Google Search Engine Tutorial, Level I


Other search engines tutorials

Other Google tutorials




I. Introduction

The fastest and most comprehensive way of finding a variety of resources on the Web is using search engines, tools that allow you to look for occurrences of character strings (representing words, terms, expressions, etc.) in Web documents. Search engines such as Google and AltaVista work by creating and consulting indexes: lists of all of the character strings in each document they find on the Web. Without these indexes, tools would have to search through tens of millions of Web pages to find what a user is looking for, a task that would take days!

Individual search engines such as Google compile and index Web pages independently. Google is the most popular search engine on the Web and performs millions of queries daily. It maintains one of the largest databases of Web pages and also includes blogs, discussion boards, files (.pdf, .doc, .rtf, etc.), images and videos, giving you access to many different kinds of documents. To learn more about Google and its features, consult the help files (www.google.ca/intl/en/about.html), or the Google Guide at www.googleguide.com.

However, despite Google’s sheer size and popularity, it is not the only search engine. Studies have shown that there can be significant variation in results of different search engines (for example, because they index pages at different times, or because they rank them using different criteria); therefore, it may be beneficial to consult other engines when searching. You can find out more about some other search engines in resources such as the Bare Bones Web tutorial at www.sc.edu/beaufort/library/pages/bones/bones.shtml.

Another alternative to Google is a different kind of search tool. Meta search engines, such as Dogpile (www.dogpile.com), do not index Web pages themselves, but rather search within other engines simultaneously.

For this tutorial, we will concentrate on Google’s features and options. You can use many of these functions in other search tools, although you may need to use different techniques or enter your queries a bit differently (e.g. using different structures, symbols or operators).


II. Getting ready

  1. Open the Web browser of your choice (e.g. Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox) by double-clicking the shortcut on the desktop, or from the Start menu.
  2. Type www.google.ca in the address bar and press the Enter key to go to the Google Canada home page.  (If you wish, you can change the interface language to French by clicking on the Français link under the search field.)

III. Performing general searches

  1. Enter the search string public transportation in the search field. 

The search will return numerous results; the total number of pages found and your query are displayed at the top right of the page. The first results are those considered by Google to be most relevant. The first line of each result indicates the title of the Web page. These titles are underlined and in blue font – they are links to the Web pages. Under each title there is an excerpt from the Web page called a snippet. Within the snippet, you will see your query strings in bold. The address or URL (uniform resource locator) of the page is shown in green.

On the right of the window you may see a list of Sponsored Links. These are paid advertisements offered by Google.

Click on one or two of the results of the search to see the pages that were found.

  1. Below the search field at the top of the page you will see options for modifying your search.  By default, your search is performed on all of the Web pages indexed by Google; however, you can limit your search to only include pages from Canada.  To do this, click the circle next to the pages from Canada option. How does modifying this option affect the number of results?  How does the type of results change?
  2. Return the option to its default setting by selecting the web as the search parameter.
  3. Try searching is there public transportation in Ottawa.

You will notice in the top right portion of the results section that the words is, there and in are not hyperlinks as public, transportation and Ottawa are. (The hyperlinks will redirect you to Answers.com, a free online reference site.  The page that appears contains dictionary entries, encyclopedia articles and other information related to the word.)

  1. Return to the Google Canada home page and choose the Google French interface by clicking on the Français link. First enter blanc ou noir. Then compare the results with a search for blanc et noir. Note the number and type of results.

Unlike Google in English, Google in French does not insert hyperlinks for search words at the top right of the screen.

  1. Try a search for pêche and péché. Look at a few results. How does Google handle accents in French?
  2. Return to the English Google interface, and search the string were. Browse through some of the results. Are any other strings besides were indicated in bold?
  3. Try searching we’re. Browse through some of the results. Does Google recognize apostrophes when searching?
  4. Search Ottawa first with the initial capital and then without. Compare the results. How does Google treat capital letters?
  1. Do separate searches for parttime, part-time and part time. Compare the results and pay special attention to the strings indicated in bold.
    1. What can you conclude from looking at the results of these searches? How does Google handle hyphenation?
    2. Do you think one of these is a more effective way than the others to search for items such as compounds that may or may not be hyphenated?
  2. Search public transportation and transportation public in two separate searches. Compare the number and type of results. Why do you think there is a difference?

The order of your search strings affects the results received and the order in which they are presented (called page ranking). Google gives higher rank to Web pages that have the strings in the same order as in the search. Google also considers proximity and ranks documents in which the search strings are near each other higher than those in which the strings are further apart.

  1. Try searching public transportBesides the two exact forms you searched for, what other words are indicated in bold? What does this tell you about the search functions?

Auto-stemming, or word variation, is a feature of Google that searches not only the exact string you entered, but also similar forms. These other forms may be plural, possessive, inflected or conjugated forms of words.

  1. Do you think this is a useful function? Why or why not? In what instances might it be valuable?
  1. Search public trasnportaton, intentionally making a spelling error. How many results do you receive?
    1. Does Google offer any suggestions to help correct spelling errors?
    2. When might automatically choosing the proposed alternative be a problem?
  2. Try searching Toronto public transportation. Examine the snippets of results. Are all three search strings (or variants) in the page titles, snippets or URLs?
  3. Search Montreal public transportationAre all three search strings in the results?
  4. How many of the search strings must appear in the titles, pages or URLs for Google to display a page? How might this allow you to make your search more focused or vague?

When searching multiple strings, there is an implicit AND operator between the strings. This means that Google only returns the pages that match all of the search strings (or their variants).

  1. Perform separate searches for NYC and New York City. Compare the results, paying particular attention to the strings indicated in bold. Can you observe anything about Google’s ability to search for acronyms?
  2. Test your hypothesis with some other common acronyms and abbreviations (e.g. ASAP, RSVP, Blvd., Assn.).

When you search many common abbreviations and acronyms, Google will also recognize and return results containing the full forms.

  1. Copy the following sentences and paste them in the search field, then press Enter.

The term public transport is preferred in the British Isles and most Commonwealth countries, whereas public transportation, public transit and mass transit are used most often in North America. The term transit is less likely to include long-distance forms of public transportation, such as long-distance or commuter railroads, inter-city buses, or intercity railways.

  1. A message is displayed under the search field in the results window. Why might the length of a query be limited?


IV. Using simple operators

You can put a phrase, proper name or series of words in a specific order in quotation marks to search for these strings in that order, or to indicate an exact search string.

  1. Search oc travel planner. Notice the number of results and examine the snippets of the first few results.
  2. Search oc travel planner again, this time putting quotation marks (“ ”) around the phrase: “oc travel planner”.
    1. Has the number of results changed? How else do these results differ from those of the first search?
    2. When might this type of search be most beneficial?
  3. Using a plus sign (+) directly in front of a word will force Google to search for that word, even if it would normally be ignored. This can be especially useful when you would like to include a stop word in the query.
  1. Return to the Google search page and perform a search for how do you doTo what do the first few results refer?
  2. Repeat the search, this time adding the + operator in front of the string how (+how do you do). Have the topics of the first few results changed? In this case, does this change have a positive or negative effect on the usefulness of your results?
  3. This operator can also be used to disable automatic stemming. For example, try searching highway 417 and looking at the first two or three pages of results (using the page links at the bottom of the list of hits to move from page to page). What search strings are highlighted in bold? Is the abbreviation for highway recognized as a search string?
  4. How do these results differ from the results of a search for +highway 417? Do these results contain the abbreviation in bold?
  1. Placing a minus sign (-) in front of a string allows you to search pages that do not contain that particular word.
    1. Search transit passWhat are the first few results about?
    2. Repeat the search, this time adding –tax to remove all the pages containing the string tax and its variants. In what particular cases might this operator be useful?
    3. Try searching “oc travel planner”. What is the subject of the first few results?
    4. Refine your search by excluding pages about Orange County. Does this significantly reduce the number of results?
  2. Entering a tilde (~) before a search string will prompt Google to search for synonyms and alternate endings of the word following the operator.
    1. Search OttawaairfieldHow many results are returned? Does a page about Ottawa’s main airport appear in the top ten results?
    2. Repeat the search, this time placing the tilde in front of airfield (Ottawa ~airfield). How have the results changed?
    3. What synonym(s) for airfield has Google identified?
    4. In what cases must you be careful about searching for synonyms?
  3. Synonyms or alternate forms of search strings can also be specified through the use of an OR operator. To search for Web pages containing one of two possible strings, type OR (in capitals) or the vertical bar (|) between the two strings.
  1. Search Ottawataxi cab. Compare the type and number of results with those of a search for Ottawataxi OR cab.
  1. Search Ottawaairfield airport. Repeat the search, this time using the OR operator between airfield and airport. How do the results differ?
  2. When might this search be particularly useful?
  3. How does this type of search compare to a search using the tilde (~)?
  1. The NumRange operator (a two-point ellipsis (..) between two numbers) can be used to search for results with numbers within the range.
    1. Search for buy bicycle. Browse the snippets for the first few results. What kinds of Web pages are in the results?
    2. Try searching for a bicycle that costs between $100 and $200.  To do this, add $100..$200 to the end of the previous query. Does this search return the desired results?
    3. With what other types of numbers would this search be useful?
  2. Although the wildcard operator * is not needed for searching word forms in Google (due to the automatic stemming), it can be used as a fill-in-the-blanks operator.  This operator can be useful when the word between two search strings varies.
    1. Search for “learn * bike” (be sure to insert a space on either side of the asterisk). What words are found in place of the asterisk?
    2. How many words can the asterisk replace?
    3. When might this type of search be beneficial?


V. Performing advanced searches

  1. Click on the Advanced Search link to the right of the Search button. The fields are automatically filled in with your last search query. (See screenshot.)

In the Find web pages that have… section, each field corresponds to a simple operator explained above.

all these words: search items entered in the search field with the implicit AND operator 

 the exact wording or phrase: items in quotation marks

one or more of these words: the OR or | operator

The But don’t show pages that have… allows you to specify strings to be excluded from the search.

any of these unwanted words: search strings to be excluded by using the minus (-) operator

Need more tools?  Here you can further refine your search.

Results per page:  You can define how many results appear on each page.

Language: You can specify a particular language. All of the results returned will be in this language.

File type: You can specify a particular file format (e.g. .pdf, .doc, .rft) for your results, or exclude one specific file type from the results.

Domain: This feature allows you to search within a given domain (e.g. gc.ca for Government of Canada Web pages or uotttawa.ca for University of Ottawa Web pages).

Click the plus sign beside Date, usage rights, numeric range, and more to see additional features.

(See screenshot.)

Date: By choosing one of the date options, only pages modified (updated, created, indexed) within the specified timeframe will appear in the results. This information is gathered by Googlebot which crawls and indexes Web pages.

Usage Rights: This refers to the legal shareability of published content. For more information, click the Usage rights link.

Where your keywords show up: This function allows you to specify where on a page the search strings must appear.  You may choose anywhere, title, text, URL or links in the page.

Region: You can choose a country from which the results should originate.

NumericRange: You can enter two numbers in the fields; only results with numbers in this range will be returned.  This corresponds to the two-point ellipsis (..) operator.

SafeSearch: This allows you to remove or allow explicit adult content in the search results. There are three options for filtering – moderate, strict or none. By default, the SafeSearch option is set to moderate. For more information, click the SafeSearch link.  You can further edit this setting on the Preferences page.

Find pages similar to the page (under Page-Specific tools): Find pages similar to the page entered in the search field.

Find pages that link to the page (under Page-Specific tools): Find pages that have links to the page entered in the search field.

  1. Enter bike trail in the this exact wording or phrase field. Search for pages written in English and modified in the past week.

    1. How many pages are found?

    2. Modify the search to find pages from Canada only, modified at anytime. What cities or regions are in the results?

    3. Repeat the search for pages from South Africa. Browse through the results. Where can you go biking in this country?

  2. Perform an advanced search for transport en commun on pages within the qc.ca domain. Choose French as the language.

    1. Repeat the search, this time specifying .fr as the domain.  Compare the results from France and Canada by specifying the domain.

    2. Repeat the search without indicating a domain, but specifying France as the region.  Compare the results to the results of the search with .fr as the domain.


VI. Searching Google definitions

Google definitions allows you to search the Web for glossary and dictionary entries and other definitions of words and terms. It can gather several definitions together and present them to the user.

  1. In the regular Google Web search interface, enter the word define, a space, and the word traffic in the search field, like this: define traffic. Then press the Enter key.
  2. At the top of the search results, you will notice a Web definitions for traffic link. Click this link to see the definitions Google has found on the Web for this word. Explore some of the sources of the definitions by clicking on the green links below the definitions.
    1. What kinds of sources are included in these results? Do you think all of them are reliable? Do you think any of them are reliable? Why or why not?
    2. Is there more than one sense for this word? Are these differentiated by Google?
  3. Repeat the definition search, this time for car.
    1. You will notice at the top of the page, some common expressions or phrases are suggested for further searching. How might these help you to find useful information?
    2. You will also note that at the bottom of the page, links to definitions for this character string in other languages are proposed. Compare the definitions in English and in French. Can you easily tell how the meanings in French and in English are different?
    3. How does the number of definitions in English and French compare?
  4. Do a search that will take you directly to the definitions page by entering in the Google search field the word define, followed by a colon, and finally the term road rage (with no spaces around the colon), like this: define:road rage.
    1. Do you find definitions you think you would be likely to find in a traditional dictionary?
    2. Do you find anything you don’t think you would be likely to find in a traditional dictionary? Do you think this information could be useful? How? When?


VII. Modifying user preferences

Google allows you to save preferred settings, so that you don’t need to re-set them every time you search. (Note that this will not work in the Writing Centre, where preferences are lost when you shut down the computer.)

  1. To modify your search preferences, click on the Preferences link next to the Search button.
  2. From here you can choose the language of the Google interface.
    1. Change the interface to French and click the Save Preferences button. The links and buttons in the top portion of the window will now appear in French. The option to search pages en français is now available under the search field.
    2. Return to the Preferences page.
  3. You can also choose one or more languages for searching from this screen. The SafeSearch filter can be changed from the Preferences page as well.
  4. You can also determine how results are displayed:
    1. You may choose how many results are shown on each results page.
    2. The final option allows Google to open a new window with the search results, which you may find useful if you want to look at and compare several results from a search.
  5. Choose the interface language you prefer and save your preferences.

These are just a few of the search options that Google offers. You can find out much more about Google tools by exploring the home page and the more > even more links that appear at the top of the page.


VIII. Browsing the Google Directory

In addition to its well-known search engine, Google offers a lesser-known Directory of Web resources. (Its principles are similar to those of the Yahoo! Directory, which is better known.) The directory contains sites chosen by human editors and classified into categories and sub-categories to facilitate Web browsing

The pages are subject to Importance Ranking, a system which places higher-quality pages (as determined by their Google page rank) at the top of the list. You can easily search within Google categories or perform a Web search from the Directory.

  1. Access the Google Directory (www.google.ca/dirhp?hl=en).  (Alternatively, you can enter google directory in the main search field.  The first result will take you directly to the Google Directory.)
  2. Browse research materials for writers by clicking the links Arts > Writers Resources > Research.

The green bar to the left of each result shows the quality ranking of the Web page.

  1. What types of Web pages are found here?
  2. What are some advantages and disadvantages of using the Directory?
  3. When might you use the Directory?















NOTE: If you enter your search string(s) and press the I’m Feeling Lucky button, you will be taken directly to the first result.  This can be useful when you are confident about your query, or when you are querying popular pages.










NOTE: Punctuation marks and special characters such as . ! ? , . ; @ / # are ignored in Google searches. However, the Google search field can also be used as a calculator, and in these instances, mathematical symbols are used. For more information, refer to Google’s calculator help files (www.google.com/help






NOTE: There is no way to force Google to recognize capitals. By default, searches are not case-sensitive. 


























NOTE: Actually, there are some exceptions to this rule. Google also searches links that point to the pages, and the keywords that are entered in the HTML code to describe the page’s contents. So if a word is found in a link to the page or the keywords entered for the page, but does not appear on the page itself, Google may still be able to locate the page for you.

















NOTE: When using simple operators +, - and ~, do not enter a space between the operator and the word (i.e.,  + search is incorrect, while  +search is correct).




























NOTE:Be sure to insert a space on either side of OR or the vertical bar (e.g., string1 OR string2, string1 | string2). 
NOTE: Since Google ranks pages with many occurrences of the search strings highest, you may find that the first results still contain both taxi and cab. You are likely to see more of a difference as you go down the list to lower-ranked pages.      



















(Screenshot coming soon!)















(Screenshot coming soon!)


NOTE: For more information about crawling and indexing by Googlebot, refer to Google’s support and help pages or the Google Guide (http://www.googleguide.com/


















































































NOTE: Not all online resources can be found by search engines. The Deep Web or Invisible Web refers to pages that have not been indexed by search engines. These pages can include databases, sites that require a login and password or information that is not linked from other pages. A query in a search engine will return many results, but remember that not all Web resources will be found. 


IX. Questions for reflection

  • Not all Web pages are of high quality. What are some things that should be considered when assessing a Web page? What qualities or features make a Web page a reliable resource? Are there ways you can evaluate these qualities or features by looking at a Web page or site?
  • How can Directories help you focus your search? How are the results you find likely to differ from the results of searching using a search engine?
  • Google is not the only search engine available. Some other search engines are: Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com or the Canadian site http://ca.yahoo.com), Ask (www.ask.com) and Alta Vista (www.altavista.com or the Canadian site http://ca.altavista.com). Take a look at one or all of these other search engines. Try repeating some of the searches above and see how the results compare. Do these search engines offer the same or similar search options?
  • You may also want to try a meta-search engine, a tool that synthesizes the results of searching in many different search engines at once. One example of a meta-search engine is Dogpile (www.dogpile.com). Try a search or two with this tool. What do you think are the advantages and challenges of using a meta-search engine?


Tutorial written by Cheryl McBride. (2009-06-11)