There aren’t too many other tasks that shake our parental confidence quite like helping our kids with their homework.
With me, I cringe every time they have to do “research”.
Despite the fact that our children are likely being taught some good search skills in school, most likely they will just rely on a simple Google search and take something from the first page of search results. Sometimes this is the Wikipedia entry.
If they are looking for images, most students I work with do a simple Google image search and cut-and-paste the first image they see. They either don’t know or don’t care that it is, most of the time, a copyrighted image and not for reuse.
Google is not the only way to search for information online, but it is the default for most people, young and old. Fortunately, there are some advanced (but easy) ways to rock Google and get much better results with more reliable and relevant information.
Use better search language
Google doesn’t speak English; it speaks “Search”.
Although you may sometimes have some good luck just typing your complete question into search, you’ll get more targeted results if you try some of these tricks.
Putting a phrase into quotes will force Google to look for that specific phrase, instead of all the words separately.
For example, if you search for patient undergoing radiation, the results will first show pages that include all the words, but not necessarily together in that order. Instead, “patient undergoing radiation” will only show pages and sites that contain that exact phrase.
On the other hand, sometimes you don’t want to search a single word because it might exclude variations. I do this all the time when I search for parenting related information. If I use the word parenting, will it ignore stuff that just uses parents?
To search for parts of words (also called truncation), use an asterisk (*) to leave a “wildcard” for the rest of the word.
So, I would search for parent* and should get anything that includes the words parent, parents, parental, and parenting (oh, and parenthetical and parenthesis.)
Which is why you sometimes need to…
Watching students search, I often see their frustration when the search results are entirely different from what they meant. Easy to do, when you have one thing in mind and you are expecting Google to understand what’s in your head.
If I’m looking for examples of civil war in world history, and I type civil war, guess what I get: The American Civil War.
Now, I type civil war -American and I get…
(Wait for it…)
The movie: Captain America: Civil War. Ugh.
Next: civil war -American -Marvel.
Bingo! First hit is a reference to Caesar’s civil war.
Search specific sites or site types
Sometimes, you know that information will be on a certain site. Use the tag site: to limit to a particular spot on the web.
Let’s say you want to quickly find a review from the New York Times. You can search for the title of the book and include site:nytimes.com in the search. Only information from the New York Times site will be returned.
Another powerful way to use this, especially for students who need more reliable research, is to limit only to a type of site, like educational institutions (.edu) or government agencies (.gov). Use the same site: tag.
For example, search statistics united states abortion site:.gov (I did this search recently without the .gov site tag, and the first ten links in the search results included one CDC.gov link, one independent organization, and eight pro-life sites.)
Search for specific type of file
Searching for the history of the internet, but what you really want is a PowerPoint to flip through, instead of some long text article? Use the tag filetype: followed by the file extension.
history internet filetype:ppt should deliver decent results on that.
Filter Search Results
Not only can you hone your search during the search process, but you can filter the results to improve the options on that list you get back after hitting Enter.
Once you are looking at your search results, click on the Search Tools button at the top. A pull-down will appear that defaults to Any Time. You can change it only show results within the last year, month, day, or hour.
This filter works great when you are looking for product reviews and only want the most recent, or you are looking for news items about an ongoing event but only want the updates from the last 24 hours.
Filter Image Results
I love the image filters in Google Search because it allows for such powerful (and more ethical) image searching.
Search for the image using some strong, specific keywords. You can use all the ninja search skills above for this as well.
Once you have the results, click Search Tools again. You can now filter by size, image type, time, color, and–most importantly–usage rights.
Under Usage Rights, select Labeled for Reuse. This will filter out all copyrighted images which you (and your child) have no rights to use and share.
Will it create a smaller collection to choose from? Of course. Most of the images in a Google Image search are copyrighted. But this filter will allow you to select an image that the creator has given permission to use. This is a much more ethical way to find and use information.
(Note: there are many other ways to search for copyright-free images, including many collections. But this is, for the child bent on “Googling it,” a good way to teach a key digital citizenship skill: respect other people’s digital property.)
How to use these Ninja search skills
Your child may be learning these advanced search skills in school, but that doesn’t mean they always translate into behavior change. (How many times have I told my oldest to put deodorant on? I rest my case…)
Likely, they are falling back on what they see as “the easy way” of searching for information: the simple Google search.
As a parent, you should be encouraging good, ethical, thoughtful use of information. The first step in doing so, is expecting and teaching strong search skills in the first place.
Consider yourself armed.
Have you ever helped your son or daughter with a research project? What did you notice, or question, or cringe at, while they were looking for information? Add to the conversation in the comments below.