Sunday, January 31, 2010

Monitoring a web page for changes on a topic

Sometimes when you're researching a given topic you'd like to monitor a specific web page for changes. Usually, pages that change frequently (such as a blog) will provide an RSS feed that you can use to track changes. (e.g., you can use Google's Reader to subscribe to RSS feeds from blogs.)

BUT SOMETIMES the web pages don't have a feed you tap into. That's a pain, because it means you have to remember to go back and check the page periodically.

The latest feature from Google Reader is that you can set your own "custom feed" if you want to be alerted whenever a specific page has been updated.

For example, if you wanted to follow's latest products, just go to Google Reader (at and type "" into Reader's "Add a subscription" field (the button is in the upper left of the page).

After you click that button, it will ask you for a web page to monitor.  Click "create a feed", and Reader will periodically visit the page you specified and publish any significant changes it finds as items in a custom feed created just for that page.

For a full description see the Official Google Reader blogpost.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chemical compound search

Sometimes you get a reputation for all the wrong things.

Now, people send me their hard search problems, which is great. I love getting them--it's like a great research puzzle, something I really like working on.

My friend Jonas sent me a "what's this chemical compound?" question that he got from HIS Mom (who's a real chemist).  The puzzle was to identify this compound:

How DO you approach a problem like this?  

In this case, there are two ways to tackle this.  

(1)  Use a special search engine.  It's often the case that you need something more specialized than Google to solve particular domain problems.  In this case, I first did a Google search to find something just for chemistry: 

[ search for chemical formula ] 

which takes you to the  NIST Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory search tool.  

(2)  Then, at the CSTL page, enter: [ C16H22ClN3O ]  (which you can read off the diagram below)

Or... once you know how to read the diagram, you could have just done a regular Google query for C16H22ClN3O ] and found some great information about this compound.  


Did you ever think look at the TITLE tag on the image????   That is, if you just hover your mouse over the image, you'll quickly see popup (aka "tooltip") that tells you it's tebuconazole -- which you can then lookup the Wikipedia entry:  tebuconazole   

Go ahead, move your mouse over the image above.  Many times you'll find useful information hidden in the roll-over information or in the image file name!  

Here's the Wikipedia picture of the compound, which is really the same thing, slightly rotated.


And finally, for very subtle sleuthing, you might want to check out the ALT attribute on the image.  Frequently you'll find that webmasters embed additional information about an image with an ALT attribute that's associated with the image.  This information is primarily intended for web page screen readers (e..g, for blind web users) and gives a textual description of the pic.  But YOU can use that information for additional clues.

To see the ALT attribute, you can view the source code (under the View>Page Source in Firefox) or in Chrome you can right-click on the image, then "Inspect Element" to see the ALT attribute data.

About this blog--Why SearchReSearch?

I've been tempted for quite a while to create a blog. But I was finally pushed over the edge when i realized that there are too many good ideas about how-people-search, too many fascinating tales of mystery and woe that should be told, too many little morceaux that should be shared.

Seems to me that's what a blog is all about: Writing a little bit each week to crystallize an idea into a meaningful collection so that the combination of small strokes becomes a big IDEA.

I have to warn you before you start reading: In the back of my head, I want something tangible to emerge from this. Ideally, a book, or a series of books, about how people search... how they research... and how they get good at doing this.

When you think about it, search is not something you're born with--there's no inherent, latent skills for research (the way there is, say, for walking or spitting). Some people are really good at it, others just never quite get the basics.

That's what this blog is about: What skills, tricks, tips, ideas (both small ideas and big IDEAs) should you know in order to be an effective searcher? Better yet, which of these combine to make you a great researcher?

And, is there a difference between search and research?

Yes, there is. But you'll have to read along to find out what the difference is. Stay tuned. This blog will have moments of sublime insight; it will also have moments of pure personal reflection... but I'll try to stay on task. If you visit often, you'll learn a great deal about search, searching, researching, and co-incidentally, web search engines.

And, to give my non-disclosure up-front: I work at Google, and while I'll probably give lots of Google-specific hints and tips, I'll also give other search engine features from time-to-time as I find them useful or compelling (or even just really interesting).

-- Begin searching!
-- Dan --