Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Control-F is the single most important thing you can teach someone about search

One of the biggest surprises of my research life was when I discovered that LOTS of people don't know about Control-F.  Here's the story...

I was doing a field interview with a schoolbus trainer.  She was doing her searches just fine, moving right along, when she was suddenly stymied by a fairly simple search problem.  She was looking for a particular section of the California Vehicle Code and found a fairly long page that clearly should have held the information, but it just didn't seem to be there. 

After about 5 minutes of fruitlessly scrolling up and down the document, I asked "What are you looking for?"  Her rather grimaced reply was "I'M SEARCHING FOR THE CODE..."  

It took me a while to realize that she was visually searching the entire lengthy document, line-by-line, to find the code.  

It was clear that she didn't know how to use the web browser's built-in "Find" function.  I was surprised because I'd thought that this was universal knowledge.  How could you browse the web daily, as she does, and NOT know about Control-F (or Command-F for Mac users)?  

Since then, I've done a fairly extensive survey of US internet users, and the answer still shocks me. 

90% of American internet users do NOT know how to use Control-F (or equivalent) to find a given string on a page.  (Sample size so far:  2,512.)  

Among school teachers, the average isn't much better--it's currently running at 50%.  

When I teach my internet search classes, I always ask, and I'm always surprised.  I just taught a class of twelve K12 teachers, and only one person actually knew how to find a word on the page. 

If YOU don't know, here's the best tip I can give you to improve your search skills:  

Control-F, or Command-F, lets you look for a string somewhere on the page.  This works in all browsers, and nearly every piece of software (e.g., Acrobat, Powerpoint, Word, Excel...)  It usually pops up a "find" box somewhere on the application that lets you type in exactly what you'd like to find, and then    

If you only learn one keyboard shortcut in your entire life, this should be it.  Knowing how to rapidly spot the word, phrase or substring you're looking for quickly will change the way you read texts online.  

Check out my ultra-short YouTube videolet on how to use Control-F in Firefox.  

It will change the way you read.  But more about that later... 


  1. The only annoyance is Microsoft Outlook, which treats control-F as the command to Forward an e-mail. At least once a week I accidentally open up the Forward dialog...

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  3. Much better than Ctrl+F: Firefox SearchWP (and associated SearchBox Sync) extension !
    - highlight each word or "group of words" from the search field in a different stabilo-like color in all tabs (can be enabled/disabled with a button looking like a thin stabilo from Customize... dialog, in case hi-lightening becomes "too heavy", I put it on the right of the search field)
    - turns each word or "group of words" from the search field into a colored button you can click to search in the current tab, just clic the leftmost or rightmost area of the search field to edit its text content (the cursor changes to text edition cursor when in the right area).
    - SearchBox Sync extension ensure direct modification of the selected search engine's page search field is reflected in firefox search field, updating the highlightenings accordingly.

    Changed my search-abilities ! No Ctrl+F anymore. In fact, this is the main reason I never switched to Google's Chrome.

  4. What I do not like about ctrl+f is that sometimes I cannot find the highlighted word on the page. I wish you could change the highlight color at will. So far, from what I read, it is not possible to change the color. :-(