Oblique Searching Strategies

Oblique Searching Strategies

I’m surfing instead of working, so to win back some productivity, I’ll describe my basic searching strategy!

When Google doesn’t find what you want, it’s because you are probably using an overly-general search query, or one that has been polluted by e-commerce junk information. Argh!

To get to the real opinions on the Internet, you need to search for words that people use, as opposed to the lifeless copywriting you see in a lot of “professional business communication.”

  • Look for reviews and opinions. For example, I’ve been looking for information on a particular computer peripheral, something called the DAC-100. So I do a search on DAC-100 review, DAC-100 opinion, and even DAC-100 compared. I’m using the words you’re likely to see in a review, as opposed to marketing copy.

  • UN-search for marketing copy. I remember looking for reviews on a particular ricecooker (the Zojirushi NS-KCC05), and the entire search result space was saturated with Amazon and Amazon.com feeder microstores: basically, the exact same information over and over again. Use this against them! Find a unique phrase in the copy and ignore it in the research results by adding a – in front of it. For example, if the ad copy says something like, “re-heats rice to the perfect serving temperature”, do this search: zojirushi NS-KCC05 -"re-heats rice to the perfect serving temperature". You’ll not see any results that contain that phrase. Thank God.

  • Try Model Numbers or other ID. This sometimes helps to isolate a particular product. Use Amazon or Epinions to narrow down which model number you’re interested in. However, as models are often quickly replaced, you might not have much luck finding the dirt on a specific generation of unit. Sometimes Shelf Keeping Units (SKUs) are helpful–those are the numbers on the barcodes you see on retail packaging, and eCommerce sites sometimes list them in their online catalogs.

  • The more specific you can make your search terms, the better your search results will be. There are also nifty advanced search options at Google that can filter your results by date range, file format, and so on.

When all that fails, it’s time to go to the mattresses. Try other information sources on the Web to learn more about the topic, and search on the cues that point to expert commentary.

  • Search eBay. When you can’t find information or photos on some object, you might actually find it on eBay, which is not indexed by Google. I spent days looking for a reference photo of a Hebrew keyboard, eventually cobbling one together out of scraps of information from programming reference articles. Just yesterday I searched eBay and a dozen photos of the keyboards were there. Sometimes the sellers write a great deal of personal history about the items in general. Don’t forget to search past auctions, and it may be worth looking at other specialized auction sites (gunbroker.com, for example) that cater to specialty markets. In either case, you might find a seller who is willing to tell you want you want to know about the item.

  • Search Wikipedia. Wikipedia entries don’t often get ranked high in Google results, so go there first. Chances are, someone’s written something about what you’re looking for, and some high-quality links have been already researched for you.

  • Search The Top Specialty Information Sites. For nerd stuff, that means going to Slashdot. For digital photography, that’s Digital Photo Review. And so on. You’ll probably start to get a sense who’s on top once you’ve visited a dozen sites, particularly smaller ones that have lists of links to other informational sites. They are usually the same, so eventually you will see who they all point to.

  • Search USENET. USENET was the primary Internet discussion system, a kind of global bulletin board system, until the World Wide Web balkanized the infosphere into millions of website-states. Prior to the mid 1990s, USENET was our primary community-driven information database covering thousands of topical interests. It still lives on at Google Groups. USENET will often deliver pieces of insight you will not have found on the Web.

  • Search The Blogosphere. Technorati, for example. [UPDATE] Google has added blog searching. Try that!

  • Search FAQs. One byproduct of the USENET era was the creation of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) post. Groups like comp.graphics were often inundated by newcomers to the group who asked the same questions over and over again. Over time, the FAQ postings have become quite comprehensive. While not all of them are actively maintained, they represent a trove of practical information on a broad range of topics. A lot of them are archived at faqs.org. You can do a full-text search.

  • Search Magazine Indexes. Sites like FindArticles.com index articles in magazines that may not always float to the top of a Google search. Worth a try.

  • Search Amazon. Type in your search subject, and see what books pop up. The titles alone, the people mentioned, and the commentary left by other amazon shoppers are immensely useful when mapping out a new information space. You can then use that information to narrow down your search on Google. Searching the Wishlists for a particular book title can also help narrow down the search field.

  • Find Secondary Information Sites. There is often useful commentary on the smaller personal websites. They don’t rank high on Google, so use a blog indexer like Technorati and see who’s linking to that major blog you like. Use Google to find sites that link to two or more other good sites you’ve found. Are there people out there who read both Dooce and Crossroad Dispatches, and feel strongly enough to provide a link? That might be an interesting person to read.

  • Look for Color Commentary. Sometimes you really just want to get some random guy’s opinion. I like to search for terms like “really sucks”, “I think”, “I would”, “technically speaking”, and other phrases that someone giving your their opinion might say. The general principle here is to mix the topic of your search with some kind of “biased phrase.” Slang that’s in use by a particular generation can be useful too. For example, “friends with benefits” versus “casual sex” versus “free love”…all used by different generations (20-somethings, 30-somethings, hippies…) Likewise, if you are looking for negative opinions, try words like “stupid”, “dumb” and “sucks”. Use your imagination, and you’ll be rewarded.

  • Look for Expert Cues. The relative obscurity of a word can help narrow down the results. So instead of searching for best plasma tv television, which will turn up crappy e-commerce websites, look for color balance reproduction fidelity plasma tv television…you’re more likely to get an article that’s written by someone who edits Audiophile magazine on the side. Or if you’re looking for something more academic, use academic words or titles. “Ph.D.”, “professor”, “research”, and “bibliography” might slant the results more in that direction.

  • Hunt by lineage, not by category. Sometimes, keywords fail to reveal useful search results because the keyword space is heavily saturated by another meaning or by common-place daily use. If you’re looking for the rare and the exceptional, you need to search for topical anchors: key people, key philosophies and key innovations that shaped the field you’re searching. You first may have to read a general history of the topic you’re searching to get an idea of what those key anchors are. People who are learned in their field will often reference key principles as a statement of their belief; following these chains of beliefs and the sites that they link to will help you form an alternative search topology that Google is unable to provide through keyword techniques.

  • Search Patent Databases. When you’re looking for a utilitarian or specialty item that isn’t directly used by the average consumer, the trail often goes cold, or is polluted by unrelated commercial offerings. Find out who holds key patents by searching the US Patent Office Database. There are other patent registries online too, so just look around. The wealth of information you can gain from patent applications can put you back on track: names of inventors, manufacturers, and related patents–not to mention the description of the apparatus itself–can give you more to Google. Or look for the patent number on an actual object you’re interested in (if there is one) and look it up online. That can save you buckets of time.

  • Don’t Neglect Your Local Research Librarian! If you are lucky enough to live near a university library, or even a decent public library, go check it out. The good libraries have people trained in navigating piles of information…librarians! The specialist ones know where everything is. You can also find out how to access the library’s card catalog over the Internet, which might save you some legwork. In a pinch you might go to Barnes and Noble or Borders or a decent independent bookstore, and ask someone where the books on XYZ are.

  • Look for Accessibility / Required Policy Markers. I just read someone complaining about trying to find the “real” website for a hotel; there are so many two-bit hotel portal sites that they drown out the real sources. I noticed that most of the hotels include the phrase En Espanol, whereas the portal sites tend not to worry about that kind of accessibility because it’s expensive to implement for relatively little gain. Likewise, including a phrase like Section 508 (a requirement for government sites) might narrow down search results. Try slogans associated with the company, if you know them…a portal site is unlikely to completely parrot the corporate line, but you can bet that the corporate web team had that requirement tattooed on their butts before they started the project :-)


  • Search Flickr. Those photo sharing websites, with their full keywording and text descriptions, provide a secondary image databank in addition to stock photo and Google Images. I’ve found some pictures of pretty obscure stuff much more quickly on [Flickr][flickr] than I have through Google. Try it!
  • Search 9rules. 9rules is a blog network of several hundred sites that emphasize quality of conent. They’ve recently added 9rules search, which is a quick way of seeing what some thoughtful writers have said about a topic of interest to you. It also searches through a new other services like [YouTube][youtube], so this is an interesting alternative search you can try. Full disclosure: This site is a member of the 9rules Network.

  • Search Social Bookmarking Sites. Sites like Del.icio.us are filled with links to the web content that people find useful; they are therefore much more likely to be interesting than general search, and the collections of links may reflect a theme or approach to the topic that you hadn’t considered. And even better: you may actually discover someone who has relevant interests that you can contact directly…you never know!


p>Of course, all these techniques can be mixed together. This will give you raw data to work with, from objective and subjective sources. Determining whats’s useful and what’s not is up to you. Have fun!


  1. David W. 19 years ago

    Excellent summation! One point I thought of though:

    “eBay … is not indexed by Google”

    I used to think so too. But Google does index eBay through Froogle, so if you are looking for a product, http://froogle.google.com could be a good bet.

  2. Dave 19 years ago

    Oh, that’s an excellent point David! Thanks for filling that gap…I hadn’t thought of that!

  3. Oh, that’s an excellent point David! Thanks for filling that gap…I hadn’t thought of that!