Using Google for Research

Chances are that you have used the Google search engine to access information from the World Wide Web. Did you find what you needed? Did you find too much? Did you find too little? Did you retrieve a lot of "irrelevant hits?" If you have used Google for any length of time, then you know that your results may vary from search to search depending on what words you type and also how the words are entered.

Google and other commercial search engines like Yahoo,, and Teoma, allow users to search for the occurrence of words across billions of Web pages and online documents. Web search engines are not very "intelligent"; they don't understand the context of your search or the subtle nuances of human language and thought. Remember, computers don't think, they're literal -- they simply process commands -- therefore, the "intelligence" must come from you. The following "Google Tips" are designed to help you understand how Google works and in turn search the Web more effectively.

Tip #1 - Use Google Help

Path:  Google  »  About Google  »  Help and How to Search

In Google Help, you will find all sorts of nifty tricks to improve your searching:

  • "phrase searching" - Search for complete phrases by enclosing them in quotation marks. Words enclosed in "double quotes" will appear together in all results exactly as you have entered them. Phrase searching is especially useful for specific topics or concepts ("wildlife habitat management") and proper names ("north carolina").

By the way, you needn't worry about capitalization in your search. 
All letters are understood as lower case.

  • word variations / "stemming" - Google will often search for related word variations, including singular and plural forms of the same word and different suffixes on the root of a word. Google does this automatically, so keep this in mind when constructing your search.

university ...may also find universities
economy ...may also find economic
diet ...may also find dietary

  • plus sign ("+") searches - Google ignores common words that appear frequently such as "of," "the," "is," "who," "where," and "how." To include a word or character that Google typically ignores, use a plus sign ("+") before it, such as:

godfather +ii  (for the film "Godfather II" or "Godfather, Part II")

+who tommy  (for the rock opera "Tommy" as performed "The Who")

  • minus sign ("-") searches - Sometimes a word has more than one meaning depending on the context. That's were the minus sign comes in. The minus sign ("-") before a word can omit pages with an undesired word from your results list. For example:

You are searching for north carolina banks for a management class, but you keep retrieving hits about north carolina outer banks. You could use the minus sign like this:

north carolina banks -outer

  • tilde ("~") searches - The tilde ("~") before a word looks for synonyms. For example:

highway safety ~elderly  

...will also find highway safety and seniors, senior citizens, and older drivers

Google Tip #2 - Use the Advanced Search

Savvy Google  users go straight for the Advanced Search to the right of the main search box.

Advanced Search allows you to control what Google retrieves and refine your search in ways that the basic search box cannot. For example, you can set the Advanced Search to:

  • Find results with all the words or with an exact phrase
  • Return pages written in a particular language
  • Return results of a particular file format: Adobe Acrobat .pdf Microsoft Word .doc, PowerPoint .ppt., Excel .xls, etc.
  • Return only recent pages updated in last three months, six months, past year, etc.

and... (this is really helpful)

  • return results from a particular site or domain, including educational (.edu) and governmental (.gov) Websites. The Google Domain Restrict feature allows you to limit your results to a specific site or type of domain. (See "Inspect the URL" on the Evaluating Web Information tutorial for more on the importance of Web domains.)

    You can restrict your search to only ".edu" sites at universities and colleges or you can even limit your results to "" and only retrieve pages from Duke University. (This might come in handy if you know about a particular research center or collection at Duke.) Likewise, you can search for documents at "," the Environmental Protection Agency Website, or simply change it to ".gov." for all U.S. governmental agencies.

Take a look at this example from the Google Advanced Search screen:


Here, we searched for the phrases 1. "acid rain" and "north carolina" (with all of the words, of course).

We wanted only 2. Adobe Acrobat .pdf documents.

We wanted only 3. recent stuff updated in the past 3 months.

We wanted only results originating from 4. the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, restricted to the site ""

Google Tip #3 - Understand How Google Works

Although Google uses a simple search interface, there is some fairly complex software at work behind the scenes. As we have discussed, a search in Google looks for the occurrence of a word or words in billions of Web pages. Depending on your search you may retrieve hundreds of thousands of "hits." This is where Google PageRank™, a system for ranking web pages, comes in. The PageRank system looks at the billions of pages and hyperlinks on the Web to see who is pointing to whom with the idea that "important" Web pages often point to other "important" Web pages. According to Google,

Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."

Read more about Google's Search Technology at the company Website.

This is placing a lot of faith in the computer program to return the best results for you, but many users swear by it and Google has gotten very popular because of it. It's up to you to be the judge. According to the company, Google "does not sell placements within the results themselves (i.e., no one can buy a higher PageRank)." Google does sell space for "Sponsored Links" (ads) but these appear in shaded boxes at the top and right side of your search results.


Attention computer geeks: If you really want to know more about Google's technology, you should read "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine," the original paper written by Google's founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page while they were still graduate students in Computer Science at Stanford University.

Google Tip #4 - Understand Your Results

Remember, any bozo with access to a Web server and some time on his hands can create a Web page. (Take the author of this page, for example.) The Web presents an exciting electronic commons in which to share documents and ideas around the globe. But with the good must sometimes come the bad. As you access Web pages and retrieve information, constantly ask yourself, "Who wrote this, for what purpose, and for what audience?" Websites of any repute will clearly identify the author (or "corporate author" such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). In an academic setting, you are expected to use authoritative and scholarly sources. If you have questions about a site's content or motives, that's probably good enough reason to just skip it and move on. Remember, you can always ask your instructor or a librarian for their advice as well. 

For more information about searching the Web critically, ...

Proceed to Evaluating Web Information module.


Page updated 8/13/2013. 
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