Ask Stacy: How Can I Find What I’m Searching for Online?

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If you're sometimes frustrated when looking for stuff online, here are some simple tips that will make your life a lot easier.

These days, we’re all searchers, looking online for answers to everything from who’s got the lowest price to whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. Finding the best answer in the least time will save you both time and money.

Here’s this week’s question:

Help! Love, love your newsletter. I cannot find an article that was in one of your newsletters in 2013. I think it was titled Can You Have Too Much in an Emergency Fund, or something similar. Please help me find it, or forward to me. Thanks so much.
– D.S.

Journalists know best

Since long before there was an Internet, being a journalist has been all about searching. Before reporters can write word one, they have to uncover facts, sources, contrary opinions; everything that explains the who, what, when, why and where.

So journalists are a great source for online search tips. I’m going to give you a tip I use frequently, as well as some from other members of our reporting staff.

Tip No. 1: The best way to search a specific site

We’ll start our search tips with how I answered the reader question above. Here’s the verbatim email reply I sent to D.S.:

I’m not finding anything like that…the closest I could come was 9 Ways to Build an Emergency Fund When Money’s Tight, written in 2013.

By the way, here’s a hint for quickly searching any site, including ours. Put the following into your search engine:

site:[website] [Search Term]

For example, when I wanted to search our site per your request, here’s exactly what I put into my search engine: Emergency Fund 

That gave me a complete list of every story we’ve ever published that contained the words “Emergency,” “Fund” or “Emergency Fund.” Try this technique … You’ll like it!

So there’s tip number one. When you want to search a specific site, while you could use the site’s internal search engine, you’ll often find better results by opening another tab, bringing up your favorite search engine and using the technique above to find what you’re looking for.

I search our site so often, I’ve bookmarked that search for When I need to search here, I simply hit the bookmark, then type the words I’m searching for. If you’re often on one particular site, you might want to do the same thing.

Note: “Site:” is called a search operator, and there are others. For example, use the word “related:” and you’ll get results from related sites. Check out more Google operators here and here. You can check out some from Bing here.

Tip No. 2: Use quotes

If you put what you’re searching for in quotes, your results will be more on point. For example, as I said above, searching the words Emergency Fund, without quote marks, returned results that included the words “Emergency,” “Fund” and “Emergency Fund.”  But if you put quotes around your search words, you’ll only get results that include those exact words.

In short:

  • Emergency Fund: Results will include any of these words.
  • “Emergency Fund”: Results will include only this exact two-word phrase.

For a more amusing reason to use quotes, here’s what Ari Cetron, one of our experienced reporters, said when asked for his favorite search tip.

Putting something in quotes, names in particular, [is the best way] to search the exact term instead of the engine arranging the words into its own order. This was something I learned quickly when working in Virginia and doing searches on State Sen. Dick Black.

Tip No. 3: Breaking through pay walls

Unfortunately, sometimes the best online information is available only from the Internet’s more expensive sources. For example, I frequently find myself turning to venerable institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports for information. Unfortunately, all hide at least some of their content behind pay walls, and subscriptions to their online publications don’t come cheap.

While most journalists in my line of work pay for (and deduct the cost of) these publications, you don’t have to. That’s because you already pay for them with your tax dollars. Here’s a tip from another of our writers with decades of experience, Marilyn Lewis:

I make big use of my public library’s electronic database. For example, last week I wanted to read a Wall Street Journal article that is available to subscribers only. I went to my library’s online site, signed in, and my library membership let me access ProQuest, a powerful database of publications used by researchers and librarians. Through the library, I have online access to encyclopedias, magazines, including Consumer Reports, newspapers, genealogy research materials, foundation grant-writing materials, legal references and tons more. The library even has Rosetta Stone language courses available online to use with your mobile app. When I run into trouble with a search, the wonderful local librarians are available by phone or email to help.

Tip No. 4: Don’t get married to just one

You’ll note that I’ve tried to steer away recommending any particular search engine, like Google, Bing or Yahoo in this article. That’s because there’s no “best” when it comes to searching. As another of our experienced journalists, Karla Bowsher, succinctly states:

All search engines work differently, which means they frequently return different search results in different orders. So if you find yourself frustrated with one search engine, try another.

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