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You can construct a really good search for any search engine, web or library, just as simply as you can construct a math equation (if you don't like math, stick with us, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy this is).
When you enter text into a search engine, you're doing a keyword search. The search engine looks for the words throughout the web, and finds webpages where the words appear anywhere on that page. The results list simply tells you that the selected text appears somewhere on the page.
You have probably already noted that search engines such as Google are really excellent at predicting what we want as we are typing it in. This doesn't mean that these skills are not useful. They can help you eliminate irrelevant search results in many different search engines and databases (yes, even Google!), no matter how good the technology is at predicting what you want.
Now let's take everything we've learned and apply it to something really important: finding the best burrito recipe we possibly can.
Every good search needs to begin by imagining our perfect search result and the words we'd use to describe it. So we'll take a moment to identify what kind of burrito we're craving. Let's say we're vegetarian, so we don't want it to have any meat, maybe we're looking for beans specifically. We are also worried about cutting some calories so we need something low in fat. We're making this burrito for breakfast, so we want those kinds of flavors rather than something too robust that we might eat at dinnertime.
Now what? We need to break down that paragraph in which we've identified what we're looking for into key concepts and words. Then we need to put them together, using the skills we learned above, so that they make sense.
A good first attempt might look something like this: vegetarian low-fat bean breakfast burrito recipe
Not too bad. We'll get some good search results, but we can make it better; more specific. Let's pull in boolean operators and phrase searching (these are often the search strategies people feel most comfortable with utilizing).
Now our search looks something like this: vegetarian AND low-fat AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe
Note that there's not just one right answer. You often hear "bean burrito" or "breakfast burrito" but rarely hear bean breakfast burrito. We could've used either of the first two phrases and used AND to connect the other term. They would've yielded similar and many of the same search results. We can still do way better than this. Now let's think about what synonyms we could add into our search.
This search is getting more specific: vegetarian OR vegan OR meatless AND low-fat OR fat-free AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe
Although that looks great, you can see that we've got a problem. This search is looking a little confusing. We can use nesting to help us group our similar terms together.
Now we've got: (vegetarian OR vegan OR meatless) AND (low-fat OR fat-free) AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe
We can use truncation and wildcards to make our search a little more inclusive of terms. We know that veg* will gather both vegetarian and vegan, as well as vegetable, making truncation a logical choice there. Low-fat and fat-free are both frequently spelled with and without the hyphens, so they're a great moment for using our wildcard.
We're getting close to a great search: (veg* OR meatless) AND (low#fat OR fat#free) AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe
We've got a pretty good search here, but it could get more specific. We can go through this and see if we can identify any place we might be able to narrow down what we're looking for burrito-wise. "Bean" is pretty generic. We may love all beans, but you probably have a specific kind in mind.
Taking this preference into consideration, our new search may look like this: (veg* OR meatless) AND (low#fat OR fat#free) AND "black bean" AND "breakfast burrito" recipe
The last thing we can do before using our awesome search is check through it to see if any terms may give us quirky or problematic search results. For instance, I hadn't considered that the word "free" would not only get me fat-free search results but also nut-free, gluten free, etc. search results. I'll need to put that term into quotation marks to make sure the search engine filters out those others.
Finally we have it. The ultimate string of search terms crafted to find us the most excellent vegetarian, low-fat bean breakfast burrito recipes on the whole internet:
(veg* OR meatless) AND ("low#fat" OR "fat#free") AND ("breakfast burrito" OR "breakfast wrap") AND "black bean*" AND recipe
Every search engine works with a different algorithm. These algorithms have varying levels of success, and specific rules that guide them. What works in one search engine may be slightly different in another. Some search engines will recognize different characters for boolean operators and wildcards. For example, Google will allow you to use the words "AND" and "OR" (all in caps!) but will not recognize "NOT" unless you use a hyphen (-). Finding out which produce the best search results for the search engine you prefer will save you time in the end. Google, for example, has a "Search Help" option under "Settings" in the bottom right hand corner of its main page.