Searching is a Skill


Being the tech savvy member of the family comes with a price, as you might know. Whether it is fixing a formatting issue in a Word document, finding out why the sound is not coming out, or simply rotating a picture 90º degrees counter clockwise, family members will always look to you when it comes to such things.

And, of course, such requests annoy us – or at least they annoy me – because these are things a normal user should be comfortable doing. After all, I am a programmer, but that doesn’t mean I know how to use Word. Anyway, we usually suck it up and oblige (one could argue these are UX failures, but that’s not the point I’m trying to get to).

One annoying little request I get from time to time is to look up something on Google. This is one of the more puzzling ones, because searching should be easy. Right? Just type what you want to search for, and hit enter. That’s as easy as it gets. Right?

That’s what I used to think. And I still do at some level. But I have to say, lately I’ve started to feel differently. The first rule that I follow when googling something, is to use as few words as possible. For example, instead of “is it going to rain tomorrow”, I search for “weather tomorrow”. In this particular case both versions work, but usually fewer words tend to yield better results for me. For some, my search queries might be considered curt. Nothing is stopping you from being more polite to Google, of course.

Anyhow, my search process now usually involves more than one try, even when using fewer words. Whenever one of my searches fails, I then try to add double quotes around words I want an exact match for. Further down the road, I start excluding certain irrelevant terms that are polluting my results, by using a minus in front of that term. Sometimes I’ve had to iterate maybe five or six times on my search query before either giving up, or getting the results I want.

The above applies to web search engines, but it’s not too hard to see such issues might arise in other settings, such as on an internal company knowledge base. So next time a colleague or a family member asks you to look up something for them, maybe try to be more empathetic? I know I will.