Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Frequently Overlooked Google Search Tools and Strategies

This morning I spent some time reading the first part of the solution to Dr. Daniel Russell's most recent search challenge on Search ReSearch. Dr. Russell is a search anthropologist working at Google. Every week he posts search challenges that are designed to introduce you to new ways of searching for information.

The solution to Dr. Russell's recent challenge of finding the places Mark Twain mentions in "Around the Equator"? involves a strategy that I had not thought of or even knew existed until this morning. That strategy includes a creating a spreadsheet and then extracting named entities from it. To be honest, I would need Dr. Russell's tutorial open on a monitor next to me in order to replicate the process.

Reading through the solution to Dr. Russell's search challenge, which is a very advanced one that I wouldn't expect most high school students to employ, got me thinking about a search strategy and tools that I haven't employed before. That prompted me into thinking about creating a list of accessible search tools and strategies that middle school and high school students often overlook. Here's my short list of tools and strategies that are often overlooked.

Google Books: Google Books can be a good research tool for students if they are aware of it and know how to use it. In the video below I provide a short overview of how to use Google Books for research. You can also find screenshots of the process here.

Google Scholar: Google Scholar, like Google Books, is one of the research tools that students often overlook when searching on the web. Google Scholar can be an excellent place for high school and college students to find peer-reviewed academic papers, journals, theses, books, and court opinions. In the video below I demonstrate how to create a library of resources in Google Scholar as well as how to create Google Scholar Alerts that will notify you when new content related to your research appears in Google Scholar.

You can find screenshots of these processes here.

Google Earth, Maps, and Street View imagery: When confronted with a location-based search challenge Google Earth and Google Maps can provide a student with a lot of clues. Looking at placemark information in a Google Earth or Google Maps file can often reveal a clue if not the complete answer to a challenge. Likewise, Street View imagery provides visual clues that you might not otherwise find in a Google Images search. Dr. Russell suggests comparing historical and current imagery in Google Street View. Read the full explanation here.

Control F (Command F): Many students have the bad habit of only glancing at the webpages they open from a search results page. Or worse yet, only reading the brief snippet that appears below the link in a search results page. The reason for this behavior that students often give is “it takes too long to read the whole page.” To remedy this teach your students to use “Control F” (Windows) or “Command F” (Mac) when they open a webpage from the search results page. Control F or Command F allows you to search within any webpage for any letter, word, or phrase. Using this function can be quite helpful to students who want to determine whether or not a particular webpage contains information relevant to their research topics. Simply seeing the count of the number of times a word or term appears on a page can be an indicator of whether or not the page contains information relevant to a research topic.

Public Data Explorer: Google's Public Data Explorer draws on data sets from the World Bank, the US CDC, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources of public data. This is a great tool when I'm conducting a search that is centered around statistics. For example, it was much quicker to find the 1997 unemployment rate for Maine by searching in the Public Data Explorer than it was to do the same search at

Image Metadata: pictures taken with digital cameras often contain a lot of information in the form of metadata. That metadata can tip you off to when and where a picture was taken. That information can then be used as clues to solving a larger search challenge. A great example of this can be found in this Search ReSearcher challenge from April, 2013. Check out FotoForensics for a tutorial on accessing image metadata.

Google Advanced Search Page: The Google Advanced Search menu should be bookmarked on every student's computer. From this page students can quickly refine searches according to file type, region, language, usage rights, reading level, domain, and or site. The advanced menu is also great for students who have forgotten about things like using quotation marks around search terms, using "or," and how to exclude words from search results.

And just as a reminder, on the Google Search Education site you will find beginner, intermediate, and advanced lesson plans for five skill sets.

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