Owl's Roost

Search Better

I've seen a lot of people go to Google and search something like "how do I build a deck?", then complain that they can't find the information they need on what materials they need to build a deck from scratch in their backyard. Most of the time, typing full sentences into a search engine won't get the best results possible. It'll give you results, sure, but we can usually do a lot better and get exactly what you were searching for in the first place.

How search engines work (simplified)

Search engines build an index of sites. An index is a big database of links and information about them, and it's used to find sites matching your search terms. Search engines use specialized programs called crawlers to find sites in the first place. They do this by following URLs- they usually get these from other sites or from people asking to add their website to the search engine. When the crawlers find websites, they add them to the index and can give them to you as results.

When you go to a search engine and chuck some words into it, the search engine is looking for sites in its index that match what you want. It makes a big list of websites, then orders them by how relevant it thinks they are. Usually, the more times a page is visited, the more relevant it looks to search engines. There are also a lot of other factors that can influence how high in the list a website is placed. It can get very complicated and I'm not going into the nitty-gritty of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) here; if you want to know more about how search engines rank websites, look up "how work SEO" or use the rest of this page to come up with a better search term.

What is important here is how search engines use your search terms. When you type something like "does my cat actually love me?" into a search engine, it's usually not going to scan websites for answers. Search engines aren't that smart. What they see are a bunch of keywords. Search engines try to find websites that have as many of your keywords as possible. If you search "does my cat think it's a dog?", a search engine is going to look for sites containing the words: "does", "my", "cat", "think", "it's", "a", and "dog". It may or may not look for the question mark.

Optimizing your keywords

Picking the right keywords can make a huge difference in the results you get. If you only do one thing in this entire article, this is the one to learn!

Good search engines can filter out non-keywords (like turning "a cat that is very cute" to "cat cute"), but you can often get better results by doing that yourself. Narrow your search terms down to the fewest words you possibly can. Think like a search engine: what words in your search are you actually looking for on websites? Do you need a website with the word "that" in it, or are you actually looking for sites that say the word "pumpernickle" somewhere? Cut out articles ("a", "the", etc.) and any other words you don't need. If your search sounds like a broken version of your language, you're on the right track.

You should also be as specific as possible. If you want photos of bears sitting at picnic tables and eating like humans, "bear" isn't going to cut it. You're going to get informational articles about polar bears and melting icecaps. You'll be treated to photos of Yogi Bear and information on how you can fight forest fires. That search might even net you information about the subcommunity of gay men if you keep scrolling! You need to narrow it down more. Try "bear picnic table eating upright" or something similar. While you're at it, give your search engine's Photos tab a click if it has one. This will help whittle it down to just photos.

If you're still finding a lot of results that aren't helpful, be more specific, rephrase your search terms, or use other tricks to narrow it down.

Consider rephrasing

Sometimes, your search terms won't turn up the results you hopes for even after you've cleaned up your keywords. It might be that you're not searching for the right thing in the first place. Try searching for words that are closely related to what you want instead. If you find a word or phrase while searching that looks relevant, try searching for that. Think of similar words and synonyms that might help you get good results. If you know an organization or group that covers the information you want, go to their website and see if they have any phrases you can steal. Don't be afraid to change your keywords if something better comes along.

A note on errors

If you're trying to find solutions to a specific computer problem, see if you have any error codes or other specifics. Copy those into your search engine exactly as given, even if they seem like nonsense. That's often all you need to find a solution. If that's not enough, try adding hardware and/or software details and see if that helps.

Bing isn't built for scientific articles

Changing search engines can often turn up better results. Google is the most-used search engine, but its results can be pretty awful sometimes. A lot of sites try to game the system with Google specifically in hopes of showing up more often. It might be worth trying another search engine and seeing if it gives you better results. DuckDuckGo, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, and many other search engines all have different ways of finding and ordering websites, so you'll probably find what you need on at least one of them.

Specific types of searches often have search engines built just for that. There are search engines for finding audio clips, video clips, scientific papers, image sources, and more. If you're looking for a specific type of result, it might be worth seeing if there are any search engines designed to find what you're looking for.

Metasearch engines can also be helpful. Metasearch engines take the results from many other search engines and cobble them together, giving you more results for your search. They can be a faster way to use multiple search engines at once. SearX, Dogpile, Ixquick, and other metasearch engines can be great tools for getting the results you need.

DuckDuckGo doesn't think 3! means 3 factorial

A lot of search engines have additional tricks you can use to get better results. If changing your keywords isn't doing enough for you, these tricks might give you the edge you need to find that oddly-specific website about a guy playing guitar while riding a bicycle.


Remember how search engines don't usually see full sentences? Do you want to make them look for a full sentence?

Putting quotes around your search terms will make most search engines treat everything inside them as one big keyword. "Black cats" will search for sites that have the entire phrase in them instead of sites that have the word "black" somewhere and the word "cat" somewhere else (not necessarily right next to each other). This can be incredibly powerful for narrowing down search results.

That said, be careful. It's possible to be too specific and get no results. "My mom hatched 10,000 chickens and I don't know what to do" won't turn up any results if you put the whole thing in quotes. It's best to only quote short phrases that you expect to find on a website somewhere.

No results found for 'My mom hatched 10,000 chickens and I don't know what to do'.


Do you keep getting results you don't want? Hyphens are your friend. Putting a hyphen in front of a keyword excludes any results containing it. -puppy will get rid of any puppies in your search results. You can put these outside of a quoted phrase, so -"chocolate chip" will get rid of those chocolate chip cookies cluttering your sugar cookie results.

As with quotes, these can be overused. If you're not getting any results, make sure you're not eliminating keywords you do want with hyphens.


There are a lot of other things that behave like hyphens do. These are called Booleans (named after Boolean logic), and they can be helpful if you're trying to narrow down or expand your results.

You've been using a Boolean this whole time without realizing it! Search engines treat a space like the AND Boolean. AND looks for sites that contain all of the given keywords it ties together. If the site is missing one, then it's not shown as a result. If your search term is "lollipops AND teeth", then sites missing "teeth" won't show up.

You can use AND yourself if you want to. Just make sure it's in all-caps and chuck it between two or more words. You can use as many Booleans as you want in a search, so "pickles AND cats AND funny AND video" is a perfectly good search.

AND isn't the only Boolean. OR and NOT are also supported by most search engines and can be just as useful! OR searches for sites that contain one or more of the keywords. "rocks OR eagles" will turn up sites containing "rocks", "eagles" or both. It's a great way to expand your search if you want to get more results. OR is especially useful for including synonyms and similar terms.

NOT works just like hyphens do. It excludes results containing a keyword. Nothing fancy there, but very useful all the same!

You can use all of these in the same search term if you ever need to. "Mouse AND cheese OR cats NOT dogs" is an acceptable search! It can be a little tricky to understand the order search engines read these in, though. Is it "Mouse AND cheese" OR "cats NOT dogs"? "Mouse" AND "cheese OR cats" NOT "dogs"?

When in doubt, you can use parentheses to order your search so you get the results you intended. Parentheses can group search terms and Booleans together to make sure they're read the way you intended them. You can also nest parentheses if you need to. "((Mouse AND cheese) OR cats) NOT dogs" will turn up results containing either: both "mouse" and "cheese"; or "cats"; but will exclude anything containing "dogs".


Some search engines will let you use special characters as a "fill in the blanks". These special characters are called wildcards. The most common character used for this is an asterisk (*), but some engines use a pound sign (#) or question mark (?) instead.

Wildcards can stand in for absolutely anything. "* rentals in city" will show you all kinds of rental companies for that city. "W*ter" will turn up results for "water", "walter" "webmaster", and more. These can get out-of-control quickly, so it's a good idea to think about what words you expect the search engine to fill in before using a wildcard.

If you've ever used BASH or regexes, you've got this covered.

Magic words

Some search engines look for specific words and phrases. These "magic words" tell the search engine to do something specific. For example, entering a math equation usually tells a search engine to solve it. Entering "site:[URL]" searches for results from that URL. "Near me" searches for locations near you that are related to your keywords.

Every search engine can have their own magic words, so it's worth looking these up for your search engine(s) of choice. For example, DuckDuckGo uses exclamation marks to search specific websites and automatically open the topmost result. "!wikipedia dingo" will immediately open Wikipedia's page on dingos.

Search Magic

It can take a bit of practice to figure out what makes the best search, but you're better off than most of the people in my life just by reading this. With any luck, you should be able to find all sorts of oddly-specific information now.

I'll leave you with three entertaining searches if you need to spend 10 minutes doing something unimportant (use the Images tab):

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