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Hey Google? How do I...?

Background Information

Navigational Search Queries

A navigational query is a search request entered by a user looking for a specific website or webpage. Currently, "wordle" is the number one query on Google. The majority of users searching "wordle" are most likely trying to navigate to the New York Times' Wordle page.

While Google is very good at providing desired responses for navigational queries, users whose informational queries appear to be navigational might not find what they're looking for with this method. For example, someone who googles "wordle" might be looking for news or further information about Wordle.

Informational Search Queries

An informational query is a search request by a user for information on a particular topic. Broad topics such as "abortion" will likely have thousands of relevant results, giving the users plenty of options to choose from while simultaneously making it difficult for users to find the specific information they're looking for.

To help determine relevant information, Google has developed the Knowledge Graph, a tool which "allows us to answer factual questions such as “How tall is the Eiffel Tower?” or “Where were the 2016 Summer Olympics held.” Our goal with the Knowledge Graph is for our systems to discover and surface publicly known, factual information when it’s determined to be useful."

Transactional Search Queries

A transactional query is a search request by a user aimed at finding and potentially purchasing a particular good or service. For example, a user may search "hp laptop" with the intent of purchasing that type of laptop. 

Before conducting a transactional query, users looking to purchase a good or service may conduct an informational query, such as "best hp laptop 2022".


This guide will focus on informational queries and tips and tricks for understanding and navigating Google's algorithm in order to get the information you need.

Don't Worry About the Little Things

When you start your search, two things you don't need to worry about, according to Google Search Help, are spelling and capitalization. Google will automatically spellcheck your search and does not search based on capitalization when finding results. 

What Should I Ask Before Typing?

  • What do I want to do with the information I find? If you're looking for information for an argumentative paper for a class, you may need different information than you would if you were looking for information just to satisfy your curiosity. For an argumentative paper, you would want to search for academic sources like academic journals and published works rather than something like a blog post.
  • What type of information am I hoping to find? If you're looking for news on a topic, you'll need results from a different type of source than you would if you were looking for academic sources on the same topic. In this example, you would want to search for reliable news sources rather than academic journals.
  • Do I already know a little bit about what I'm searching for? If you already have background information on a topic, you may be able to narrow your search more with keywords and phrases than you would be able to without that background information.

Asking yourself these questions before you begin typing will also help you to refine your search. 

How Do I Refine My Search?

  • Broaden your topic.  Your search may be too narrow or specific or the topic may be too new. Try to broaden your topic.
  • Change your search terms. Try using similar or related terms.
  • Use fewer search terms. Simplify your search by eliminating some search terms that are less relevant. 
  • Use wildcard search using the "*" symbol. Include variations of your search terms with the wildcard search option.

Adapted from DIY Library Project, Portland State University Library.

What's the Difference Between Search Terms, Keywords, and Phrases?

All of these terms refer to the words or set of words used to describe what users are searching for in a search engine.

  • Search terms are either single words or a set of words.
  • Keywords are single words.
  • Phrases are a set of words.

Should I Use Quotations?

When you apply quotations to a search term or query, what you are doing is telling Google that you are looking for that exact search term or query.

  • An example of a general search that does not require quotations would be something like Eiffel Tower height.
  • An example of a more exacting search that may yield better results with quotations would be something like "architects of the Eiffel Tower."

 

Google Search works in three stages, although not all pages on Google go through each stage:

  1. Crawling
  2. Indexing
  3. Serving search results

What is Crawling?

Crawling is an automated search conducted by Google's massive computing system using a program known as Googlebot. Googlebot uses an algorithm to determine which sites to crawl out of the billions of pages on the web, how often to crawl, and how many pages to fetch from each site. Not every page Googlebot discovers will be crawled. Some pages might be disallowed for crawling, inaccessible without logging in, or duplicates of previously crawled pages.

What is Indexing?

After a page is crawled, Google indexes the page to try and determine what the page is about and if it is a duplicate of another page. During the indexing process, Google also collects information about the page and its contents.

How does Google serve search results?

When a user enters a query, Google searches the index for matching pages and returns the results by relevancy and quality. These results may be different for users in different parts of the world. For example, searching for "bicycle repair shops" will net different results for Paris users than Chicago users.


For more information on how Google's search results work, check out Google's in-depth guide.

 

Google uses algorithms to retrieve data from its search index in order to deliver the best possible results for a query. These algorithms and ranking factors have frequent updates in order to better serve users. The basics of how Google's algorithms work is detailed in the "How Does Google Search" page of this guide. 

For more specific information about Google's algorithms, check out Google's Search Central Blog.

If you are interested in the history of Google algorithm updates, this article on the Search Engine Journal provides more detailed information.


What's the problem with Google's algorithm?

  • Google's algorithm is racially biased. Dr. Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, discusses the issues of racial bias in Google's algorithm. In her article for Time Magazine, Google Has a Striking History of Bias Against Black Girls,  she goes into more detail about the problem and how Google and other tech companies can resolve similar issues.
  • Google's algorithm produces unintended results. Rodney Ringler's blog on sitepoint, "Google SEO Algorithm Problems," describes the issues with Google ranking. Sometimes when finding duplicate sites, the algorithm marks the original site as the duplicate, leading to legitimate authentic web sites being blacklisted. Users may not see this problem in their searches, as they are still getting relevant information, but in case this issue escalates, it's important to be aware of the problem.

Now that you've read through this guide, you should have a good idea of some tips and tricks to making Google work for you. But knowing how to make Google work for you is just part of how to become a better Google user. 


Sam Hollingsworth wrote an article on "8 Things That Are Wrong With Google Search Today" for the Search Engine Journal, detailing some common problems that you may run into as a Google user. Understanding these problems and how they affect your search results can help you to better navigate Goggle's algorithms.

  1. Google is always testing and changing - you may notice updates which change how Google works that are difficult to figure out.
  2. Google can be glitchy - like all computer programs.
  3. Google is never 100% accurate - sometimes the data Google uses for answers, or part of answers, is not completely accurate.
  4. Google does what it wants - testing new features and ideas can cause confusion.
  5. Privacy issues - Google uses the personal data of its users regularly, often for advertising purposes.
  6. Google makes profits from advertising - Google allows brands to pay to "rank" on their search engine lists, meaning that they do not organically rank these brands for the usual reasons such as user experience, quality of content, etc.
  7. Google can't do it all - written text is easy to crawl and index, but for sites with mostly visual and audio content, Google's algorithms can't accurately crawl them.
  8. Google's not what it was - and it shouldn't stay the same! Google will continue to adapt to change and perform at its best.

 

Evaluating Sources

Understanding how to evaluate sources isn't just for academic work! Check out our libguide on Evaluating Sources to learn more about how you can tell if a source is reliable!

Google's Advanced Search Options

Google's Advanced Search

If you've used EBSCO services, Google's Advanced Search may look familiar. You can use the Advanced Search option to conduct more in-depth searches, similarly to how you conduct searches in EBSCO.

For example, if you're looking for news articles from a specific date, the Advanced Search option would be a good resource to use.

Using Boolean Search in Google

Boolean searches use AND, OR, NOT to separate key words and relate the key terms to each other. 

For example:

  • Searching cats AND dogs would yield results about both cats and dogs
  • Searching cats OR dogs would yield results on either cats or dogs but not both
  • Searching cats NOT dogs would yield results only about dogs.

Google and the Law

You may have heard about cases where Google searches were used as evidence in court. If you've ever wondered how private your search histories are, you might be interested in some of the articles here.


Amelia Tait wrote "How Your Google Searches Can Be Used Against You in Court" for the UK edition of The New Statesman. Tait details several legal cases where search histories were used as evidence. This might seem like something out of a distopian novel, but Tait concludes that

"unless the search itself is illegal, it's unlikely you'll be arrested or imprisoned for your curious googlings."


The Casey Anthony trial of 2011 was a famous case where some of the evidence against Casey Anthony, who was later acquitted in a trial by jury, included the search history of the family computer. Josh Constine wrote in an article for Tech Crunch that a Google search that may have been overlooked by the police could have been a key piece of evidence in the trial. Constine concludes with a warning from 2012, that

"law enforcement will need to be careful not to violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure,"

citing a murder case which was overturned after an unlawful seizure of a suspect's text messages by the police.