Science, Maths & Technology

Five ways to... find things fast online

Updated Friday 26th January 2007

You know it’s out there but you can’t find it. Take your searching to the next level: five ways to find things fast online

Search box on web page Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Open2 team

"Google" has - somewhat to the dismay of Google - become shorthand for "searching the web". You can find whatever you're looking for by opening a search engine - like Google, or Yahoo, or Ask, or BBC Search - and typing in the word that you're looking for. But sometimes, you find all you've succeeded in doing is cutting down the billions of webpages to a no-more-easy-to-handle few million. Is there a better way - and a faster way to find things online?

1. Focus your search terms

You can improve the efficiency of your searching by choosing your search term - what you put in the box - carefully. For example, if you're after something on Anna Ford, you could just type ANNA FORD into a search box. BBC Search returns 31 pages of results.

But this includes a lot of Annas who aren't Ms Ford, and more than a number of Fords which relate to cars rather than newsreaders. You can limit your search to finding places where Anna Ford turns up by putting quotes round your search term - "ANNA FORD". This tells the engine you only want results where the words appear next to each other. Instantly, you lose almost half the pages of results relating to Anna Wing and Ford Prefects.

You could also add more words to make it clear who you're looking for - on Google, "Anna Ford" returns 51,900 results. If you know she's a newsreader, you can add that to your search - and that brings you down to just 898 returned pages.

2. Use an appropriate search engine

If you were going shopping for a wrench, you wouldn't call in at every shop and ask "do you have a wrench" - you know it's a tool, so you'd save time by only asking at shops which sell tools. Likewise, if you're looking for something specific online, you can speed your search by using the right sort of search.

So, if you were after pictures of cheese, instead of typing "pictures of cheese" into a general search engine, you could go to an image search such as or AOL Image Search. Many search engines offer localised versions which limit themselves (with varying degrees of success) to pages from a specific country or region - handy if you're looking for a local handyman. And if you want to know what Paris Hilton has been up to in the past 24 hours, don't risk a standard search engine, but try one which scans news sources instead, like

3. Search a lot of engines at once

Although there's only one internet, each search engine sees it in slightly different ways. So the perfect salsa recipe might be indexed on one engine, and not the others. How can you be sure you're finding the exact page you want?

Well, you could run the same search on several sites at once; easy if you have lots of arms and many computers. Or, you could use a metasearch - they effectively do the same thing, presenting a range of results for you to pick and choose from. Search Engine Watch considers some of the contenders.

4. Remember where you put things

My mother would always chide me that I wasted a lot of time looking for things. "If you remembered where you left things" she would yell above the panic of an approaching PE lesson I’d have to attend without kit, "you'd be able to find them more easily." My mother's irrefutable logic applies to the web, too - a lot of time is wasted trying to rediscover pages you've already found once.

You can cut time looking for misplaced gems by using your bookmark or favourites tools properly - if you find a page you like, add it using the bookmark/favourite drop down menu. Remember to keep your bookmarks organised, too - you can set up subfolders to group together your bookmarks into themes, so as to make your searching even swifter.

If you use a lot of different computers, you can use an online service to store your bookmarks, like Delicious. With these, you can describe or 'tag' your links and share them with other people as well - so, if you're a fan of Aston Villa, you can see what other users have tagged "Aston Villa" and discover more websites.

5. Download a search bar

Make your searching even more speedy by building search into your browser. You can, for example, add a Google toolbar or Yahoo toolbar which, amongst other delights, give you permanent search boxes for the respective services.

If you use Firefox or Internet Explorer 7, you'll have spotted a permanent search box in the top right of your browser, giving you the choice of some common search engines - and you can add more to Firefox through the Mycroft project. (Mycroft, in case you're wondering, was the name of Sherlock Holmes' brother.) This can make it a snap to search anything from the Internet Movie Database for information about actors and films, to the Catholic Churches' catechism.

Speed up

Learn more about searching effectively, and assessing what you find, with the OU's Beyond Google course.


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