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Selecting Search Terms

The search terms you enter and the order in which you enter them affect both the order and pages that appear in your search results. In the examples below, click on the similar ways of specifying various searches and note how the results differ.

For simplicity sake, this tutorial uses square brackets to denote Google’s search box. For example, to search for a cheap hotel in Mykonos, I’ll put the words “cheap,” “hotel,” and “Mykonos” in square brackets, [ cheap hotel Mykonos ], to indicate you should type those three words in Google’s search box. You should not type the brackets, although Google will ignore them if you do type them.

Furthermore, in the examples that follow, each set of search terms is linked to the results of a Google search on those terms. So clicking on [ cheap Mykonos hotel ] returns the Google results page for a search on those three words.

1. Use Likely Words

Use words likely to appear on the pages you want.

Avoid using a question as a query. For example, the query, [ Does Australia have Target ], instructs Google to find pages containing all the terms. Such a query won’t necessarily find pages answering your question. A better query might be [ Australia Target store ].

When Google detects very common words such as where, do, I, for, and a, known as stop words, it ignores them so Google may return relevant results. If you’re seeking pages that include a stop word, e.g., “how the west was won,” learn how to force Google to search for a complete phrase or a specific word in Crafting Your Query and the following pages.

Avoid using words that you might associate with your topic, but you wouldn’t expect to find on the designated page(s). For example, queries that include “articles about,” “discussion of,” “documentation on,” and “pages about” are likely to return fewer results since information on the web is rarely labeled with such terms.

Suppose you want to know how old someone is, such as Nelson Mandela (the former President of South Africa). Pages with “birthday” or “age” might be more than a year old. Searching for pages that include “Nelson Mandela” and “born” are likely to include either “Nelson Mandela born” or “Nelson Mandela was born” followed by his birth date. You can figure out his age from knowing when he was born (to do the math, try the Google Calculator).

Not sure what word or phrase is likely to appear on pages you want? Consider running a word or phrase popularity contest with Google Fight, which you can find at www.googlefight.com. This third-party application reports which of two terms or phrases Google estimates to be more prevalent on the web (actually on more web pages that Google has included in its index).

Screen shot of entering search terms for Google Fight Screen shot of Google Fight results

Google Fight found 48,900,000 uses of “screen shot” but only 3,620,000 uses of “screenshot”. (In 2004, using a previous version of Google Fight named Google Smackdown, “screenshot” was more popular than “screen shot”.)

Note: How Google Works describes how Google finds web pages and constructs an index.

2. Be Specific

Be specific: Use more query terms to narrow your results.

It’s better to use a more precise, less ambiguous term than a common one to “flesh out the topic by including facets that interest you,” notes Ned Fielden in his book Internet Research, Second Edition (McFarland & Company, 2001).

Does your query have enough specific information for Google to determine unambiguously what you’re seeking? If your query is too vague, it’s unlikely to return relevant results. Consider, for example, the query [ java ]. What do you suppose Google includes in the first page of results? An island in Indonesia? A beverage consisting of an infusion of ground coffee beans? A computer network-oriented platform-independent programming language developed by Sun Microsystems?

How can you come up with more specific search terms? What do you know about the topic? Consider answers to the questions, “who?”, “what?”, “where?”, “when?”, “why?”, and “how?

When you search for [ Tom Watson ], on the first page of results you may get references to a member of Parliament, the golfer, the IBM executive, and a Populist Party candidate for President in 1900 and 1904. If you’re searching for something that could return many different types of results, you should add a term that distinguishes among them. This way you’ll get only results about the specific Tom Watson you’re interested in.

Note: Google limits queries to 32 words.

3. Brevity

Be brief.

For best results, use a few precise words. For example, a program on quitting smoking is more likely to include the terms “quit smoking program” than the words “program on quitting tobacco cigarette smoking addiction.

4. Spelling

You don’t have to correct your spelling.

There’s a good chance that Google will recognize your mistakes and suggest an alternative more common spelling, usually faster than you can look up the term in an online dictionary.

When you enter: [ Anna Kornikova tennis ]
Google responds: Did you mean: Anna Kournikova tennis

Note: Before clicking on Google’s suggested spelling, consider whether it’s what you want. Spelling checkers, like people, make mistakes.

For more information on Google’s spelling correction system, see Spelling Suggestions.

Note: Even if you use the search tips described in Google Guide, you won’t be able to access authoritative information that’s available offline, e.g., old reference books, or is stored in specialized databases. For such information is not currently searchable with Google.

Next we’ll look at how Google interprets your query.

For more information on the basics of Google search, visit How to search on Google.


These problems give you experience in selecting search terms. For hints and answers to selected problems, see the Solutions page.

  1. Find a page with “Google doodle.”
  2. Find the Dilbert cartoon that Scott Adams developed by using Google’s logo.
  3. What’s Google’s history?
  4. Find contact information for your representative(s), e.g., senator, congresswoman (or congressman), or member of Parliament.
  5. How long did it take the first person to cross the United States by car and in what year was it first done?
  6. In the summer of 1997, an email message was widely circulated featuring the text of a “commencement speech” purportedly given by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT. The imaginary speech began “Wear sunscreen.” What’s the story behind this email hoax? What did this funny well-written fantasy “commencement speech” say?
  7. Learn about the recommended tours of the Hearst Castle.
  8. Find a recipe for lamb with mint sauce.

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This page was last modified on: Saturday January 29, 2022

For Google tips, tricks, & how Google works, visit Google Guide at www.GoogleGuide.com. Google Guide is neither affiliated with nor endorsed by Google.

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By Nancy Blachman and Jerry Peek who aren't Google employees. For permission to copy & create derivative works, visit Google Guide's Creative Commons License webpage.