The scoop on how to Google smarter

I like to think that my vocabulary and usage skills are above average; I am, after all, a professional writer. But a little known search function in Google showed me that I’ve been misusing “peruse” for years. And it taught me that when a teenager says he’s “pwned” me, it wasn’t a compliment.

Google is full of useful functions and search tricks that you probably don’t know. I recently spent some time with Google engineers Jake Hubert and Dan Russell, learning ways to get more out of Google search. These are tips you’ll find useful, whether you’re wondering how to convert Centigrade to Fahrenheit before you head for the beaches in the south of France, or need to look at a patent for a technology innovation.

We had hardly started our conversation, when Russell gave me his first, and over-arching, tip: If you want to know something about Google search, simply search for it. “Don’t bother to remember a URL. I don’t,” he said.

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Let’s say you want to know something about a patent. Simply type “Google patents” in a search bar, and the first hit you get will take you to Google Patent Search. Google and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have struck an agreement, and you can now have access to more than 7 million patents, including drawings.

Narrowing By Date and Time

I’ve often wished that I could sort search results by date. It turns out that you can, but it takes an extra step. Let’s say you’re interested in an announcement Bank of America made a few months ago about credit card rates. Start by typing “Bank of America and credit cards” in the search bar. You’ll get millions of hits, of course.

Now look at the left-hand navigation bar. You’ll see a heading “any time.” Expand it and you’ll quite a few date options. Choose one, run the search, and then notice on that same left-hand bar that you’ve got the option to sort by date.

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Similarly, it’s possible to search Twitter and zero in on a particular time. This morning, for instance, I noticed that a Democratic congressman is pushing a bill that would allow states to collect sales tax. I started at the usual search bar with “internet sales tax,” and when I got results then went to the navigation bar and clicked on “updates.” Google has a very slick slide device that let’s you pick an exact time and see who Tweeted what about the subject that interest you.

In fact, looking at the navigation bar is always a good idea; check to see what can be expanded and you’ll often find options that you didn’t know existed.

Calculators and Conversions

I was surprised to see how many new things you can do from a Google search bar. Google Calculator, for instance, is a hidden feature of Google search. You can type math expressions, unit conversions and many other questions that have a unique answer.

Like any decent calculator, the Google calculator will solve problems ranging from basic arithmetic to trigonometry-but this one is free, and you never misplace it. Here’s a page that will show you how to use it, including which operators work with different types of problems, including gnarly calculations.

One thing that’s particularly cool is the calculator’s ability to do conversions using plain English queries. Simply type in a query like 128 kilometers in miles and you’ll get the answer (79.5 miles) without searching. Or type “270 euros” and before you’ve finished it will tell you that the equivalent in U.S. currency is $338.90. There’s also a real currency conversion tool.

What else can you do from the search bar? Plenty. For example, typing “weather 94107” (my Zip code) serves up a forecast for San Francisco, while “CSCO” (the stock ticker for Cisco) gives you a quote. And to find out what “pwned” means, simply type “define: pwned” and you’ll find out. That function looks at more than standard dictionaries; it includes for example, the Urban Dictionary, a good place to find slang, like pwned, that has not yet made it into the mainstream of the language.

Inside Legal and Academic Journals

It’s not always easy to find works published in an academic or legal journal. Through the years, I’ve spent a fair amount of money using a variety of paid services to dig out information I’ve needed for articles. While Google Scholar probably won’t take the place of a Nexis Lexus or WestLaw, it offers a number of sophisticated search possibilities.

If you’re looking for legal decision, Scholar lets you search for either federal or state court opinions, while using pull down menus that allow the user to narrow the search by date, or by author, or a particular state. Or you can search legal journals. Scholarly and specialized publications in 24 categories are accessible by subject.

Google government search, with the sly URL, lets you search across U.S. and state governments, including domains such as .gov, .mil, and those of the states, such as

And as to perusal, it actually means examine or consider with attention and in detail, not as I thought, to browse or look at something casually. Ooops. Google has pwned me.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology.


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