Google Search QueryThe internet is full of useful information. If you know how to look for it, how to consume it, and how to understand it, you can learn just about anything. Heck, I’ve learned how to fix my car, how to build websites, and how to use a camera.

The problem is that there is sooo much information on the Internet that finding that useful information is sometimes like finding a needle in a haystack. The internet has literally billions of pages, and at some point or another we rely on search engines to help us find what we’re looking for.

Search engines aren’t infallible tools, though. By understanding how search engines work, we can use them more effectively. And we can help our students use them more effectively.

Search Queries Are Based on Terms

Google Search QuerySearch engines aren’t designed to answer questions. They’re designed to find information relevant to a “query” – or a phrase containing certain words.

This doesn’t quite jive with the way search engines have been marketed over the years. Ask.com was originally marketed as “Ask Jeeves,” and you were supposed to type a question into the search box. Today, Siri is a big selling point on Apple iPhones. You ask it a question, and it tells you an answer.

Both of these services are just fancy search engines, though. They use technology to analyze your question and boil it down to a search query. Sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn’t. Until such a time as we have truly intelligent computers that can answer our questions… don’t rely on a computer to understand a question.

Instead, know that search engines like Google rely on queries. If you type in “interesting people 1920’s,” then Google is going to look for pages related to that phrase. It’s going to look for that phrase on the page and it’s going to ensure that all (or most) of the words appear on the page somewhere.

This leads to something of a Goldilocks effect. Include too few words, and you’re get a very broad search that might not answer your question. Enter too specific of a query (i.e. “who are the most interesting people in America in the 1920’s”) and you might get a much more restrictive set of results.

The trick to effective search is to include enough of the most important keywords in your search without being overly narrow.

Search Engine Results Are Based on Links, Popularity, Optimization

Once Google has narrowed down the set of pages that relate to your search query, it has to rank them in some way. This important, because a basic search query like “interesting people 1920s” returns almost 3,000,000 results.

Google is constantly adjusting it’s algorithm to try and create the most useful set of search results. But, that doesn’t mean that the top results on the search page are the most useful.

The webpages that appear at the top of the search results are based on a few factors – like the number of links coming to that page and that website. This doesn’t just happen magically, and it involves marketing on the part of the author and publisher of that webpage. This means that in highly competitive search queries, the top spots are going to go to the best marketers – not the best writers and researchers.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. But, it’s important to understand that the top 10 sites in Google – and the top 20 or 30 – might not be the most useful. They may simply be basic websites that someone was able to market really well. To find the information you (or your students need), you may need to dig deeper into the search results or refine your search query.

Learn to Search Effectively, You’ll Find the Info You Need

It always bugs me when my kids are doing some kind of research assignment, and they call me over to say they can’t find anything on the information. “There’s nothing on Google to help me,” they say.

Well, chances are you’re just not searching effectively. If you play with the search query or dig deeper into the search results, you’ll find something useful. We can’t expect kids to know how to do this instinctively, so we as teachers need to know how to do this so that we can show them.

These questions often lead to conversations about what the student typed into Google, and after adjusting the query we’re able to find some useful information. At the end of the day, you need to know how to search effectively so that you can find the information you need.