university who c ould run a search for you! And finally, when you find a good librarian, check their other guides for more useful searching tips and strategies.
[Sources: Dharmesh Shah, Google help, Google Scholar help, Exposing the Invisible.]
This is THE BOMB; super helpful!