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Use Search Operators To Find Stories, Sources and Documents Online

There are billions of websites on the Internet. But finding the one you need or want isn’t always easy. Thanks to the glut of content farms and spam blogs, the legitimate, useful and smaller sites are often pushed down further in the results, meaning you have to wade through hundreds or more wrong links to find the one. That’s where search operators come in. Using a few carefully crafted phrases and punctuation marks can mean the difference between 10,000,000 hits that are hit-or-miss and 100 hits that are tailored to your actual need.

There are some great guides already online with the advanced operator terms to know and how to quickly find what you want. Here’s one for Google and one for Bing. Below, I’ll highlight just a few of these that I’ve specifically found helpful as a journalist. Also, keep in mind if remembering the often less intuitive search terms isn’t feasible, you can always click on the “Advanced Search” link (Google link; Bing link) and it will guide you through formatting these searches. There are dozens of other phrases and operators to play around with. So take a look at those pages and see what works for you and what unusual ways you can find information or sources.

site:

This is perhaps the most useful search operator to remember. It allows you to narrow your search down only to links coming from your page.

Want to see what 10,000 Words has written about the Flip video camera? Search for “site:mediabistro.com/10000words flip camera” If you wanted to see what anyone on MediaBistro wrote about it, use the same phrase only drop the 10000words from the site, “site:mediabistro.com flip camera” You can be as narrow or broad as you like. This is most useful when you want to find specific information on a specific organization’s website, such as searching a name on the city, county, school district, court, etc. page. A great idea is to combine this operator with the name of someone you need an unlisted e-mail address or phone number for, as it might be posted somewhere you can’t find but search engines have indexed, or try searching a school website for the phrase SSN or Social Security Number or final grades to see if there’s any information posted that shouldn’t be. That could be a story itself!

filetype:

This narrows the search to only links of this file type. Useful if you know what you’re looking for is contained in a PDF or Excel file, for example, or if you’re trolling for information that may be outdated and no longer available, or that shouldn’t have been uploaded to begin with. It’s as easy as typing “filetype:pdf” or “filetype:jpg” or “filetype:xls” with a few key words. You could use similar tactics to find cell phone numbers (often stored in excel files xls or xlsx) or mug shots (jpg).

Combine filetype and site operators with the name of an individual being sued to see if there’s a PDF version of the probable cause affidavit on the website of a local law enforcement agency. Or look for databases/spreadsheets of information, such as unmarried partners from the census, as I did in the example. Bonus points for combining the site: and filetype: operators as such: “site:census.gov filetype:xls unmarried

“quote marks” + contains:

Including words in quotes in most search engines limits your searches only to that exact phrase. Searching for Meranda Watling or "Meranda Watling" yields different results, with the more restricted ones returning fewer hits. This is especially useful when, as in my name, there is an unusual spelling that the search engine may attempt to autocorrect. In Google, adding a +before the word with no space tells it to search for that exact word. In Bing, the word contains:before the word serves a similar function when combined with other phrases. (In Google, the minus sign serves the opposite purpose: It excludes pages with that word.) There are different variations and a change of one punctuation mark can yield different results, so fiddle around with your phrasing to find what you’re looking for.

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