Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Using context terms to focus your search

One of the best tricks I know about internet searching is the use of context terms.  That's a term I invented, it doesn't have any particular function in the search engine, but takes advantage of the co-occurrence of words on a given topic.  

Let me give you an example...   

Often I find myself wanting to look up some particular Google tool or service.  As you know, Google has a LOT of different functions (see Wikipedia's list of Google products)--Google has everything from document editing and spreadsheets up through language translation services, operating systems, and 3D models.

So, how do I find a given Google service?  Hint:  I do NOT have a giant bookmark list, nor do I try to remember all of those URLs.  

Answer:  I use the term "Google" as a context term to find the Google product.  

Example:  I remember that Google has a between-language translation service.  Is it translate.Google.com or google.com/translate or... what?  

I do a search for: 

[ language translate Google

where I add the term "Google" solely as a discrimination term.  It will return the list of translation services offered by Google as the #1 result.  (Note that this isn't Google preferring its own services over others; it's that adding the context term "Google" heavily tilts the results towards Google results... yes, you could have used a site:Google.com -- but using the context term is simpler.)  
Similarly, searches for: 

gives you a set of links to Google's 3D Warehouse (a name that's not 100% obvious).  

Other uses for context terms:  I've illustrated this with Google services, but you can get to almost any other company's services in the same way.  One that I do fairly often is:  [ scholar Microsoft ] to get to their Academic Search system.  (It's Bing's version of Google Scholar, and offers a few nice features such as co-authorship analysis that I sometimes like to use.) 

I use context terms quite a bit when searching for a particular kind of thing that is proving elusive in my search.  A simple example that springs to mind--adding the term "album" when looking for collections of pictures.  

For instance:  [ diving PNG album ] (where PNG means "Papua New Guinea") finds a bunch of albums from people who've taken the time to pull together their pics from a trip to PNG. (Why both looking for albums?  Because you'll usually get a set of pictures from one trip; that's often a more representative sample of someone's experience on a dive trip than the best 100 pictures from a variety of different photographers.)  

Other useful context terms I've used recently include: 
DIY - for "do it yourself" projects  
tutorial - when looking up a quick tutorial on a topic  
high school - to find materials at a high-school level of detail  
sampler - to look for collections of examples 

Now I'm curious.... what "context terms" do you use in your searches and why? 

Search on! 


  1. There are a vast number of query modifiers and modifier classes depending on the category or vertical.

    Brands are often popular modifier classes. Entities (all the rage right now) can also be frequent modifiers. (i.e. - engineering course guide UCSD).

    In music you have artist, song title and modifiers like video and lyrics.

    For products you'll have modifiers such as reviews, best, troubleshooting and manual among others.

    One of the other modifiers that provide a different kind of context is year. I see this used more and more often as users search for recent (2012) or specific content by year.

    Each new client offers a new view into the query syntax of those users and how they use query reformulation (and modifiers) to get to the 'right' information.

  2. @AJ - Nice list. Year is especially helpful. And, to generalize from my Google example, so is a company name. (That's how to find otherwise difficult to find results as those for the Focus--add the word Ford to the search, and it's much better.)

  3. I think it's important to remember that some context terms are better than others, even when they seem like they should lead to the same information.

    I find 'Lyrics' to be especially powerful (far more than 'song'). It makes the most ridiculously sparse information useful.

    Example: I needed to find this song I used to love, but the only two words I could recall were 'chicken' and 'noise' (and each from a different line too). Typing 'chicken noise' is obviously useless, and 'chicken noise song' is also useless, but 'chicken noise lyrics' leads you to the right one like magic. (It's 'Paranoid Android' by Radiohead, if you want to know.)

    What I'm saying is that both 'song' and 'lyrics' are context terms, but 'lyrics' works better. And I'm pretty sure there are other examples like this in many other fields.

  4. "Howto" seems to work well for tutorials, too.

    Or if I'm looking for a comparison, using "vs" between two terms helps (dropbox vs google drive, acrylic vs latex paint).

    To find an overall picture of a subject with graphs and charts, I throw in "infographic". There are so many infographics out there these days, and they're an excellent way to visualize data at a glance!

  5. Beware of overlapping terminology, though.

    I'm surprised that you can find all your Papua New Guinea (PNG) diving photo albums amongst all the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) diving photo albums :-)

  6. Oh - and for technical fixes, 'Solved' is a good context term. Paste the error message you're getting and 'solved' and there's a good chance you'll find the answer.

  7. Not the most scrupulous of uses, but searching for Artist - Album and "blogspot" will often lead to MP3 blogs. Some are artist sanctioned, others are straight piracy, but for obscure things that I cannot find otherwise (or bands long since dead/broken up), it's incredibly useful. I've found things I never thought existed on the internet. It really only works well for less popular bands though, because you'll mostly get reviews otherwise. It's a gray area, but it's led me to a lot of music I would have otherwise never heard.

  8. Based on your post and other things I've read, it sounds like using a context term in a search query would be the equivalent of telling the search engine which category of websites (in its index) it should look at first. Would that be correct?

    1. That's the idea -- it's not quite what happens, but the effect is close enough.

    2. Interesting. So, since that's the idea behind them, but since it isn't quite what happens, what does the search engine do if someone enters a context term?