15 years of Google has changed how we ask - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

15 years of Google has changed how we ask

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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

Google has been in our lives since 1998. Fifteen years. Do you need some help getting that span of time fixed in your mind?

Try this.

The year that Google was born, "Titanic" was the Oscars' best picture of the year, and Microsoft released Windows 98. 

It was the year that the kids were either whining for or playing with Pokemon Gameboys, Spice Girls Doll Sets or Teletubbies.

Xena Warrior Princess was still holding on as teen-age boys' heartthrob. Miley Cyrus was only six years old, but Britney Spears was on the horizon, pretty much done by then with her Mouseketeer ears.

Sono Bono, Lloyd Bridges and Frank Sinatra all died that year, while the three smartest kids on today's TV — Ariel Winter, Rico Rodriguez and Nolan Gould, all of "Modern Family" — were born. "Sex in the City" and "Will and Grace" both debuted. "Murphy Brown" and "Seinfeld" called it quits.

But, of course, no one was talking all that much about any of that, because 1998 also was the year we met and became obsessed with Monica Lewinsky and her little blue dress.

And, yes, all the factoids on that list I gleaned in just seven and a half minutes with Google.

Perhaps no innovation of the past two decades has changed our lives more than the research project with the goofy name that Larry Page and Sergey Brin rolled out that year after months of research and computer coding in a Menlo Park, Calif. garage.

Originally called BackRub, the search engine initially operated on Stanford University's servers. After their work began to hog too much of the university's bandwidth, Page and Brin moved on to bigger quarters and to a much bigger goal. Along the way their creation acquired its new name — a play on the word "googol," a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros — to reflect the duo's mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the World Wide Web.

They did. And big numbers are still what Google is all about.

Today the company operates 70 offices in more than 40 countries. Its multibillion-dollar physical network — thousands of fiber miles, many thousands of servers — enables the company to:

 

  • Index 20 billion web pages a day.
  • Handle more than 3 billion daily search queries.
  • Conduct millions of ad auctions in real time.
  • Offer free email storage to 425 million Gmail users. 
  • Zip millions of YouTube videos to users every day. 

 

No wonder that "to google" had become a verb in most of the world's dictionaries by 2006, though that perennial trendsetter, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was the first to use it on television. ("Have you googled her yet?" she said on Oct. 15, 2002). And yes, again, it was Google that told me that.

So, with Google insinuating itself so deeply our lives, you'd guess we've all become quite adroit web searchers, right?

Uh, not so much.

In fact, most of us are quite happy to drop by google.com, enter a word or phrase at the search prompt, accept the several hundred thousand "hits" it comes up with in the next second or two, read the top one or two and go merrily on our way, completely oblivious to easy ways we could have tailored our search for much more targeted results.

Recently, my journalism students at Marshall University began exploring ways to put Google through its paces, and it occurred to us that these simple operators and syntax rules are not widely known. Let me share the good ones.

For starters, Google is a little hinky with its syntax for searches. If you are familiar with traditional databases (or you remember studying logic in school), you're familiar with the Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT. But here's a news flash: Google doesn't recognize "not" in search strategies. Instead, use a minus sign (a hyphen) in front of the word to exclude a term or phrase. For instance, if you're visiting San Antonio but don't want to visit the Alamo, type: "San Antonio" –Alamo.

That will search for the phrase "San Antonio" on web pages that don't also have the word "Alamo." Note there's no space between Alamo and the minus sign.

Google searches do recognize "or" (as in WVU OR "West Virginia University"), but you don't need to use the logical "and"; Google treats a space as and. That means if you enter West Virginia Legislature in a search, Google will retrieve web pages that mention West and Virginia and Legislature, ranking at the top of its finds those that have the words listed together.

What if you want only pages that have those three words together? Use quotation marks. A search query in quotation marks finds web pages that contain that phrase. So "West Virginia University" in quotation marks is treated as if it were a single word. And of course, you can use it with your Boolean operators, so "West Virginia University" OR WVU -football finds WVU-related pages that do not mention football.

Google also employs an asterisk (*) for a limited "wildcard" or "fill in the blank" function. It's a placeholder for any unknown terms. And you can use it with quotation marks to find variations of that exact phrase or to remember words in the middle of a phrase. As in "a * saved is a * earned."

Google recognizes some handy operators to target your searches. The site: operator lets you zero in on a specific website. Looking for information within specific sites can occasionally prove difficult, whether it is your own site or someone else's, but Google's site search function streamlines the process. Suppose you wanted to find earlier editions of this column. You could enter: "Charlie Bowen" site:www.statejournal.com.

That looks for my name but only on pages of The State Journal's website. And again, you can use the minus with this to omit a site, as in football -www.wvu.edu.

Official documents, government legislation, academic papers, local council datasets — all may be locked away in a file in a website. Searching by file type makes finding them easier. Choose your keywords or the title of the document or file and then add filetype:XXX at the end. Such as filetype:pdf, or filetype:xls. 

A particularly handy deliminator is the number..number operator to search for a number range. 

Try camera $50..$100 to find pages mentioning "camera" and a dollar amount between $50 and $100. Or enter Marshall University 1920..1939 to find pages that mention Marshall and a year sometime between 1920 and 1939. (Note the syntax is two periods and no spaces.) 

Finally, use only one number with the two periods to indicate an upper maximum or a lower minimum, as Kentucky Derby winners..2000.

Google or something like it will be with us from now on. The better we can speak to it, the better it will speak to us.