I Love to go a-Google-ing

by Rob Zorn
from the November 2004 Newsletter

The idea for this article came via a discussion with Steve Trayhorne, the senior supervisor of our support team. Between Support and myself, Actrix receives questions about all sorts of things and most of them are even Internet related! It's reasonably common for a customer to ask a question about something that we haven't heard of before. After all, the Internet is a big place where new things are happening all the time.

The usual practice when this happens is to ask around. Our support room is a thriving intellectual arena (with a bit of mindless gaming thrown in) and together the staff there represent a formidable gallery of stored technical knowledge. If no one has an answer to the customer's question, the inevitable next step is Google (www.google.com).

I am sure that most readers are aware of the search engine Google, and most probably even use it. However, I suspect that even many of those who already use it could get a whole lot more out of it, and those who aren't aware of its uses really should be. In this day and age I would suggest that it is probably one of the most accessible and powerful avenues for learning around.

Or rather, I should say that it is the Internet that is such a source of potential learning. Google is just one of the things that makes the Internet so accessible and easy to use. Google isn't the only search engine around, either, but it is one of the most user-friendly, fast and intuitive. Others include Alta Vista, and Ask Jeeves and New Zealand's own SearchNZ. Each has its own variations on how it stores, searches through and presents results, but I want to avoid those subtleties for now. In general they pretty much work the same way. You put a word or phrase into the field, and then hit Enter (or the Search / Go button).

Google has two buttons you can choose from. The Google Search button will return you a list of links to pages it has found that feature whatever you entered. The I'm Feeling Lucky button will bypass the list of pages and take you straight to the most popular page about your chosen subject.

So what can you use Google for?

You can use Google for all manner of things. What are you interested in, and what do you need to know? Do you want lyrics to a song? Enter the artist and song name (E.g. Dylan Tambourine Man Lyrics) and you'll be presented with more lyrics sites than you can shake a tambourine at. Enter more general search phrases for more general results. Other searches about everyday topics might include "training dogs", "how write press release" or "bechamel sauce recipe". 

Finding help with your computer or Internet problems is also something Google can assist you with. If you're confused by an error message you're receiving, enter the error message into Google (or just the keywords if it is a long one) and see what turns up. Chances are someone else has been confused by the same message as you and has written about it on the Internet. Google searches many discussion forums where people ask questions and receive answers from experts or the more experienced. Great results are returned for searches like" Starting Windows 98 in Safe Mode", "XP Explorer crash" and "Outlook Express attachments blocked".  Using Google to set about solving your own problems is something we highly recommend, especially as these infernal machines and the Internet become increasingly a part of everybody's lives.

Beware, though, the inquiring mind is likely to be side-tracked as Google returns to you information about all sorts of side-topics and related matters. It's common for a search to start on one thing, and for you to become interested in something else that comes to your attention in the pages returned. You may find yourself starting with one question, and ending up fascinated by answers to 14 questions you didn't even realise you were curious about. Anybody bored could easily find a million things to read or investigate just by entering their interests and following their imagination.

News and Images

Google has another neat feature or two. Every search you do also returns a collection of images and news articles. If you visit www.google.com or www.google.co.nz you'll see that there are a few options listed just below the main logo. These are " Web, Images, Groups and News. If you only want images, and don't care about information, click Images and then enter your search query and click the button.

If you've searched for information on your topic, and you'd also like to see some related images, you'll see that the Images link is there at the top of your page. Click this to be presented with pages of thumbnailed images that Google has found for you. Just click the thumbnails to be taken to the pages containing the original full-scale images. If you want to save these images, right-click on them and then left-click on Save (Windows users).

The News link works similarly. Clicking this link will return any pages Google knows about that contain recent news articles about your chosen topic. While you're there you can sign up to the free Google-Alert news service. This service will e-mail you every day with a list of links to news articles it has found about your chosen topic. This is a great way to remain current on topics that interest you.

Googling Yourself

Googling yourself can be quite interesting. Self-googling refers to the practice of entering your own name and seeing what results get fed back to you. This can be a lot of fun. I found I was a finalist in a tractor-pulling competition in Indiana. My tractor's name is "Snoopy." I am also a Dutch recording artist and you can buy my CDs for around 17 Euros. Unfortunately, my lyrics aren't in English so I have no idea what I am singing about. If you're googling yourself, it is probably a good idea to put quotes around your name, e.g. "Bill Smith". This forces Google to only return results that have the whole name included, not just any document with the word Bill and the word Smith.

There's even more to Google than all this. You can use the preferences link to the right of the search box, for example, to exclude graphic or offensive content from your search results. You can limit your searches to certain languages or have foreign language sites automatically and immediately translated by Google software (the results of this can be a real laugh). But this is enough to get you started if you haven't discovered the benefits of Google already.

Those interested in learning a little about how to refine searches, how to use Boolean logic etc might want to reference a couple of articles I wrote back in 2000. These can be found at the article archive (http://editor.actrix.gen.nz/byarticle/). Choose Web Searchine (1) and Web Searching (2) from the menu on the left. It was four years ago and the information might be a little dated. If you wanted to find more recent articles on how to do efficient searches, might I suggest you try Google?