Top Bing and Google search tip: Cut to the chase

When using Bing and Google, eliminate words that search engines will regard as noise, or that introduce ambiguity.

John Kehe/Staff
Online search tip No. 1: Use fewer words.

Americans make 16 billion online searches a month. That number is way higher than it needs to be, suggests Frederick Savoye, general manager of Microsoft's search engine, Bing.

The problem: People aren't very good at telling Google, Bing, and Yahoo what they want. Only a quarter of searches are really well worded, Mr. Savoye says. And, unhappy with their initial results, Bing users wind up refining their queries 50 percent of the time.

So what do power searchers have that most people lack? Primarily, it's thrift.

A scientific paper asking the same question found that the fewer words you type in, the better. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts tried plugging in various permutations of the same search terms to see which offered the best information on British-Argentine affairs.

Starting with "define Argentine and British international relations," they shaved off and swapped out words, rating the results of each attempt.

In the end, the most effective search was only two words, "britain argentina."

"The best query, also among the shortest, did not have a natural language flavor to it," says the paper. "It however had an effectiveness almost 50% more than the original query."

By hacking out "define" or "and," they eliminated noise that might distract the search engine. And leaving out ambiguous terms keeps the computer from looking in the wrong places – "relations" could also mean family members or dating services.

Savoye agrees with the paper's findings (and Bing actually hired one of its authors).

"Typically, the results get worse" with each superfluous word, he says. "The more terms in your query, the more complicated it is."

To mitigate the wordiness of their users, many search engines simply ignore a lot of junk terms – mostly prepositions, articles, and symbols such as $, #, or %. Since computers don't acknowledge these in-between words, don't bother adding them.

Starting off with fewer words can also make it easier to polish searches should your first attempt come up empty-handed. If a two-word query isn't specific enough, "the results will likely give you a good indication of what additional words are needed to refine your results on the next search," says Google's official tips page.

The Google guide also suggests: "Think how the page you are looking for will be written." Since a search engine is basically a fancy matchmaker – it takes the words you give it and finds similar examples online – try writing the way your answer might be phrased.

For instance, Google offers the hypothetical query, "in what country are bats considered an omen of good luck." That question makes sense to humans, "but the document that gives the answer may not have those words."

Instead, try "bats are considered good luck in." Or, remember the earlier lesson and simply try "bats good luck."

"That is probably what the right page will say,"according to Google.

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