How I learned to get what I really need from Google

Running successful Google searches isn’t as quick or easy as many people think. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t difficult but it also isn’t totally rudimentary. It requires just a few minutes and focus.

I am not talking about looking for the weather forecast, the definition of a term, or basic information about someone. I am talking about searching for more nuanced information or facts that you would need for a professional purpose. Entering quick and simple search terms may be OK, but it certainly isn’t good. You won’t get the best information you can get in the fastest time. So running quick and dirty searches for professional purposes isn’t very efficient.

You need to use more sophisticated search techniques. To do this effectively, you have to know how to communicate with Google.

Let’s first face the reality about what Google is. Its search engine is a giant, highly complex virtual machine created to advertise humans’ products or services to other humans. To do that, it can perform unbelievably accurate searches and instantly give you worldwide or local information.

It sits on the desktops and mobile devices of practically every connected human on earth, yet it has a single or central “brain.” Here is the scary part (or exciting part, depending on how you look at it): humans all over the world use and talk to this single giant virtual machine every day, several times a day, as they go about their lives. We are officially living in a sci-fi movie that only a decade ago you may not have believed could happen.

So back to reality, virtual reality that is. At present, unless you can get the information for which you are looking from other humans, whether in the physical or the virtual realm, you will most likely have to use the Google (or an equivalent) search engine.

To speak to Google so it really understands what you want, you have to do more than quickly type in a string of a few search words that first come to mind. Google doesn’t read your mind — yet (I hear the people in Silicon Valley are working on it). At the present, you have to know how to manipulate Google to give you better information, and fast.

If you are a man, you are probably thinking not only do you have to learn how to better communicate with your significant other (or significant others . . . I am not here to judge you, just talk about IT, OK?), now you have to learn how to communicate with a machine?!? And if you are a woman, don’t even think you can train Google to understand you and communicate with you how you would like it to.

Google can do aspects of it for its own advertising purposes, which is how Google serves its true “master” — by constantly feeding it with information about your searching habits and communications. But to speak to Google for your own purposes, you need to know how it can best understand you.

Let’s run an example. The subject of franchise terminations has been occupying most of my professional time as a lawyer for many years. So I am interested in seeing what other people write or speak about franchise terminations. I go to Google’s basic search screen and type: “franchise terminations.”

What does it give me on the first screen? Almost four million search results, with not much that is helpful to me, like this:

•    The Wikipedia definition of franchise termination. Too vague.
•    Some case comments by some law firms about a case that dealt with franchise terminations. Probably too narrow.
•    A page from a law firm’s client services site stating it is good in this area. Does nothing for me.
•    Some scholarly articles. This is possibly interesting. But the subjects of the articles are all over the place.
•    An industry news post relating to franchise terminations. Possibly interesting.
•    A generic description of franchise terminations on an industry web site. Not interesting.

The information I got was too generic, broad, or specific. Come on, Google, can’t you do any better? Of course it can, but I have to know how to better speak to it. I need to give Google more clues about the information that interests me. If you have or had young kids, think about Dora the Explorer and the clues that teach kids how to find the missing item.

Let’s see if I can do a better job this time by giving Google more clues. I go to the advanced search screen. I start from the bottom (just my personal preference). I input the following information from the bottom to the top:

•    Usage information: I leave it at the default choice (“not filtered by licence”);
•    File type: I leave it at the default choice (“any format”), but I make a mental note I can look only for pdfs, Word, Excel, etc. documents;
•    Reading level: What on earth is that? Google analyzes the reading level of the information? Holy moly. I told you it is an intelligent robot. I choose “show only intermediary results” because I am not interested in the basic stuff. I may be interested in a basic level for this search;
•    SafeSearch: no adult content issue here, so I skip this one. (But I can’t help but wonder when the subject of franchise terminations will finally be considered sexy!);
•    Terms appearing: Do I want my search terms appearing in the title of the document, or the body, or elsewhere? I start with the “text of the page” because I don’t want to start by overly limiting my search, but I make a mental note to possibly narrow down this category to “title” if needed;
•    Site or domain: I leave this blank because I am not searching any specific site. But it reminds me this is one hell of a powerful search field if I want to search a massive site, like a government or research site;
•    Last update: I am only interested in recent developments, because it is my topic of expertise, so I choose “past year”;
•    Region: I am not interested in information, for today’s purposes, outside Canada. So I choose “Canada”;
•    Language: While I read and write Hebrew, speak some Russian, and can swear in Arabic, I choose “English,” because it is the only language in which I can understand information at the professional level;
•    Numbers ranging from: This field doesn’t apply to my search purposes;
•    None of these words: I am not interested in sport franchises, utility and gas franchises, and Crown franchising. So I type: “sport, utility, gas, crown” to exclude these terms;
•    Any of these words: I would like at least one of the following words to come up in the search, so I type them in: “rescission, closure, termination”;
•    This exact word or phrase: For this search, I prefer not to limit the search to any particular phrase. But I know entering a particular phrase could be very useful for other searches; and
•    All these words: I am interested at the ongoing tension between franchisors and franchisee and the consequences of termination, so I enter, “franchisor, franchisee, consequences” as the required words.

What do I get? Google gives me only three pages of search results. That is a far cry from the jungle I got initially. The results are mostly posts and papers written by my fellow colleagues at the franchise bar. Not bad.

But there is more. At the very top of the search result screen, Google shows me links to some scholarly articles that meet my search criteria. Now that gets interesting because I can never get enough scholarly articles. Even if I don’t read them in full, just reading their titles and synopses gives me all kinds of ideas.

So, I have now spent a few minutes telling Google what I need. I couldn’t do it on the go or while multi-tasking. I had to sit down and think through these search terms. It only took a few more minutes and a little concentration. Filling in this “questionnaire” also forced me to think through some of the parameters for my search and the information in which I am interested.

I got a short list of interesting search results I can now review for relevance. I think that is much more efficient than just typing the first few search terms that come to mind in the main search screen.

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