Friday, April 29, 2011

Searching synonyms with tilde (~)

As we saw in yesterday's post, there are a few times when an expanded synonym search is a good idea.  

Here are some examples to get you started:  

Suppose you're flying to the ORD airport (it says so on your ticket).  How might you find a place to rent a car?  

[ rent car ~ord]  -- shows synonyms for ORD (the name of the big Chicago airport).  As you can see from the results, O'Hare is a good synonym for ORD.  (I've highlighted the synonyms below.)  

This is useful when you don't know an area (e.g., around an airport code)--but also when you might not be familiar with the jargon in a specific area.  Say, back pain (again, the synonyms are highlighted): 

You might it's odd that "fracture" is a synonym, but truth is, Google figures out synonyms not semantically, but by patterns of co-use.  Thus, a synonym of Republican is Democrat (they're both used in very similar search circumstances), and "fracture" is often used in conjunction with "bone."  

You can also see the difference if we put a tilde before hound.  Compare the next two SERPs.  

The first two results are the same, but after that, the automatically generated synonyms kick in.  

When should you use the tilde operator?  Answer:  Whenever you need some suggestions about alternative ways to phrase your query.  Use tilde and discover other ways that people talk about your topic!  

Next week, suggestions and how they differ from tilde! 

Search on! 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Answer: Where is that headstone in the runway?

I'm impressed that folks were able to solve this.  It thought it would be harder than that.  

What's more, Ross Nelson found an answer *I* didn't know about!  

Here's what I did.  

After futzing around for a few searches with various combinations of [ head stone runway ] and [ headstone in runway ] I decided to try alternate queries.  My first "second attempt" was to substitute gravestone for headstone and that pretty much solved the problem
 [  gravestone in runway ] 
leads to the Wikipedia article on the Savannah/Hilton Head Airport.  

About 2/3rds of the way down in that article is the comment about the grave markers and the identification that the two markers are "...Some 3,680 feet (1,120 m) from the west end of Runway 10..."  Once I knew that, I just used  Google Maps to find runway 10, and knowing that runway 10 is 9,351 feet long, I just zoomed in about 1/3rd of the way down the runway and voila, there they were.  

Now Ross took a slightly different tack.  He went with tombstone (rather than gravestone ) and found lots of collisions with Tombstone, AZ!  He then "minused-out" the Arizona hits (by using [ tombstone -AZ -Arizona ] and discovered the Mathis, GA airfield!  His first hit was the Flickr image, but a little more digging quickly leads you to the Mathis Field web page, which confirms that they also have gravestones embedded in the runway.  (Interestingly, from almost the same time as the Savannah runway graves!)  

And regular reader Hans did something even more clever than Ross or I... he used the rarely-used tilde  ( ~ )  operator, as in the query [ ~headstone runway ] 

If you've never seen this before, I'm not surprised.  I know about it, but use it about once per year.  It means  "explore synonyms of this word"!  The reason I use it rarely is that Google already automatically checks synonyms pretty aggressively.  But as you've seen from other examples, this is one area where Google (well, all search engines) are not great.  This is an example where explicitly saying "check the synonyms" is a good tactic.  

Search lesson:  In this case, there are three big lessons... 

1.  Just 'cuz you found one solution doesn't preclude another solution!  

2. When your first search query isn't working, try reformulating.... but look for a different way to phrase the synonym (e.g., "tombstone" for "head stone," or "grave marker" for "head stone").  

3.  If you're really exploring synonyms in your query reformulations, sometimes a tilde is just the right tool.  

Search on! 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge (April 27, 2011): Headstone in an unusual place?

My brother is a pilot and has landed on many of the runways throughout the US.  (For the record, he flies Lear-60's.)  

He gave me a fantastic search challenge...  

Can you find the runway in the US that has a headstone emplaced in the asphalt?  Here's an image for you, although it probably won't help you much... 

So... Question:  What airport runway is this?  (Alternatively, what's the lat-long?) 

Search on! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Answer: What's the connection between a men's shoe and John Muir?

If you lookup [ men's shoe ] you'll quickly learn that there aren't that many different types of men's shoes.  (As opposed to, say, women's shoe styles.) 

One of those common styles is called a "wingtip," so-called because the decorative pattern flares back over the shoe giving the tip of the shoe something that looks like "wings."  

Then, finding a connection John Muir is a bit less obvious.  I actually started this whole problem by wondering why wingtips have such an odd pattern.  Think about it--why are there holes in the leather of the wing? 

Wondering that led me to look for: 

[ wingtip shoe pattern history ] 

which led me to the Wikipedia entry for shoe.... and thence to the term brogue shoe (the British term for wingtip shoe).  

And of course, a "brogue" is also the heavily accented language of the Scots and Irish.  As most people know, John Muir was originally from Scotland, and never lost his accent.   (You could do the obvious search to verify that.)  

Hans, as usual, got this one first, with Tasha close behind.  

The search lesson here is that finding connections is sometimes a bit o' fun, and really an issue of traveling down different paths to find the connections, looking out for the points where traces link together.  

Which reminds me--one of the master of connection-ology is James Burke.  If this kind of tracing unlikely threads of ideas from one point to another intrigues you, you'll probably enjoy his Knowledge-Web project.  As an example, see his "Goethe to margarine

BTW -- Happy Birthday to John Muir, born on this day 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland.  

Ever searching!  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge (April 20, 2011): What's the connection?

Since the AGoogleADay puzzle is going on, I thought I might give you a slightly different challenge for today... more of a puzzle a la AGAD... one that requires (perhaps) a bit more thought than usual.  (Since I assume all you SearchResearch readers can do the AGAD puzzle without too much difficulty!).  

So.. here's a fun, multi-step, chaining kind of problem for you.  Let me know if this was too simple for you (or too difficult)!  

     What's the connection between a male shoe style and the accent of John Muir? 


Can you figure out the most logical (and shortest) path between them?  

Search on! 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clever trick to make YouTube videos fill up the browser

A great tip for people creating web-based instruction... 

If you're teaching with YouTube videos, you know the problem.  The student clicks on a YT link and see LOTS of stuff on the right-hand side or in the comments below the video.  

While those contents are important if you're browsing video, in a classroom setting, it's often distracting and takes students off-task.  The normal landing-page to a YouTube video looks like this: 

Great to browse, but a bit distracting when you're trying to learn something.  

So... how can you force the video to fill the browser and NOT show all the distracting 

If  the original YouTube video is located at ..  (This is the Matt Cutts video on “How search works”)

You can modify the URL to include the modified argument “watch_popup”  (as below)

And the YT video will fill the browser.   Nice technique to use when creating links on educational materials to YouTube videos!   

Always searching for ways to improve your (and your students') productivity! 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is it just trivia? Thinking about learning in AGoogleADay

A few people have asked me if the project is really just a clever way of getting people to search more effectively or if we have some other more subtle goal here. 

The truth is...  We really just want to teach people how to search more effectively.  That's a big goal in-and-of-itself.  As Ken Denmead writes in his GeekDad blog on WIRED: "Over time, Google has realized that people aren’t using Google to its full potential. Like taking your Lamborghini Miura to the corner store to pick up a lottery ticket, folks haven’t been truly putting the search engine through its paces..."  

You've heard me say that before (although not quite as vividly as Denmead).  

The nuance of AGoogleADay is to teach a subtle through a fun activity that encourages play and exploration.  And although we're not giving explicit instructions, I suspect that people who try to solve the puzzle, then read the answer and understand it, will be picking up a good deal of strategic search insight.  

This past week we've presented a number of problems that all turn on three skills that aren't explicitly mentioned, but picked up through trying to solve the problem.  The skills are: 

1.  Query term selection, as you saw the Rohan and Robert problem ("My name is Robert. One day before my brother Rohan’s 19th birthday, our father had an album on the Billboard 200. Name the album.")  You come to understand that you don't type the problem as presented, but extract the most salient terms for the initial query.  Thus, [ Rohan Robert brothers ] is a great starting query.  (Whereas [ my name is Robert.  One day before... ] is not.)  

2.  Chaining steps together.  Solving the two future presidents problem ("Two future presidents signed me. Two didn't because they were abroad. Despite my importance, modern viewers seem to think I have a glaring spelling error. What is it?") requires first figuring out what the document was that two future presidents signed AND two future presidents did not (who were also alive at the same time).  Once you know that, you can search for [ Constitution misspellings ] and come to know that what once passed for plausible spelling (that is, "Pensylvania").  Interesting side-note:  the state is also spelled with a single N on the Liberty Bell, but spelled with two Ns in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution.  Spelling was more variable in the late 18th century.  

3.  Reading carefully.  In the ferry-to-Iceland problem, ("If you were a ferry passenger traveling from Continental Europe to the country with twice as many sheep as people, in what town would you most likely dock?")  many people assumed they knew that the answer was New Zealand and did a query [ ferry Europe to New Zealand ].  But if you think about it for a second, that's a long ferry ride.  People who did this query just answered the question without reading the search results carefully.... this is the most common problem among people who are using Google to answer questions.  Trust me, there IS no regularly scheduled ferry service from Europe to New Zealand (not in any normal sense of the word "ferry").  

How'd you do this past week?  Get them all?  Miss them all? 
Let me know!  

Still searching! 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Answer: Extension of aGoogleADay problem from this week

The problem was pretty simple:  

     What's the name of the telecommunications museum in Seyðisfjörður?  

The only way I could solve this problem was to use the "Translated foreign pages" tool in the Left Hand Panel.  

To get there, you have to click on "More Search Tools" -- then use the "Translated Foreign Pages" tool to search for: 
Seyðisfjörður museum ] 

This will result in a lots of pages in Icelandic which will then be translated to English (or whatever your host language is).  The translation isn't perfect, but the results are easily good enough to look for "museum" in the SERP and find the link to the city's web site (, which is, oddly enough NOT in the .IS top-level domain!)  

There you'll quickly see that the museum is actually called the "Technical Museum of the East," or Tækniminjasafn Austurlands in Icelandic.  

Funny thing though, while the translation works generally pretty well--but it can't quite decipher some of the text.  The translated guess is as follows:   
      The collection area is the oldest ritsímastöð country, 

      the country's oldest vélsmiðja and very noteworthy 
      bryggjuhús from 1881 to 1897.

It's not intentionally funny, but it reads like a joke--you can understand everything except the nouns... 

Still, from what I could gather by doing Image searches, a bryggjuhús is a small house next to the water; a vélsmiðja is a kind of shop; and I have no idea what a ritsímastöð is... maybe a section of the country?  

(Any Icelandic speakers out there want to fill us in?) 

Still searching! 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge (April 13, 2011): Extensions of the aGoogleADay

(This was supposed to go out yesterday!  Sorry about the delay.   It's been busy here.) 

Since I'm heavily involved in the project, I feel a bit odd ALSO posting a weekly Wednesday search challenge here.  

I thought about it for a while and realized that what I CAN do is to offer a bit of an extension to the puzzle on Wednesdays. 

As you know, today's puzzle on AGAD is: 

     If you were a ferry passenger traveling from Continental Europe 
     to the country with twice as many sheep as people, in what town 
     would you most likely dock?

And, you probably know the answer by now.  (And if you don't, you can go to the site and click on the green "Show answer" button.  Here's an extension to today's AGAD puzzle.  

Even though it's a fairly small town, the What is the name of the telecommunications museum in puzzle??  

Search on! 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

AGoogleADay -- after the first day

The site for AGoogleADay went live yesterday and judging from the number of Tweets and posts we've seen, it's been a pretty good success.  

How did you do on the two presidents problem?  Remember the question was: 

     Two future presidents signed me.  Two didn't because they were abroad.  
     Despite my importance, modern viewers seem to think I have a glaring 
     spelling error.  What is it? 

The answer: 

     Searching [two presidents signed two did not] yields the U.S. Constitution. 
     Searching [constitution misspellings] reveals that "Pennsylvania" was spelled 
     with only one "n."

Several people wrote to ask "how can you know who the future presidents are?"  Excellent question.  Google doesn't have prognostic powers.  But the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, but George Washington became the first president in 1789.  Both he and James Madison were, at the time of the signing, presidents-yet-to-be.  

Two other future presidents who were alive in 1789 and could have potentially signed the Constitution were Thomas Jefferson, who was in France, and John Adams, who was in Great Britain in September of 1787.  

And of course you know that John Hancock signed the Constitution twice.  

But the interesting bit, from our SearchResearch perspective is how you solved the problem.  

In general, a long query like [ two presidents signed two did not ] isn't recommended because it tends to exclude parts of the results that you really want to see.  

HOWEVER... a long query is sometimes called for, especially when you're trying to find a combination concept (concept 1: "two presidents signed"  concept 2: "two did not").  In these cases, a longer query is probably required.  You really want results that contain both concepts, and trying to intersect results is just too hard to do.  Thus, longer queries really are called for.. on occasion.  

Advice:  Puzzles like the ones we're running on AGAD sometimes require skills you don't have... or violating the "normal" guidelines of search.  This is one such case.  (Others will appear in future puzzles.)  

Search on!  

Monday, April 11, 2011

AGoogleADay -- more tough search questions to try!

One of the best ways to learn to do something is to make it the point of play.  Want to improve your hand-eye coordination?  Get out there with a ball and start bouncing!  Want to make it to Carnegie Hall?  Start playing with friends in a chamber music group.  How about playing the Warfield theatre?  Start playing with buddies in a garage band.  No matter what you do, if you seriously play at it, you'll get better.  

So for the past several years I've been trying to put together some kind of game that would engage people in a playful way to learn how to search.  After many trials, we FINALLY got one version of the "Search Game" out into the world! is a simple game that poses a daily search puzzle for you to solve.  The game starts today (Monday April 11, 2011) and will run for the next four weeks with each day's puzzle getting harder from Monday through Friday.  We give you the weekend off (to go play those other puzzles, presumably).  

Here's a sample puzzle from April 8th (we had to test it, don't you know).  If you click on the "Show Answer" button, you'll get the answer AND a solution path telling you how to find answers to questions like this in the future. 

The secret agenda here is to get people to play around with search and to learn all they can do.  I've felt for a while like Google gives people intergalactic hyperdrive starship capabilities, but most people only explore the shallows by paddling around with their shuttlecraft!  

You can share the question each day on Twitter, Buzz or Facebook -- even email it to a friend if you'd like.  

And once you've worked on it for a while, you can click the "Show answer" button to see how we solved the problem.  

Worried about finding spoilers on Google in the Twitterverse?  Not to worry.  The search box above the question is a special "non-spoiler" version of the Google search engine.  (It basically limits all of the searches to the days before the question is posted, hence you'll never see a spoiler that answers the question in the course of your searches.)  

For the next couple of weeks I'll chat about the questions, both how we came up with the question and how/why we solved it the way we did.  

Please post your thoughts about the game here, if you would.  I'll take them back to world headquarters in Mountain View! 

Search AGoogleADay every day! 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Searching for words to fit into a crossword

While I work at Google and love what I do, I'm not oblivious to the charms of other search engines and information resources.  Wolfram Alpha is a remarkable resource that's chock full of ways to find out about science and math.  (One of my favorite Wolfram examples is to compare several equations side-by-side, a trick I hadn't known I'd need until I saw it.  Try this one out:  compare the hyperbolic secant, the hyperbolic tangent and an exponential function.  This is a great way to teach math students about different functions.)  

However, I was very surprised to learn that Alpha also has a function to help solve crossword puzzles. 

Examples work best:  

For example if you enter this query  [ w _ _ f _ a _ _ ] into Alpha, it will generate a suggestions list, with wolfband and Wolfgang as shown below.  NOTE that you have to leave spaces between the underscore characters!  
Yes, I know there are a million other crossword puzzle helpers out there, but this is the only one that can also compute hyperbolic secants!   (And, for those of you who do this with your Android phone, here's an app for that.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Answer: What's that mysterious building near Geyserville, CA?

Quick answers:  It's the River Rock Casino, run by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians.  The site is located 260 feet above the valley floor.  

It took me about 2 minutes to figure all this out.  Here's what I did.  

1.  I wanted to be able to spot the building on a Google Maps aerial image.  So, go to Maps and search for

 [ De Lorimier winery near Geyserville, CA ]   
Toggle into satellite image mode and you can quickly spot the bright whitish spot. 

Once you're there, you can zoom in a bit and see that the popup tells you it's the River Rock Casino.
(A quick image search for
[ River Rock Casino California ] confirms that this is the same place.)  

2. Now that I knew what it was, I wanted to figure out how high it was above the valley floor.  For this I needed the Terrain layer.  Click on the Maps icon and find the Terrain layer, then select it.   

This topographic map then lets me figure out the altitude of the casino.  In this case, you just find the major contour line below the casino and count up by 40s (the contour lines are 40 feet apart).  

This quickly tells you that the casino is located on the 4th contour line (that is, just 40 feet below the 500 foot contour, which is a bit hard to see at this location) -- so it's 460 feet high. By looking at the map on the valley floor you can immediately see that it's at 200 feet.  Therefore, the casino sits 260 feet above the valley.  

One last thing--how to figure out who owns it?  In this particular case, I turned on the Wikipedia layer (the same way I turned on the Terrain layer) and found that there was, conveniently, a Wikipedia entry on the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians.
 (And yes, I did a search on
[ Dry Creek Rancheria ] which took me to the official tribal site.) 

What's the search lesson here? 

Search lesson:  Maps are often a great coordinating device for layers of information; use them when search for location-based information.  

In this case we were able to go from aerial photo to the map, then from map to the terrain layer.  We picked up clues from the Wikipedia layer (of geo-located articles) and measure altitude by counting contour lines.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge (April 6, 2011): What's that odd building near Geyserville?

One of the joys of living in northern California is that we're close to some beautiful grape-raising country.  Gently rolling hills covered in springtime mustard, great wines, fantastic restaurants, wonderful places to go hiking.  
But I saw something that surprised me when traveling north on 101 through the California wine country the other day.  Just past where this picture was taken I noticed a really big set of buildings very near the De Lorimier winery in Geyserville.  It's a group of 4 large buildings, one that's sort of silvery and looks something like a hangar (with rounded ends).  It's in a striking location, perched high above the valley floor with the Mayacamas mountains in the background.   Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of it with me, although someone mentioned to me that it's on Indian reservation land.  

So I have three questions for us: 

   1.  What is this building?  
   2.  How high above the valley floor is it? 
   3.  Is it really associated with an Indian tribe?  If so, which one?  

(I genuinely don't know the answers to these questions and will have to figure it out with the rest of you.)  


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How-to / advice about finding short stories / novels from their plot descriptions

Some strategies picked up along the way for locating short stories. 

Peter, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, wrote a very helpful summary guide for finding short stories and novels.  Well worth checking out:
 LOC Guide to finding stories: 

To summarize the LOC guide and add a couple of ideas:  

1.  Try regular web searches for a quote (using double-quotes) IF you have a quotation fragment or element.  (But keep in mind that often the surest memory of what was in the story might be incorrect.)   You can also look for characters
 (e.g., [ "Robin Hood" "Maid Marian" ]  )
2.  Library databases may also be helpful in locating short stories. Some databases let you limit searches by categories such as genre, subject, first and last line, and setting, or search for keywords in plot summaries: Lit FinderMagillOnLiterature PlusShort Story Index   Note that you can often connect to these databases through your local public library.  (Usually requires a login with your library card.)
3. Short story index: You should know that there are many short story indexes, including the print editions of Short Story Index, can be identified by searching the Library of Congress online catalog under subject headings such as:,  Short Stories, American - Bibliography   Short Stories, American - Indexes  Short Stories - Bibliography   Short Stories - Indexes.  Unfortunately, almost none of these index books are available for searching online (they're certainly not in, even though they would be incredibly useful to have.
4.  Other online collections of stories you might want to search (say, by using site: to restrict your search to just one of these sites):    Bartleby.comProject GutenbergThe Online Books Page
5.  Social solutions:  Some listservs and message boards might prove useful.  These are collections of people who have broad knowledge about plots, characters, setting and stories in general.  Try posting your question to one or more of these:  

In general, these kinds of searches are difficult (to say the least).  Depending on how much time you can devote to the project, it's a great hunt.  

Search on! 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Einstellung effects while teaching search to students

The einstellung effect is the mind set you have while solving a problem, and is a wonderfully Teutonic word that basically means "a person's predisposition to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though there are better or more appropriate methods of solving the problem." 

In other words, it's what happens when you try to keep solving a problem in a particular way, even though there are probably better ways to do so.  You get stuck in a particular approach.

I taught an advanced search methods class last week, and in that class we saw this repeatedly.  We'd teach the class a particular search technique (say, how to use a reverse dictionary for lookup), and then people would keep using that technique, even though it wasn't appropriate for the task they were working on at the time.

It's a bit of the "if the only tool you have is a hammer..." effect (but it's said in German, so it sounds more impressive, more psychological). 

Since our class was the 3rd class in the search instruction series at RAFT (in San Jose) it was the "Advanced" class.  And you'd think after 6 hours of instruction that everyone would start to get the sense that not all techniques work equally well in all cases.  But einstellung is a natural response to learning something new.  If I show you a spiffy new search technique, the obvious thing to do is to try it out on different problems. 

So it's still a bit of a struggle in the classes to get the students to NOT apply techniques without knowing when they're appropriate.  I TRY to tell them the range of applicability, but I'm starting to believe that just telling isn't enough.  That you have to let them try the technique on a problem for which is doesn't work, letting them get the hands-on experience to learn when a method is appropriate. 

This is all a bit counter-intuitive--prior knowledge is supposed to HELP you with solving a problem (in our case, figuring out how to do a search), not limit you.  But that's the einstellung effect for you. 

Our teaching has to take this into account, particularly for teaching search, when you probably don't have a huge amount of time to practice and get over the exciting new thing you just learned. 

My suggestion:  When you show your class a method, show them a case in which is does NOT work.  Those negative examples are also valuable for learning. 

Keep teaching!