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Old 25.05.2007, 21:09
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[Help] How to search effectively

Think you already know it all? Too easy? Then skip right to the end for our super-expert guide and see if you really do know everything...

Why use search?

As the amount of information we need to access grows exponentially, mastery of at least basic search skills is essential if we wish to locate the information we need. In the end, effective searching means saving you time.

Forum etiquette

It's always a good idea to try to see if the information you are looking for already exists. This helps avoid cluttering the forum with duplicated requests and fragmented information on a topic. Less clutter and duplication makes it easier for everyone to find what they need. The golden rule in any forum or internet-based discussion is to always browse, read and search (not necessarily in that order) before posting a new thread or post.

Learning how to search effectively

If you've never actually learned how to search before (most people haven't) you will find this guide very informative. We have tried our best to make it as easy to follow as possible. If you think you already know the basics, feel free to skip ahead to the more advanced levels.

This multi-part guide is divided up into the following sections:
Lesson 1: Basic Searches
Searching the forum, understanding the results, refining your search for better results, changing the output - threads or posts?
Suitable for beginners or those who seem to be having trouble locating what they need.

Lesson 2: Intermediate-Level Searches
Searching within a forum, searching within a thread, searching on a page, further refinement of your search terms, using small words or abbreviations, dealing with duplicated threads.
This lesson is for those who are already comfortable with the basic search, but are perhaps sometimes frustrated when they get too many or irrelevant search results.

Lesson 3: Advanced Searches
Using the advanced search function, narrow results by poster, selecting different areas or sub-areas, more ways to refine your search terms, sorting your results, more advanced searching options, saving your search preferences.
You've mastered the intermediate level and want to find out how to get the most of the search tools available to you on the forum.

Lesson 4: External Tools - Using Google to Search the Forum
Why use Google to search the forum? How? Basics of a Google search, understanding the results, narrowing down the results, Google syntax, advantages of using Google search, disadvantages of using Google search.
Power users know how to harness other search engines to search for content within the forum - sometimes this can be far more effective than the standard forum search tools.

Lesson 5: Further Study
Books, websites.
If you feel like you've mastered everything so far, this lesson points you to some further resources where you can learn more about effective searching.

Last edited by mark; 05.07.2007 at 11:09.
Old 26.05.2007, 14:59
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Lesson 1: Basic Searches

Lesson 1: Basic Searches

This lesson is suitable for beginners or those who seem to be having trouble locating what they are looking for. We will examine the following topics:
  • Searching the forum
  • Understanding the results
  • Refining your search for better results
  • Changing the output - threads or posts?
If you feel that you are comfortable with the basic search function, please feel free to skip to the next lesson, Intermediate-Level Searches.

Searching the forum

The simplest way to search the forum is to click or hover your mouse near the word "Search" on the menu bar at the top-right-hand section of the screen.

Figure 1.1 - Locating the search function

Now simply enter your search terms into the box as shown below. Don't worry about the other options for the moment.

Figure 1.2 - Entering the search terms

When you are done, click the "Go" button or press ENTER on your keyboard. You may have noticed that instead of using the most-correct spelling of "adviser", we used an alternative, "advisor", which many people consider incorrect. However, since the less-correct version seems to be more common both on the internet and this forum, we've used it in this example.

Understanding the results

It's important to remember that the results you will get depend very much on the search terms you use, but we will discuss this more a little later. For the moment, let's take a look at our search results.

Figure 1.3 - Our search results

There are a few important points of information to check. Our search words (tax, advisor) are listed at the top - were these the correct ones we meant to use? At the top-right we see the number of results, in this case twenty-one. If we had too many results they would be split into multiple pages and we may have to refine our search further to make the number of results more manageable.

At the moment we are looking at the threads which contain both of the search terms we used. The list has been sorted according to the date of the last post, so those threads which have had the most recent activity are listed first. Bear in mind however, the most recent activity may have no relation to whether or not this thread is the most relevant to your search (we learn more about ways to sort and refine results in lesson three).

We can look at the "Replies" and "Views" column to get an idea of how "busy" these threads are. Maybe a long thread has a better chance of having our information on it, but then again maybe the thread has wandered off topic, and the information we were looking for was mentioned only in passing.

Probably the two most important columns to check are the name of the thread and the forum in which it's located (left-hand and right-hand columns respectively). A thread title that closely matches our subject probably has the best chance of having the information we need. For example "Finding a tax advisor, consultant or accountant" is probably the best match and you would probably click this one first. In this case the thread is located in the "Finance/Banking/Taxation" area, which is also relevant to our search.

Another aspect to consider is that often we get results which are not relevant to our search. For example can you see the thread "Swiss Firms in War for Talent?" in the "Employment" area. This is the most popular and most recently active thread on our list. However, since it is in an employment area, the chance that it contains what we are looking for is reduced.

We shouldn't automatically dismiss a thread because it doesn't look relevant. For example take a look at "Moving to Switzerland from Los Angeles" in "Introductions". Normally the introductions forum is just for light-hearted banter, but despite the guidelines, many people ask and give advice that should be located in other areas. Also, despite our best efforts, many people use a subject line which does not describe the content of their thread. This may mean that it can sometimes be difficult to decide which threads to check.

The best strategy is to decide which threads seem the most relevant and to check those first. If you don't find what you are looking for, refine your search further or check also those threads which seem less relevant.

Refining your search for better results

We'll look at more advanced methods for refining our search in subsequent lessons, but for the moment we will keep it simple. The golden rules for searching are as follows:
  • If you receive too many results, narrow your search
  • If you receive too few or no results, widen your search
How do we narrow or widen the search? To narrow the search we would use a larger number of keywords or make them more specific. To widen the search we would make them less specific and reduce the number of words.

Let's look at our example of searching for a tax advisor. In this case we had twenty-one threads that matched. This is a manageable number and we wouldn't have a problem checking through ten or so of these threads, but let's imagine we want to narrow this search.

Where would we like this advisor to be? Are there any other specific words that might be relevant to our situation? Let's experiment:

Figure 1.4 - Narrowing the search

By adding the word "Zurich" to our search terms we have reduced the number of results from twenty-one to five. We can see a thread which seems to be about Geneva in position three, but this was due to the fact that the poster mentioned that there were already threads for Zurich, but none for Geneva. Since the word appeared in that post, it matched our search results.

What if the search we do returns too few, or no results at all? In that case we need to broaden the search terms, or try alternative words. For example:

Figure 1.5 - Broadening the search

By searching only for the word "tax" we now have five hundred results returned (there may be more, but this is the maximum displayed). At this point we would quickly realise that most of the results returned are not relevant to our search and we would consider narrowing our search again.

If your search is too specific, you may be missing relevant results. Bad examples of a query might be "good tax advisor", or "finding a tax advisor". Why? You'll be missing out posts that don't contain the word "good" or "advisor" - are these words really necessary for your search? Stick to relevant keywords only.

In lesson two we will look at some more techniques for refining search results, including the use of spelling alternatives and the use of foreign words.

Changing the output - threads or posts?

So far our search results have been delivered as threads. This is not always ideal because when we search we are actually searching each post on the forum, not the entire thread. In other words, if a thread contained two posts, and the first one contained "tax" and the second one "advisor", this thread would not match our search terms. In order for our search terms to be related, they must be within the same post.

In a long thread it would be much easier for us to jump directly to the post which contained our search term, especially if we had to wade through a long, multiple-page thread.

Did you notice the "show posts" option on the search function before?

Figure 1.6 - Selecting results as posts

Now our results are returned to us in a completely different style. The first thing we notice is that when we displayed the results we had twenty-one matches. When we display the results as posts we now have four pages of matches - ninety-three in total. Why?

Figure 1.7 - Results - as posts

We have several posts on the same threads that all use our search terms. So there were ninety-three posts, spread across twenty-one threads. If we look at our search results above we see that the first two posts are actually on the same thread.

Notice the first red arrow in the diagram - this is the thread title (we see that the same thread title is used in the post below it). If we were to click the thread title, we would be taken to the first post on that thread - probably not where we want to go.

Look at the second arrow. Even though the text is the same as the thread title, this is actually the post title (sometimes people change the post title, but usually they just leave it to be the same as the thread). We can also see the first few lines of the post itself.

In this case it would probably be better for us to click on the post title - that would take us directly to the post in question and save us the effort of having to search through a long thread to find what we were looking for.

What's next?

Now you have mastered the basics of searching, practice a little, then continue with lesson two.

Last edited by mark; 07.06.2007 at 17:14. Reason: Formatting / typos
Old 26.05.2007, 19:53
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Lesson 2: Intermediate-Level Searches

Lesson 2: Intermediate-Level Searches

This lesson is those who have a basic understanding of searching the forum. We'll examine the following topics:
  • Searching within a forum
  • Searching within a thread
  • Searching on a page
  • Further refinement of your search terms
  • Using small words or abbreviations
  • Dealing with duplicated threads
If you've arrived directly at this lesson, it might be a good idea to quickly review the main points raised in the previous lesson, Basic Searches.

Searching within a forum

You will need to do this if you think there is a good chance that you'll locate the information you need within a given section of a particular forum (we also refer to a sub-section as a forum, which is confusingly the same word we use to refer to the entire site).

Figure 2.1 - Searching within a forum

Here we see that we are viewing the list of threads in the Finance/Banking/Taxation forum. All we have to do is click the "Search this Forum" menu option at the top-right of the display block which contains the list of threads in this forum. This is not be be confused with the global search function (located in the global navigation bar at the top of each page) we examined in lesson one.

In this example we've used the same search terms we used in the previous lesson, which produced the following result:

Figure 2.2 - Results from a forum-specific search

Notice that the result looks similar to the result from our queries from lesson one, with the exception that there are now only ten threads returned instead of twenty-one. This is because results from all other areas except the current forum have been excluded. Notice that our query has also changed - look at the area just above the red arrow - we can now be sure that our search has been restricted as we intended.

Searching within a thread

There may be times when we need to locate certain information within a specific thread. In such a case we would need to be really sure that our search terms exist within the thread. Maybe this is a thread we located with a broader search, and now we want to find out which posts on this thread have the search terms (hint: displaying the results as posts instead of threads would also help in this situation).

When viewing a thread you'll notice an option at the top of each page of the thread called "Search this Thread". Click this option.

Figure 2.3 - Searching within a thread

We've selected the first thread in the list from the previous page of results and now we will search it for the same words.

Figure 2.4 - Results from a forum-specific search

Remember, as we learned in the previous lesson, to view the posts you must click the links for the posts themselves (marked by red arrows in the figure above), rather than the link for the thread (the ones that appear in bold).

You may notice something strange about these search results. We see that this thread has fifty-four replies, but we have fifty-six search results returned. This is because the title of the thread (which is then copied as the title of each post if the poster doesn't change it) contains our search term. Therefore we have matched every single post in the thread. In reality we probably would have wanted to use more specific terms with this in mind.

Searching on a page

There may be many situations where you want to find words within a post, or words within the part of the thread that is appearing on your page (remember that threads may span multiple pages). For a search like this you use the search function built into your web browser. This is very fast and easy. We'll show you examples for two browsers, Firefox and Internet Explorer. Remember to check the documentation or online help for your browser if you need additional assistance.

If you use Firefox just press control-F (or from the menu at the top of the application, Edit -> Find in This Page. A small box appears at the bottom of the screen in your status bar.

Figure 2.5 - Searching with Firefox

After you enter the text, press the "Previous" and "Next" buttons to locate the text, which will appear highlighted as shown. Searching in Internet Explorer is almost the same - press control-F, enter the search term and press "Next".

Figure 2.6 - Searching with Internet Explorer

Hint: Unless you are sure that your search terms appear exactly one after the other, it's usually a good idea to search for only one word at a time at this stage.

Further refinement of your search terms

In the last lesson we learned about widening our search with less specific words and narrowing our search with more specific words. In this lesson we'll consider alternative words and strategies for dealing with different language issues. In the next lesson we'll go further and examine some advanced syntax to include with our queries.

Let's consider our original search example for a tax advisor. As we pointed out earlier, this spelling is considered my many people as incorrect. We've used it only because its use seems to have become more prevalent both on the internet, and on the forum.

The issue is that by restricting your search only to one form of spelling, you may be missing out on results. Let's try the same query, but this time using the spelling of "adviser" instead.

Figure 2.7 - Searching using alternative spellings

Our search returned five threads when using "adviser" compared to twenty-one threads with "advisor". Rightly or wrongly, we can never assume that others will spell correctly, so always try to think of common misspellings.

Language issues may also play a role. For example there may be a post about leeks and where to buy them. An American, probably not knowing what a leek is, could be busy searching for a green onion. An Australian or British person might be looking for information about driving a car with a manual transmission and not find a post written by an American referring to "stick".

Not only do our users come from all over the world, but those of us who live in Switzerland live in one of four language regions. Therefore it is essential that we communicate in a common language (English), even when describing certain aspects of our surroundings. When it comes to searching, this becomes even more critical, which is why we have written a language policy that we ask our members to respect when posting.

Unfortunately, some people do not respect or consider this policy, which can make your job a little more difficult when searching. You may need to find the translation of your search term in German or French and try that instead. For example we may find that our previous search returns more (or rather different) results if we use the word Treuhand (close German equivalent for an accountant or financial adviser in a legal sense) instead.

Figure 2.8 - Searching using an equivalent German word

You may want to consider using an online dictionary to look for possible translations. We realise that this issue complicates searches for all our users and can only ask our members to consider the language policy when posting.

Searching using small words or abbreviations

Please be aware that any words smaller than three characters cannot be used as search terms. If you try to search for these words you will receive an error message. You should also avoid using common words like "the" or "and" (which is a command to the search engine itself), since these will be of little relevance.

This is the reason why is a bad idea to refer to Switzerland as "CH" in your posts. Not only will people be unable to search for this term, but those searching for Switzerland will not match posts using "CH", "Switz", "Swiss", "Schweiz", "Suisse" or any other spelling which is not valid in English.

Dealing with duplicated threads

Unfortunately there are always those who will post a question without searching to see if it has already been discussed. This poses a particularly difficult problem for a forum. Imagine there are many threads which start with "Where can I find a tax advisor?". These threads may then continue with moderators or other members replying with "We've discussed it before, use the search function". The problem is that these threads will themselves end up in the search results and if they are numerous will frustrate people from getting to the real threads where the subject is discussed.

For this reason we created a special area called Trash / Duplicate Questions where moderators put such threads. Posts in this section are deleted periodically, but until that happens these threads are excluded from searches or from appearing in the new posts list. This is one way in which we try to ensure that your search results are not cluttered with such threads.

How can you help? When you come across such a thread, please report it to the moderator of that area. This is very easy - simply click the little triangle icon above the post on the right-hand side:

Figure 2.9 - Clicking the "Report this post" button

Then simply tell the moderator about the thread. You don't have to write a lot, just bring it to their attention. Please don't expect a personal reply - they are very busy but will appreciate it nonetheless.

Figure 2.10 - Reporting the post to a moderator

What's next?

In our next lesson we are going to take a look at more advanced search features, helping you to narrow down your results and save time when searching. We'll be tackling the "Advanced Search" function of the forum and exploring its features.

Last edited by mark; 07.06.2007 at 17:18. Reason: Typos, formatting
Old 04.06.2007, 23:48
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Lesson 3: Advanced Searches

Lesson 3: Advanced Searches

You've mastered the intermediate level and want to find out how to get the most of the search tools available to you on the forum. In this lesson we will look at:
  • Using the advanced search function
  • Narrow results by poster
  • Selecting different areas or sub-areas
  • More ways to refine your search terms
  • Sorting your results
  • More advanced searching options
  • Saving your search preferences
If you have arrived directly at this lesson, but aren't already familiar with search basics you may wish to go back to the Basic Searches or Intermediate-Level Searches lessons.

Using the advanced search function

To access the advanced search function click the "Search" link on the global navigation bar at the top-right of the page. Once the search window appears click the "Advanced Search" underneath the text input area.

Figure 3.1 - Accessing the advanced search function

Narrow results by poster

Maybe you are looking for a post written by a particular member? For example, maybe you remember that the poster had a name containing the word "mark". Enter the search term and the name of the poster:

Figure 3.2 - Narrowing down a search using the name of the poster

Note the details of the search have been listed for our convenience before the results. Notice that an extra condition is now attached - we are looking for posts from "mark" containing our search terms.

Figure 3.3 - Results displayed, including notification of additional search conditions

Notice the checkbox for "Exact name" in figure 3.2? If we unchecked this box we would expand our search to all users who had the word "mark" in their username. This would include Mark2, Mark75, markjo, markjones, etc.

Please note that often during the rest of these lessons we will always ask for our results to be shown as posts rather than threads. Once you become experienced with searching the forum, this method will probably become your preference as well. To make this selection in the advanced search page simply click the appropriate radio button near the bottom of the page:

Figure 3.4 - Displaying results as posts instead of threads

Note that we have more results returned now because there are more posts than threads which contain this search term.

Selecting different areas or sub-areas

In the previous lesson you learned how to search one particular forum or area using the search function in the forum view. Now we will look at a more powerful way to search multiple forums. Let's say we want to look for our search terms, but we suspect that the results we want might be found in a few different forums. You can select one or more forums to search by simply clicking on the forum names in the "Search in Forum(s)" section. If you would like to select more than one forum, hold down the control key as you click on an area. If "Also search in child forums" is selected then any sub-forums of a forum may also be included (if they exist). Let's go ahead and use the same search terms with a new example:

Figure 3.5 - Restricting the search by area

Notice that the fact that we've narrowed the search to selected areas is also listed at the top of the search results page for our convenience.

Figure 3.6 - Results from a search restricted to particular areas

More ways to refine your search terms

The plus, or AND operator

By default, when we search for things and use multiple search terms (tax advisor), what we really want is that only posts that contain all of the search terms should be shown. There are different ways of expressing this, but we could think of our search as (+tax +advisor), where the "+" symbol means something like "this word must be found, or don't show the post". We never really think about that the plus symbol anymore, so it is automatically included into all our searches (also when using Google). In fact, we've all got so used to this kind of search (also called an AND search) that we've forgotten about the old days when some search engines used to do OR searches. However these quickly became useless as not many people knew that they had to put "+" into their search terms, so search engine designers just gave up and automatically put in the "+" for us.

The minus symbol

So if we don't need the plus symbol anymore, why are we learning about it? Because there's also a very useful symbol - the minus symbol. This is a very convenient way for narrowing down your search results. Let's say you are looking for a tax advisor in Bern. Of course you could simply add the word "Bern" to your search term, but that would spoil all the fun. Let's instead look for tax advisors, but we want to exclude all posts where the word "Zurich" appears. This is what our query would look like:

Figure 3.7 - Excluding a word with the minus symbol

After we run this query we get fewer results. You may remember that when viewing the results as posts we had ninety-three posts using the search terms "tax advisor", but after excluding "Zurich" that number is reduced to eighty-five.

Figure 3.8 - Less results after excluding a term from the query

Quotation marks

Another powerful trick is to enclose certain search terms in quotation marks:

Figure 3.9 - Restricting the order of words using quotation marks

This tells the search engine that we want the word "advisor" to appear immediately after "tax".

Figure 3.10 - Fewer results returned by forcing word order with quotation marks

If the post contained the words "looking for an advisor for my tax", it would not match. Be careful when narrowing your search using quotation marks - you should be certain that the phrase should appear exactly as you specified it.

The OR operator

If you read the previous section about the AND operator you may have got the impression that the OR operator has been consigned to history. Thankfully this is not the case! There are many useful searches that can be done using this operator.

Remember back in lesson two we spoke about the problems from misspellings, alternative spellings (e.g. American English) and the spellings of place names using non-English forms, even when a well-established convention exists (e.g. Zuerich or Zürich rather than the correct English form - Zurich)? This is exactly where the OR operator can help. Let's consider this search:

Figure 3.11 - Not thinking carefully about use of the OR operator results in too many matches

This gives us over five hundred results. Why? Because "tax" is a common word - since it doesn't have to appear in the same post as "advisor", we made our search too broad. But let's consider an alternative:

Figure 3.12 - Using brackets with the OR operator

Now this is more interesting. Now we have covered both forms of spelling with a single search. Because we are grouping terms together we have to put a bracket around the terms covered by the OR statement and use a "+" to force it to match. If we don't do it like that the whole query will be treated as a big OR operation and we'd get too many results.

Figure 3.13 - More results are returned when we include alternate spellings

This means that tax is always required and that the OR operation was between advisor and adviser. Notice that now we have one-hundred and eight results - more than last time. The covering both alternative spellings gave us more results.

Now that we've seen that we can use brackets and combine operators like + and - let's think about how to solve some of our more tricky search problems. Think about what some of the following queries might return:

+tax +(advisor OR adviser) +(zurich OR zürich OR zuerich)
"tax advisor" OR "tax adviser"
("tax advisor" or "tax advisor") OR treuhand -zurich (treuhand is the German equivalent)

Note that common alternate spellings like organise/organize will be automatically matched without the need to supply alternate misspellings, but other words like advisor and adviser will not.

Using wildcards

Wildcards are a way of searching for many words at the same time. Rather than searching for both variations of adviser/advisor, we could simply search for advis*. This would search for all words beginning with "advis", regardless of the ending. This can be useful for words which have various endings such as finding, find, finder, finds. Specifying find* would get them all. You can combine the wildcard character with other operators, except you cannot use it inside quotation marks.

There is a limitation to the wildcard - you can't use it in the middle of a word - z*rich will not find both German spellings and the English spelling.

Sorting your results

So far you have been receiving your search results (either as threads or posts) sorted in such a way that the latest posts or most recently updated threads appear at the top of the list. When we look at the advanced searching dialogue in the "Sort Results by" section, this behaviour is confirmed:

Figure 3.14 - Sorting results by posting date

If we wanted to reverse this order so that the newest posts or threads came at the end of the list, and we saw the oldest first, it would simply be a matter of changing the drop down box to "in Ascending Order" like this:

Figure 3.15 - Reversing the sort order

This probably wouldn't be very useful though, so let's explore some of the other ways we can sort:

Figure 3.16 - Different sorting options available

Maybe we want to see the more popular threads first? In this case we might select "Number of Replies" if we want to see longer threads first, or "Number of Views" if we want to see more popular threads first. Of course we would use "in Descending Order" so that the highest number of replies or views is shown first, with the smaller number last.

Experiment a little with the different sorting options and see if you can make your searches more effective.

There is one very interesting sorting option - "Relevancy". This analyses factors such as the frequency the words appear, as well as the distance from each other. For example, the word "tax" at the start of a post and the word "advisor" probably isn't very relevant for us at all. If they were right next to each other it would be more relevant.

When searching by relevancy you should be aware that the search behaviour changes. Let's enter our usual search term for a tax advisor and see what happens when we request sorting by relevancy.

Figure 3.17 - Sorting by relevance produces an unexpected OR in our search

This is a somewhat unexpected result - we actually wanted tax AND advisor, but our search has been changed to OR - with 500 results returned. We can work around this by entering our query as +tax +advisor (using the notation we learned above). We now see the result we were expecting earlier:

Figure 3.18 - Using the plus operator helps to convert an OR into an AND

We now see the number of results we'd expect for tax AND advisor, though we see that our search is displayed as +tax OR +advisor. This might seem a little strange, but it actually means AND. This quirk seems to be only applicable to sorting with relevancy, all other sort modes accept search terms "normally". Notice that the first post returned is about four months older than the others - although older it was judged to be more relevant.

More advanced searching options

It can sometimes be useful to exclude threads that have no replies - chances are that these threads will contain nothing but a question. If there have been no replies it could be a stupid question which everybody has ignored. You may want to exclude such threads from your search. To do this locate the option "Find Threads with" and set it as follows:

Figure 3.19 - Restricting results to threads with replies

Now we will see threads only if they have one or more replies. We could also use this function to exclude very long threads (which can sometimes match our keywords but may not be relevant).

Restricting searches by date can also be very useful. Imagine if we were searching for a thread we had seen recently, there would be no need to search all the threads as well. Let's examine the options under the "Find Post from" function.

Figure 3.20 - Confining search results to a date range

If we were searching for information on a concert which may have been announced recently we might select "A month Ago" and "and Newer". If we were looking for information which we know to be quite old we might pick something like "6 months Ago" and "and Older".

Please remember that this option applies to posts and not threads. Threads themselves don't actually have dates because they contain posts with various dates.

Are you finding that your search is returning too many results? In the "Search by Key Word" section you'll a drop-down box. Let's search for our keywords and restrict the search to just the titles of threads, rather than the contents.

Figure 3.21 - Searching only within the thread titles

We now see that the results we have returned have been reduced to only four:

Figure 3.22 - Less results returned by searching within thread titles only

We changed our results back to threads, rather than posts here. Why? Since our keywords are in the thread title, they have likely been copied into every post on that thread - so we'd get too many results. Since we are interested in thread titles, it therefore makes more sense to present our results this time as threads.

This can be a powerful search strategy, but it is important to remember that it works only when people have used thread titles relevant to the thread. If your keywords aren't in the title - you won't see the thread in the results.

Saving your search preferences

At the bottom of the search screen you'll find a drop-down box:

Figure 3.23 - Saving search preferences

If you selected "Save Search Preferences" and clicked "Go" the current options set on the advanced search page would be saved. Next time you returned to this page the options would appear the way you had saved them. This is useful if you always prefer to do a certain type of search. You can reset the options back to standard default by using the "Clear Search Preferences" option (available only if you click on the drop-down box).

What's next?

Now that we've exhausted the search options for searching within the forum we are ready to tackle the next advanced topic - using external search engines like Google to search within the forum. Your forum searches may be transformed forever...

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Lesson 4 - External Tools: Using Google to Search the Forum

Lesson 4 - External Tools: Using Google to Search the Forum

You've mastered the advanced level and are comfortable using the built-in search function. In this lesson we will look at:
  • Why use Google to search the forum?
  • How? Basics of a Google search
  • Understanding the results
  • Narrowing down the results
  • Google syntax
  • Advantages of using Google search
  • Disadvantages of using Google search
This lesson is suitable for advanced users who want to maximise their ability to locate information easily. If you are not already familiar with the built-in search functions and various operators, please return to the previous lesson, Advanced Searches.

Why use Google to search the forum?

There are a number of reasons why you may wish to use Google to search inside English Forum. You may simply be more used to the "natural language" type of searching that Google offers or the simple way that they sort their results. If you are having trouble locating certain information using the built-in search function of the forum, Google may sometimes help you dig out something that might be difficult to find.

How? Basics of a Google search

We'll start with the exact format you should use for your searches, then remove some of the elements and explain them later. Let's get started with the same query we used in earlier lessons. Enter your query into google like this:

Figure 4.1 - A typical English Forum search using Google

Before we examine the syntax of our search, let's take a look at the results:

Figure 4.2 - Results from a Google query

The most important thing to note is the number of results we received. Notice that this number is thirty. This is approximately the same as the number of threads returned from this query using the built-in search function in the previous lessons.

Understanding the results

Let's examine figure 4.2. From our thirty results only four are visible in our screen shot. How does the appearance of our results differ than those we get from the built-in search? The blue heading is the thread title, but we can also see two lines of text below. Google shows us the text immediately surrounding our search terms and displays the search terms themselves in bold text. This helps you to quickly guess is this the thread you might be looking for.

Below that in green we can see the URL - or web page address of the thread in question. You may notice that the thread title itself forms part of the URL - this is why writing descriptive thread titles containing relevant key words is so important - it is used by Google to find relevant threads.

Let's look a bit more closely at the individual results we can see. In first place we notice that this thread was found in the archive. It has "[Archive]" in the thread title, and also in the URL. Don't worry, we can still read it, it's just probably an old thread.

In second and fourth positions we see an actual thread and in the third position we see the Finance/Banking/Taxation section, rather than any specific thread. It has probably matched because this page is a listing of threads and some of the threads listed on the page may have contained our keywords. We probably want to ignore this entry.

Narrowing down the results

You may have noticed some extra terms we inserted into our search at the beginning. Let's look at these a little more closely. Did you see the command site:englishforum.ch? This tells Google to narrow down our search results from the entire internet, to only pages found at englishforum.ch. You've probably been using the site: command to narrow down your Google searches already (e.g. site:.ch to return only Swiss domains). site: has a cousin called inurl: but this doesn't work so effectively for our purpose, so we aren't going to explain it here.

You may have noticed that we entered another command -"view single post". The reason why we use this becomes apparent if we leave it out:

Figure 4.3 - Displaying both posts and threads in the results

If we look at the first entry we see a thread, or more accurately, page two of a thread. Google sees each page of a thread as a separate web page and will report them separately (unlike the built-in search which simply displays the thread). Notice how the other entries say "View Single Post"? These are the posts themselves. In our first search we wanted to see a list of threads, so we used the minus and the double quotes to exclude this exact phrase (we covered this same syntax in the previous lesson).

By removing the term entirely we get a mix of threads and posts. What would we search for if we wanted to see just the posts? You have probably already guessed:

Tax advisor "view single posts" site:englishforum.ch

This is almost the same as our first query, except that we dropped the minus sign, meaning that this phrase is now required rather than being excluded.

How could we narrow or broaden our terms further? Simple - just make sure that the site:englishforum.ch stays in the search and add or remove keywords, just as we did in the earlier lessons.

It is also important to bear in mind how our terms are searched. In the built-in search function results are only displayed if the search terms are found within each post. With a Google search (if single posts are excluded) then words could be matched on an entire page. This means that a post at the beginning may have "tax" and a post at the end "advisor" and they would be considered a match.

Google syntax

Google's syntax is not unlike the syntax you've already learned, except that it tends to be a bit more forgiving in terms of suggesting spelling corrections and trying to match up similar sounding words automatically. Operators such as plus, minus, double quotes, OR, AND work exactly the same way.

A Google query for tax OR advisor tells us that the number of results is 2,280, whereas the built-in search function limits those results to five hundred.

As well as the options we've been using so far, Google has a many other powerful search commands to narrow or broaden your searches. A full discussion of these within this document would be unnecessary, but you would benefit from reading this handy guide [google.com] about getting more out of Google.

Advantages of using Google search

Why would we choose a Google search over an internal search?
  • When you want better sorting by Google's idea of "relevance", for example when you have a lot of search results and you are unable to narrow your query effectively.
  • When you have too few results - the built-in search feature tends to be a lot more picky about spelling. Google knows that certain words are related and can therefore be a little bit less strict.
  • When you want to search on a term less than three letters, e.g. UK. The built-in search function does not allow words of less than three letters in a search. Google on the other hand will allow two-letter words and abbreviations. Be aware that common words like "to", "the", etc. are automatically removed by Google. You can force them with the plus operator.
  • When you want to access the various additional features of Google's search - far more feature-rich than the built-in search.
Disadvantages of using Google search

There are some times when it is better to use the built-in search function. What sort of disadvantages does a Google search have compared to the built-in one?
  • Areas which are not public are never searched by Google. For example, everything in the Off-Topic area will never be found in Google's index. Since Google is not a member of the forum, it cannot see these areas.
  • Searches may not contain the latest information. Google visits the forum often, but will never be as up-to-date as searching within the forum itself Posts or threads may have been moved around by the moderators after Google has indexed them. You might find that after you arrive, things look different to what you expected. Hint: used the "Cached" link in the Google results to show you Google's own copy of the page (older) if you suspect things have changed.
  • You won't have access to some of the more powerful search features of the build-in search function such as limiting scope according to various areas of the forum, searching for posts from a particular poster, etc. Such things are not impossible with Google, but the search syntax would be very complex and cumbersome.
Now that you understand how and why to use a Google search to locate information on the forum, you can make a more informed decision about which method to use for particular searches.

What's next?

You are pretty much done. In the next section we'll list some more external resources that may be useful if you'd like to study the topic of searching in more detail. Remember - learning how to search effectively is a skill that will help you not just on the forum, but pretty much anywhere on the internet.

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Lesson 5: Further Study

Lesson 5: Further Study

This lesson is more of a list of reference material for further reading. It is designed for people who want to learn more about some of the technical aspects of what was discussed in the previous lessons, or who want to improve their searching skills further.

If you've arrived directly here and haven't reviewed the previous lessons, it might be an idea to do so.


Google Pocket Guide, O'Reilly, 140 pages.
This is a handy little book which covers all of the basic Google commands, as well as some of the more advanced ones, and examples of how to use them.

Unlocking Google's Hidden Potential, Steven Spencer, 27 pages. (pdf)
This free e-book is a great little guide giving you not just the relevant commands, but lots of ways to use them. The final section also lists details of some of Google's other products. Worth a download and a print.


Boolean Logic, Wikipedia
This is an article that explains, in some detail, what boolean logic is and how it works. Since we use it all the time when we search (but many don't realise it), it can be interesting for some who are unfamiliar with it to inform themselves about the basic principles.

Boolean Full-Text Searches, mysql.com
This article outlines the basic operators that are used in MySQL's full-text search. This is the function which drives the built-in search function of this forum, therefore it could be considered like a mini-reference guide to additional operators that were not covered in these lessons (like ~ < >)

Full-Text Stopwords
, mysql.com
Stop words are words that are automatically omitted from searches because they are considered too common. This page lists the stop words used in MySQL full-test search and therefore the same stop words which are used on this forum. The list is more comprehensive than you might imagine.

What's Next?

Sorry, there is no next. The next lesson is actually a "so, you think you know it all" lesson, designed for the super-experts who scroll right to the end. Since you were patient enough to read this far you can probably skip it. Details of how to discuss aspects of this lesson are at the end of this thread.

Last edited by mark; 07.06.2007 at 17:24. Reason: typos / formatting
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Lesson 6: Super-Expert Guide

Lesson 6 - Super-Expert Guide

You are here because you think you know it all. If you don't - go back up to the previous lessons.

Here's the detail:
  • Always search before posting a new thread
  • Displaying results as posts, often more useful than threads
  • Advanced search dialogue appears after clicking search in navigation bar
  • Search function also available inside forum and thread views for limiting scope accordingly
  • Minimum search length is three letters, shorter words result in an error
  • Advanced search dialogue offers sort options, limiting scope by poster, thread title, date, area, number of replies
  • MySQL full-text search drives the search function - standard boolean operators apply, namely + - < > ~ * ( ) and double quotation marks as well as AND and OR
  • Default behaviour when operators are omitted is AND (or + on all terms)
  • When sort by relevance is used, default behaviour is OR, explicit + is required on all terms to get AND
  • Search terms are almost always matched strictly, choose search terms carefully, including alternatives (OR can be useful, especially when bracketed)
  • Knowledge of correct spelling seems to be quite poor on this forum, try a range of different related keywords to work around potential spelling issues, especially when few or no results are returned
  • Despite policy, non-English terms frequently used - try translating search terms for German and French words if no results.
  • Use Google for certain queries, site:englishforum.ch most effective
  • Google: use -"view single post" to show threads only, change to + for posts only

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How can I discuss an aspect of this guide or searching?

If you have a question about something in this guide or would like to discuss it further, please proceed directly to:

Discussion thread for the search guide
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