Search masterclass

Daniel Russell is a search guru in the employ of Google. He addressed a crowd of journalists with a lecture on the super-advanced search techniques, and posed this riddle: "What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?" (solution here).

John Tedesco from the San Antonio Express-News took excellent notes on Russell's speech, and has summarized it for the rest of us. I consider myself a very proficient searcher, but Russell's tips were often surprising and enlightening for me. Here's a great one:

Force Google to include search terms.

Sometimes Google tries to be helpful and it uses the word it thinks you’re searching for — not the word you’re actually searching for. And sometimes a website in the search results does not include all your search terms.

How do you fix this?

Typing intext:[keyword] might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Russell’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website. So if you type:

intext:”San Antonio” intext:Alamo

It forces Google to show results with the phrase “San Antonio” and the word Alamo. You won’t get results that are missing either search term.

How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques (via Making Light)


  1. This “intext:” thing should be very helpful with what I find most annoying about Google: not giving the results I asked for, which happens time and again in my obscure research. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo, which is better at it but not much. Mind you, I don’t think I should *have* to type “intext:” to get what I’m looking for, but I am thankful I can.

    1. what I find most annoying about Google: not giving the results I asked for, which happens time and again in my obscure research.


      i miss the “+”. and i despise the “here are some results from a search that kinda looks like what you typed!”

  2. This used to be accomplished with the “+” operator before a word or phrase, but they removed that syntax when google+ was launched.

    Now you can do the same thing by surrounding any word or phrase with quotes.

    1.  Not quite.  Surrounding the word with quotes makes the whole phrase a search term (rather than the individual words), but it doesn’t require that the term be on the page itself.  It also forces Google to use the spelling for a term that you choose, rather than correcting it to what it thinks the spelling should be.  Using the intext: tag requires that the phrase be on the page.

      If people are wondering why words in your search query might not show up on the page, there are a lot of reasons.  Maybe some of your search terms are in the page and some aren’t and the page has a high rank (because Google treats all of your terms equally for the most part).  Or, and this one isn’t so obvious, maybe your search terms show up on a lot of inbound links TO that page but don’t actually show up on the page itself.  If a lot of people are using your search phrase to link to a page, Google is going to think that page is relevant to your search even if it doesn’t actually contain the phrase.

      1. speaking of which does “-” still work?  I find that forcing Google to NOT include certain words is often better, especially when your search term shares words with some popular cultural phenomenon.  It’s like when you search for something related to Paris and all the results are about Paris Hilton.  It’s often easier to just add “-Hilton” than find extra keywords to include to steer Google away from those bad results.

        1. Way back in the day, AltaVista search would actually provide lists of words that were commonly showing up alongside the terms you put in.

          So, if you searched for “Paris”, saw that your results weren’t what you wanted, you could follow a link to refine the results, and click the ‘+’ button next to “France”, and the ‘-‘ button next to “Hilton” – no guesswork involved as to what good terms to exclude might be.

          I’m surprised Google still hasn’t implemented this.

        2. Hi Gregory, yes the minus sign still works. You’re right about it being an effective search operator. It’s a great way to weed out what you don’t want.

    2. I stand corrected. Jer_00 is correct, “” doesn’t do what I thought it did. It prevents Google from altering the spelling of the term, but it will still search for neighbors and may prioritize your other terms.

  3. I left Google for Bing a while ago over just this issue: changing my search terms without giving a clear, easy way to see what was changed, and to tell the engine not to do that. I shouldn’t have to put in special words to say “no really, search for what I wrote.”

    I switched back to Google from Bing a few weeks back because they were doing the same thing, only worse. Not it looks like Bing’s reverted those changes. I swear, internet search worked better in 1999 than it does now. I know, the internet was smaller back then…

    1. Admittedly they don’t add it to annoy you, they add it because it makes search results infinitely more helpful. But I agree there should always be a get out clause, and really there should be more obvious tools available for the task, as the search engine obviously doesn’t always get it right.

      1. I’m sure that for the vast, vast majority of searches, modifying your terms does make the results more helpful. That’s actually the source of my despair! There seems to me little hope that my old-timey search expectations will last much longer…

        I wish I could remember a good example. It’s only recently that I noticed Google matching entirely different words than what I wrote. I could tell, because this new word was bolded in the summary text, like the actual search terms were. But when I’m looking for a term, I’m looking for exactly that term, not something related to it.

        If intext: also prevents that word substitution, I may just have to make a script to automatically put it in front of every word in my Google searches!

        Edit: And they’ve long attempted to fix spelling. They’ll have the “Searched for X, Click here to search for your original terms” link – but not for this related additional term. That would be much better.

  4. Google also needs a “nomerchants:” keyword to purge any result that’s trying to sell me something. There’s certain technologies out there that are impossible to research because they’ve been so heavily latched onto by merchants that reviews or analysis are buried ten pages into the ooooo’s.. long after google has decided to stop bothering to try and dig up relevant results.

    1. And they need to quit generating ads using scripts from major retailers.  I’m not looking for “best prices on pellagra on the web!” or “Get pellagra at Target!”

      1. I do online computer support.  Just try searching quickly for something you’ve found that you want to verify is not a virus!  In the Google search results, everybody and their pet dog claims to know what it is, have something that removes it, wants to sell you one, or expresses concern that you might be embarrassed by it.  Even if the term never appears anywhere on their web site.  *sigh*

  5. The SITE: function is also good. For instance, how’s Ron Paul doing with white supremacists?  Search “Ron Paul” 

    1. IP: is a nice feature of Bing that Google has yet to offer – maybe it’s not that relevant to most folks, but if you want to find out what sites share an IP address, you can just search “IP:”

  6. I’m surprised intitle: is not mentioned in the post. If a word you’re searching for is common, or particularly important, use the intitle: function to force it to be in the title of the page. If I’m searching for the 2200 printer page on the HP site, I might just type:  intitle:2200  – This brushes away all of the inconsequential pages and only gives me pages about the 2200 on the HP site.

  7. Great protip. I’d be interested to hear how this differs to using standard quote marks, as it seems to do the same thing. Although maybe standard quote marks require the text in the title/description, rather than the content?

    Edit: answered in the time it took to write my comment :)

  8. Thanks for the post, Cory, glad you found the tips useful. Intext: was news to me, too. The image search and map search pretty much blew my mind. Thanks for reading.

  9. Where is Google’s official, comprehensive operator documentation, and why is the top hit for [ google search operators ] “neither affiliated with nor endorsed by Google”?

  10. There’s one thing I’m very eager to find out, but it either isn’t on the Internet, or I can’t make a right query:
    Sometime in the nineties I’ve seen a music video obviously inspired by Lemmings video game: though the green-haired creatures were nowhere to be seen, the singer was mimicking the movements of different lemming types: digging with a pickaxe, falling with an umbrella, standing with spread arms and turning her head as a blocker, etc. I also remember the “level” she was digging through looked like two male faces seen from side and conjoined where the rest of their heads should be. Unfortunately, I don’t remember neither the singer’s name, nor the song’s. Any help?

  11. Yea, nice, ok, wonderful…

    But HOW did searched for the phone number of that office?!

    I have read the whole article expecting some explanation, but all I have are just tools.

  12. I’m kind of amazed that with all of his CSI-like analysis of the photo to find out the phone number, he never even mentions GPS exif data.

    Assuming the shot was taken with a smartphone, it could tell you everything including exact altitude within a couple meters.  In the process of creating his article, though, the exif data is lost (I checked, no GPS). Still, that would be the first thing I look for.

  13. i found the building easy enough (looked for PZU found the name of it, checked where its home office was, then looked for westin in warsaw, poland and seen the tower on the map, the name was there but no telephone. the website didnt have a number the wikipedia article didnt have a number i couldnt find the number)

        1.  Well, to be fair, the question was poorly phrased and I suspect missing a “from”:

          “What’s the phone number of the office [FROM] where this picture was snapped?”

  14. I use verbatim mode. I was not aware of intext: and it completely blows.

    Google blows.

    They have tweaked into fuckerdness all of the things they were good at to achieve almost worthless ends.

    If I told a GPS device the location I wanted and it decided that I *really* wanted to go somewhere else and would direct me there unless I used a secret word to say please, I would throw it out the window.

    I am ready to throw Google out the window.

    1. Dear Google: I’m willing to pay money for world-class search tools. So if you can no longer find any other way to prioritize the needs of professional information seekers, consider charging me.

      1. The illustration exercise really helps clarify what kind of searchtools they’re offering: if you want to know history, general parts of a vehicle, or the latin name for an animal then you’re S-O-L.

        Now if you want to intrude on someone’s personal life WELCOME TO THE NEW IMPROVED WE-DO-EVIL GOOGLEVERSE


  15. Past year

     No results found for “best internet search engine” OR “best search engine” “knowledge worker”.

  16. I too miss the google of yore and have been increasingly using duckduckgo. The intext feature is a good tip, but just typing + was much better. I find it odd that they don’t seem to have reused the + icon for any google+ type feature. Not sure why they dropped it. I think their decision to promote google+ at any and all costs will prove to be a very bad decision. I mean going up against facebook in their prime is like when yahoo when up against google in their prime. You don’t enter a ring with Mike Tyson and expect to win even if you have been working out every day for a year.

  17. Here’s the Google search tip I’ve been fruitlessly trying to dig up: how do I get it to search for a multi-word phrase ignoring results that include punctuation within the phrase? If you search for “word1 word2”, for example, you’ll get results for “…word1. Word2…” and “…word1, word2…” and “…word1-word2…”, etc. It’s maddening, especially considering that a result like “…word1. Word2…” is clearly irrelevant to what you’re searching for.

    1.  I believe that when Google indexes a page, all punctuation is discarded, or converted to spaces with extra spaces discarded. That would make find a solution, well…impossible.

  18. I was trying to play along, but the photo resolution when I downloaded it from Boing Boing wasn’t high enough to quite read the logo of that building.  Which would have helped…. A lot. 

  19. This sub-heading ticked me off:
    “Most of what you know about Boolean is wrong.”
    (reason: Google uses “OR” but ignores “AND” and uses “-word” for “NOT word”)
    My knowledge of Boolean is just fine, thank you.

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