Outlook Search may be good at finding things – but not so good at telling you WHERE it found them

Outlook Search

Figure 1.

If you have a lot of email folders in your Outlook and can’t find something that you are sure is there, then using the Search function with the scope set to either Current Mailbox (to search all folders for the currently selected email address) or All Mailboxes (to search all folders of all email addresses) will probably find it (as long as you type something sensible as the search term) – see Figure 1.

Once you have found it, it is then easy to double-click on the message in the list of results. It will open as you would expect and you may be relieved to have retrieved it. If it was mis-filed, it’s only natural to want to move it from its current folder into the correct one. And here’s where the fun begins…. how on earth do you find out where it’s currently filed? The natural thing to do is to right-click somewhere, to get a “Properties” option, but there isn’t a context menu or option for this. This strikes me as a peculiar omission – especially in a program that’s been around as long as Outlook has. Never mind, though, we can find the answer by coming at it from a different angle.

Outlook Message Properties

Figure 2.

The quickest place to start is by clicking Alt Enter either when looking at the email in a list of search results, or when looking at the content of the email itself. In either case, this will open a window of properties for the current item. The folder in which the message is stored is shown next to “Location” (see figure 2). However, it doesn’t give any indication as to where that folder sits in the hierarchy of your email folders.

If you know exactly where that folder is (and if the name is unique within your email structure), then that’s it. You can navigate to that folder in the normal way and drag-and-drop the message into the folder you expected it to be in before you had to search for it.

Outlook Advanced Find

Figure 3.

But suppose, for instance, that you have folders for each of 200 clients and each of those has a sub-folder called “Orders”, then being told by the “Alt Enter” method above that the message is in “Orders” doesn’t really help very much.

So, to find out exactly which “Orders” sub-folder it is in, we have to be a little devious:

  • Open the message in its own window (eg by double-clicking on it in a list of search results)
  • Use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl Shift f to open “Advanced Find”
  • Click on Browse (see figure 3) and you will see the current folder (ie where the message currently resides) within the hierarchy of your email folders

Outlook Folders in Advanced Find

Figure 4.

You can now see exactly which folder the message is currently hiding in. Once again, you can now navigate to that folder in the usual way and drag-and-drop the message into the folder you expected it to be in before you had to search for it. See figure 4.

As well as searching websites, Google Search can also offer instant answers to common questions

I did try searching Google to see if they publish a comprehensive directory of “Instant Answers”, but (ironically) I couldn’t find anything from them. However, here are some examples that I’ve gleaned from other sources:

Time Zones

eg Type “time paris” (without the quotes) and the following result will be displayed (depending, of course, on what time you key it in!)

Google Instant Time

Word Definitions

eg “define cantankerous” (without the quotes)

Google Instant Definition

Being a stroppy Brit, I much prefer to use a proper authority on the subject – the Oxford English Dictionary .

Instant Calculations

eg “calculate 34 * 71.6” (without the quotes)

Google Instant Calculator

Note that you don’t need to precede this enquiry with the word “calculate”. A search term of “34 * 71.6” (without the quotes) would have worked. By the way, if you do include the quote marks then Google will not do a calculation at all. Surrounding any search term in Google with quote marks is supposed to tell Google to search for the exact term between the quotes (but it sometimes still goes its own sweet way and tries to interpret the search request rather than treat it literally).

Note that the “operators” (eg add, subtract) are the same as for any calculation carried out on a computer – eg + (for plus), – (for minus), / (for divide), * (for multiply), ^ (to the power of). When you enter a calculation into the search box, Google not only returns the answer, but also displays a calculator and a “more info” link directly beneath it.

Unit conversion

eg “convert 23 c to f” (without the quotes)

Google Instant Converter

Flight times

eg “Air France 4508” (without the quotes)

Google Flight Times

There are other ways of getting more from Google Search. Try these previous blog posts:

Some Easy Refinements in Google Search
Google Search
Google Result Types

Have you been missing some helpful refinements to “Google Search” that are right in front of your eyes?

Working one-to-one with my computer support clients, I often have the opportunity of watching how they really work with their computers. It’s all very well talking to people, giving tips on how to work more efficiently, but there’s no substitute for seeing how people actually do things. One of the things I’ve noticed in this way is that a surprisingly large number of people never use the refinements to Google Search that are right in front of them. When I point them out, a typical reaction is “Oh, I’ve never noticed that before”.

Several times I’ve thought about writing a blog post on this subject, but an everyday computing phenomenon has held me back – things change very often and without warning. I promise you that the Google Search options are still present at 09:15 on Saturday 19/10/2013. If they’ve disappeared by the time this blog is published at 12:30 today, well, c’est la vie in the computing monde.

So, what are these options?

The first thing to note is that they don’t appear until AFTER you’ve keyed in your search term at https://www.google.co.uk and told Google to do an initial search (either by clicking on the search button – the magnifying glass in the blue box – or by pressing the Enter key).

Google Search - Options

Figure 1 – Google Search Options

Then you get the list as shown in Figure 1 directly below the original search term. Let’s go through them:


This is the normal, default, option. It means that Google has searched for results to your search across all types of content and across all websites. You can tell that you’ve just done such a normal web search as the word “Web” is in red and is underscored.


Clicking on this option will change the results of the search to show images that relate to the search term you have already entered. Clicking on any image in the results will display a larger version of the image and more information about its source. Clicking on this larger image takes you directly to the source.


This will show any maps that Google Search thinks are relevant to your search.


Google Search - Shopping

Figure 2 – Google Search – Shopping

This option is possibly being a bit ambitious. To begin with, it takes a stab at where it thinks you are. Despite being in Clapham, Google currently thinks I’m in Cambridge for some reason. To put it mildly, this is going to compromise the suggestions it comes up with for matching the search term with local shopping opportunities. If you’re really stuck for something to do this weekend, you could have a look at this Google page relating to your location.

However, if you do find that the shopping option shows promise in the results it shows, then you can refine your search by taking choices listed down the left side of the screen (category, price, store etc – see Figure 2). Note that the options vary depending upon what type of item Google thinks you are shopping for.

No doubt this is a “work in progress” and will get better as time goes by. Personally, I confess that if I’m using the internet to source something I want to buy then I’m slipping into the habit of just going straight to Amazon. As I was discussing with a client just yesterday, if the High Streets disappear because of Amazon then it will be largely due to the fact that Amazon do a great job and make shopping so much easier.


Clicking on this button allows you to refine your search in other ways (see Figure 3).

Google Search - More

Figure 3 – Google Search – More

Search Tools

This offers various refinements to your search results:

  • Any Country or just UK.
  • Any Time or a comprehensive set of selections (useful if you are searching the net for information relating to a specfic occurrence of something that happened within a definable time frame).
  • Reading Level – I’m sure that no-one reading this blog will have much need to filter their Google results by “reading level”! However, Google have now plonked another option here – “Verbatim”. This means that it will return search results EXACTLY matching your search term (instead of applying all its fancy algorithms to try and dish up results that it thinks you might have wanted based on your search term). I can’t see the point of this as they already have a perfectly good way of specifying a “verbatim” search, and that is to enclose your search term in double-quotes.

There you go, then. A quick trawl through some of the options that stare you right in the face when you do a Google search. If nothing else, you can enjoy a frisson of schadenfreude when Google tells you you are in Cambridge instead of London!

You may be thinking of buying a new PC and be wondering how you will get on with Windows 8

Windows 95 Start Button

Window 95 Start Button

In particular, you may have heard that Microsoft have done a strange thing by removing the “Start” button. This has been a part of Windows since the introduction of Windows 95 (was that really 18 years ago?) I remember the first time I encountered Windows 95 and my irritation at not being able to find any way of closing it nicely. Surely I can not be the only person who found it completely ridiculous that the option to “close” would be found within a button marked “start”! Anyway, we all got used to the Start button and a lot of users are rather upset that it’s gone.

It appears that people are missing two main things:

  • The ability to launch programs and system items from the Start menu
  • The ability to switch off the computer from the Start menu

So let’s deal with the first of these:

After a couple of weeks of “real” use of Windows 8, I find the tiled “Start Screen” irritating and pointless. If I want “apps” I’ll reach for my beautiful, light, well-behaved iPad Mini or maybe even my iPhone. So, the first thing I always do when I start Windows 8 is to click on the “Desktop” tile and get back to familiar territory.

If, however, I think of the Start Screen as being a replacement and evolution of the Start Menu (instead of a “re-imagining of Windows ” as Microsoft would like us to think), then things get better. Remember, for instance, the “search” box in the Start menu of Windows 7? Well, just click on the Windows key to go to the Start Screen and you can just type in the first few characters of any installed program to launch it. Once you get used to it, this is far quicker than searching through the old “desktop” for a particular icon. It works just like the “search” box in the Start menu of Windows 7. The key is to think of the “Start Screen” as being a replacement for the “Start Menu”. Just get used to accessing it with the Windows key instead of clicking on a Start button.

To illustrate, I am writing this blog in OneNote. If I now wish to launch, for instance, Adobe Acrobat (assuming that there’s no shortcut pinned to the taskbar) then I just hit the Windows key, type “acr” and the Enter key. That’s just five keystrokes. Let’s try another one. I can launch Opera by hitting the Windows key followed by “op” and the Enter key. Just four keystrokes. No Start button needed and no hunting through an insane confusion of desktop icons.

What about system utilities? No problem: the good old Control Panel is accessible by just typing the Windows key, “co”, and Enter.

Windows 8 Start Screen Icon

Start Screen Tile

There is an alternative way to access the Start Screen and that is to aim your mouse cursor at the bottom lefthand corner of the screen and click when a little “Start Screen Tile” appears. Don’t make the mistake of trying to move your cursor over the top of the tile before clicking as that will just make the tile disappear. Very annoying. So, just head for the corner of the screen and click as soon as the tile appears.

Directing search results to installed apps

When you start typing anything from the Start Screen you will see that the Windows search options that pop up are far more sophisticated than I suggest here. You can type your search term and then choose to narrow your results to “Apps”, “Settings” or “Files”. There are also a host of other places whither you can direct your search. For instance, I typed “cla” into the search box and then clicked on an app I have installed called “London Tube Map”. My search was then directed specifically to that app and the results returned were Clapham Common, Clapham North, etc. Clicking on one of these then displayed the tube map with the chosen station bleeping away at me. This was just for the purpose of illustration, of course. I’m afraid my mind really has decided that “apps” are for an iPad or Android tablet, and that “applications” are “proper” programs for a laptop or desktop.

Windows Key

Windows key – aka “winkey”

Maybe I can be lured away in time by Microsoft’s attempts to get us to view both “desktop” and “smartphone/tablet” app(lication)s on one device, but I must agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion so far – Windows 8 is a bit clunky as a result of merging a desktop operating system with a mobile/tablet one. For the time being at least, I am choosing to view Windows 8 as being “desktop based” and the new “tiled apps” as a bit of nonsense. And I’m not going to be seduced by Microsoft’s (presumably intentional) use of the word “apps” to include both proper “applications” and mobile “apps”.

But, to return to the main topic of the missing Start button, I found that as soon as I started to think of the Start Screen as a very big replacement for the Start menu (instead of being the main way to use my computer) then I started to progress in using Windows 8. I’m still “desktop focused” and I’ve quickly learned to access the Start Screen with the Windows key (aka “winkey”) instead of aiming for a missing Start button.

Next week I’ll look at the other main gripe about the lack of a Start button in Windows 8 – and that is the lack of a “shutdown” button within it. And just in case I can’t convince you that you don’t need it, I’ll show you how to create a shortcut for your desktop that will let you shut the computer down with a single click.

Facebook logo, pound sterling sign, all on computer screenLast month I was appalled – but not particularly surprised – to learn that your credit rating in the future could be affected by who you hang around with on Facebook. A company called Lenddo claims on its website to be “… the world’s first credit scoring service that uses your online social network to assess credit.” Admittedly, they do say on their website that they’re aiming themselves at “professionals in emerging markets” rather than UK citizens, but that doesn’t affect the principle and it doesn’t stop this from being – potentially – the thin end of a very nasty wedge.

So, if you are “friends” (according to Facebook’s meaning of that word) with people who have a poor credit rating then your own credit rating could be affected. I know I’m in danger of showing my age here, but I was brought up to believe that finances are a personal and a private matter. It’s none of my business what someone else’s credit rating is – whether they are friends, family, colleagues or anyone else (unless, of course, I enter a financial relationship with them). Lenddo. however, are saying EXACTLY the opposite. They are saying that if I apply to them for a loan then YOUR credit rating becomes part of MY financial business if you and I are Facebook friends. If you are a computer client of mine then our financial relationship is based on trust and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But if I’m daft enough to take Lenddo and Facebook seriously I might now be interested in your financial status because it could reflect on my own – rather than on whether I think you will pay my bill for the computer service I provide!

It gets worse. Lenddo could be finding out all kinds of other information from a Facebook account – such as sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity – that a lending institution would not normally know. In fact, it would be probably be against industry codes of practice and even discrimination legislation for such factors to be included when considering providing credit. How can you be sure that any CRA (Credit Rating Agency) has only considered those factors that are legal and ethical if they’ve trawled through your Facebook account?

But it gets even worse than this. Lenddo explicitly states that it “MAINTAINS THE RIGHT TO NOTIFY YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY AND COMMUNITY if the borrower fails to repay”. This is a quote from their website, including the capital letters. So, picture the situation. You’re having a hard time, going through a bad patch, lost your job, lacking confidence, scared about how you are going to repay your debts and then, wham, you find out that one of your creditors is telling all your Facebook friends that you’re welching on your financial obligations. That’s really going to help. Lends a new meaning to the idea of “social network”, doesn’t it?

When news of Lenddo hit the fan last month I decided not to blog about it because I know I already bang on a bit about the downside of social networks. I’ve only changed my mind this week because I’m pleased to be able to balance this development with some much better news about privacy and the internet:

A woman (identified only as AMP) has obtained an injunction to “prevent transmission, storage and indexing of any part or parts of certain photographic images which are claimed to belong to the Claimant”. AMP had lost a mobile phone containing photographs intended only for the sight of herself and her partner. These appeared on the internet, together with enough information to identify the subject of the photographs. In the past, courts have been very reluctant to intervene when content has reached the internet. It is very, very difficult to stop the spread of data once it has been published online. In most cases, it is thought, any injunction would be unenforceable and, therefore, would do no more than bring the law into disrepute (remember all the fuss about “super injunctions” being subverted by Twitterers/Tweeters/Twits last year?). In this case, however, the judge ruled that the spread of the photos had not become uncontrollable as anyone looking for the material would (a) have to know that the material exists and is, therefore, worth searching for and (b) would need to know the identity of the subject in order to do the searching and (c) could, in principle, be traced on account of the way the files are copied and spread. The injunction was, therefore, granted. Aah, that’s better. Click here for the full Judgement.

Firefox logo with tubular bells and whistlesOne of the great strengths of the Firefox web browser is the ability to bolt on goodies – bells and whistles, if you like – that add useful features to the browser. These “bolt-ons” are usually free but the authors may invite you to make a small donation of a couple of pounds.

There are lots of these “add-ons”. They go under the name of “add-ons”, “plug-ins”, “extensions”. I can’t find any definition of these terms that differentiates between them so I’m not sure if there’s some subtle difference between them or not. Anyway, they’re all “bolt-on goodies” as far as I am concerned and Firefox is the best of all the major browsers in this respect.

The best place to go hunting for these add-ons is to open Firefox, click on the “Firefox” button (see figure 1), click on “Add-ons”, then click on “Get Add-ons” and then click on “browse all add-ons” (bottom righthand corner of screen). Figure 1 illustrates Firefox version 6.

Firefox Add-On Button

Figure 1 - Firefox Add-On Button

To give you an idea of what’s available, here are half a dozen of the ones that I find the most useful:-

Adblock Plus 1.3.9

This removes most online advertising and blocks known malware domains. I appreciate that I’m open to charges of hypocricy and biting the hand that feeds me as I, myself, advertise my computer support and training services online using Google AdWords. Maybe I wouldn’t encourage blocking ads if it wasn’t for the fact that some of them are very distracting and irritating – especially the animated ones. AdBlock Plus is a godsend for grumpy old men like me.

Flagfox 4.1.5

This add-on shows an icon of a flag in the website address bar. This flag is of the country in which the website server resides. I tend to glance at this to help me decide whether a website is genuine and/or trustworthy. This helps my decision-making if I’m considering an online purchase from an unknown company.

My Homepage 1.2

It was stumbling on this “extension” this morning that caused me to write this blog offering computer advice on this subject. I have always been irritated by opening a new browser tab and not having it open my Home Page. Why open a new tab with a blank page? What good is that to anyone? Anyway, this little extension solves it – magic!

Print Edit 5.4

I was thinking of writing a blog post on the problems of printing from web pages, although I have mentioned the subject before – eg Website Frustrations. This add-on greatly helps in overcoming those problems as you can choose which “elements” or “chunks” of a web page will be sent to your printer. Isn’t it amazing how irritated we all get when the printer spews out four pages and all we wanted was a couple of paragraphs?

TrackMeNot 0.6.728

OK, we’ve had the “grumpy old man” a couple of times already today, so here’s more of the paranoid: I really don’t want anyone taking any kind of note of what I do on my computer unless it is information that I have specifically and knowingly provided. What TrackMeNot does is to issue random search requests to the main search engines – AOL, Yahoo, Google, and Bing – so that genuine searches are “hidden” amongst all this chaff. This reduces the chances of the search companies being able to compile meaningful profiles based on user search patterns. On the authors’ website they say “Placing users in full control is an essential feature of TMN, whose purpose is to protect against the unilateral policies set by search companies in their handling of our personal information“.

They go on to say “We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance“. Quite.

A lot of business users and home computer users automatically turn to Microsoft Word every time they want to create text that needs to be saved. Word is a great fully-featured “word processing package” but using it often seems like using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, and it doesn’t necessarily offer a good solution in terms of organising snippets of information and finding them again in a hurry. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that Word has now become too clever and complicated for its own good, confusing average users with a plethora of options while not answering the real-world needs of data storage and retrieval.

Think, for example, of wanting to record notes about household things such as car maintenance records, or recipes, or anything else where you want to record information that you might just need to find again in the future. It seems to me that the trick is to make it as easy as possible to do the recording while, at the same time, making it as easy as possible to find something in, say, a year’s time.

Let’s take this a bit further by adding the possibility of including images (including screen captures), links to web pages, and links to files on your own computer. What we are beginning to see now is not just a program for recording text but an entire “information management system”.

Microsoft does have its own program for this kind of need. It’s called OneNote and it’s included in all Microsoft Office packages. However, in all the years that I’ve been providing computer support in London I have never heard a single client mention it. I’ve been testing it for myself for the last three months or so. If I decide it’s worth using I’ll write a blog post on it, but I have to say that so far I’m finding it a bit irritating and possibly resource-hungry. On the other hand, it does seem quite powerful and useful.

In the meantime, the program I use for this kind of thing is one called “Treepad”. Indeed, I write these blog posts using Treepad and then copy and paste them onto my website. The reasons for using Treepad in this context are:

  • I can concentrate on creating the text without worrying about formatting etc.
  • I can easily drop images into the text that I might want to include in the blog post.

I also use Treepad for all kinds of computer technical notes that I may never need again or that I might just need one day. I have found that the really important thing is that the effort of writing down and saving information like this is only repaid if it’s easy to find it again. That also means that it has to be easy to do the recording. Treepad is excellent in these respects.

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

Figure 1 - Treepad - showing the tree structure on the left and part of an article (the contents of a node) on the right

Treepad is basically a text manager that allows you to organise content in a “tree structure”. On the left of the screen is the structure, and on the right is the content of the particular “node” that is currently selected. Nodes can be “nested” inside nodes in much the same way that Windows organises folders within folders (see Figure 1). By the by, you can see from the top of Figure 1 that I keep my Treepad files in my Dropbox folder so that they are always available on all my computers – see my blog about Dropbox.

But it is not only text that can entered into a node. We can also paste images, hyperlinks to programs or data files on the same computer, hyperlinks to websites, and links to other nodes in the same Treepad data file. It’s very easy to use and it’s powerful.

The only major gripe that I have with Treepad is that there is no inbuilt “tagging”. By that, I mean the ability to define each node as belonging to one or several user-defined “definitions” or “groups”. For instance, I might want to tag the content of nodes with “computer support London” or “silver surfer pc training” or “one-to-one computer training” or “blog ideas” so that all nodes with one or more specific tags can be selected easily. This is not absolutely critical, though, as there is a search routine, so I try to remember to add the words that I would like to treat as tags to the top line of the content of nodes. If I then search for a specific word it will list all nodes that include that word.

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

Figure 2 shows the results of searching my Treepad file for “AVG”:

I can then click on any selected node to see it in its entirety.

Treepad is available in several versions. There is a free version so it costs nothing except a bit of time to give it a try. If you are the sort of person who is forever mislaying bits of information that you think should be easily accessible on your computer then it could pay you to have a look at it. I’ve been using the “Business” version for several years.

I started looking at Microsoft’s OneNote because it appears to be a more sophisticated program (you can scan documents directly into OneNote for instance), but I find its text handling a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic (ie annoying) so I don’t know yet whether I would recommend it. Treepad is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth but it’s easy to use and repays the minimal effort required to use it.

I’m going to have a look at how good Treepad might be as a password manager program as I know that most of my IT clients do not have a simple, effective, consistent way of storing these and could do with a bit of well-aimed computer advice on the subject. Watch this space….

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Are you concerned about the privacy of your internet activities?

Magnifying glass over computer keyboardA lot of people just shrug their shoulders at this question. They just don’t care what information is being collected about them or their online habits and activities.

Others – including me – think that the “default position” ought to be that only the minimum information should be collected to permit an online function to happen and that no data should be kept unless it is required to protect one or both parties in a contract situation (such as a purchaser giving a full invoicing address).

Someone recently told me that she thought it was “freaky” that Google ads are appearing in her email for products she had recently been looking at on seemingly unrelated websites. Along similar lines, I was recently training a silver surfer client in the use of Gmail and noticed a lot of ads for militaria. I asked him if he had recently had any contact with the army and he said that he had been involved in a veterans’ dinner.

Now, to some people this spying on our activity and fine-tuning on-line ads to capitalise on what they have learned about us is nothing more than a logical extension of how traditional advertising has always worked. After all, if you were selling a boat and wanted to advertise it, you would put the ad in a boating magazine because you’d know that the reader was interested in boats. Is there any difference between that and Google targetting ads about militaria to a Gmail user who has been discussing an army veterans’ dinner in his email correspondence?

If I ask people under 30 this kind of question, their eyes glaze over and a look comes over them that suggests that they’ve just realised they’re talking to a nutter and now they’re wondering if I’m dangerous as well. Ask the same thing to someone who’s old enough to remember the days before CCTV cameras (silver surfers in particular) and I’ll usually get a different response.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that it is an outrageous invasion of privacy for Google to read people’s email and use the knowledge gained to target ads to that person. OK, I do realise that it’s a machine that’s doing the reading and not humans. That doesn’t change the principle. Apart from anything else, it’s widely thought that Google never ever throw data away, so anything they’ve recorded about you could, in principle, be checked over by humans or machines at any time in the future. I also acknowledge that Gmail is “free” to use and that people are quite capable of choosing different methods of handling their email. However, that should only give them the right to read a Gmail user’s outgoing – and not incoming – email. If I send an email to someone who uses Gmail what right do Google have to read that email? I haven’t given them permission to do so: I don’t use Gmail.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser. Click here for an interview with The Independent.

"The Filter Bubble" book coverPariser discusses the fact that Google and other huge websites such as Amazon, Facebook et al, not only bombard you with ads that they have tailored to what they know about you, but that they are also tailoring content to show you what they think you will like. So, if you perform a Google search and I perform the same search we may be presented with different results depending on what Google knows about each of us. And I’m talking about the Google organic results, here, not the Google advertising presented in sponsored links. Facebook are likewise filtering which of your friends’ updates are displayed to you depending on how much interest you have shown in that friend in the past. Pariser argues that these online organisations are creating a “filtered” view of the universe such that what you see on the internet is biased in favour of what you already know and like (ie you are in a “filter bubble”). Pariser maintains that, at the very least, this is presenting a distorted view of the world and most people are just not aware that such filtering is going on. I’m not sure about some of the implications that Pariser considers because I suspect that he over-estimates the importance of the internet in influencing our worldview. Nevertheless, I found this book informative, thought-provoking and worth reading (and thanks to Elaine for telling me about it).

If you belong to the part of the population that doesn’t care about privacy and doesn’t care where all this data gathering and filtering may be taking us then you won’t read my blog next week as I’m going to list some of the steps you can take to try to protect your privacy. l feel like a cross between the boy with his finger in the dyke and King Canute, but I do feel happier taking at least a few steps in the right direction and maybe you will, too, if you find things like targeted advertising “freaky” and disturbing.

I am aware that I am open to charges of hypocrisy. I advertise my computer services using Google AdWords and www.google.co.uk is still my home page. I do also buy stuff on Amazon (but not books). That doesn’t mean, though, that I have to approve of their definitions of acceptable boundaries when it comes to information gathering, retention, and use. My stance is that taking small steps to protect my privacy is better than taking none at all.

What are you looking at when you have performed a search in Google?

There are typically two sections to the results. The first section is listed towards the lefthand side of the screen and is known as “organic results”. The second section is listed down the righthand side of the screen and is called “ads” (it used to be called “sponsored links”).

Google Search Results highlighting organic results and ads

Google Search Results - figure 1

This clear distinction can be blurred a bit by Google sometimes showing several “ads” at the top of the “organic” listings (as in figure 2). You can tell when the first “organic” listings are, in fact, Google AdWords ads by the off-white background colour to these ads. It has to be said, though, that it’s very easy indeed to forget – or not notice – that the first two or three so-called organic entries may, in fact, be part of Google advertising.

Google Search Results highlighting ads at top

Google Search Results - figure 2

So what’s the difference?

On the face of it, Google are showing you the organic listings that they think are the most relevant to the search term that you entered. No money changes hands for Google to list a website in the organic listing. The implication is that the organic listings are “impartial”, “fair”, “accurate”.

The “ads”, on the other hand, are part of the “Google AdWords” scheme. 97% of Google’s income comes from advertising (source). They are expecting advertising income in the UK in 2011 to be about £2.5 billion. In fact, this year they are expected to out-run ITV as the biggest earner from advertising in the UK (source).

The way that these ads work on Google results pages is that the advertiser “bids” up to a defined amount to have his ad displayed when searchers enter certain words or phrases into the search box. But it’s not the actual displaying of the ad that costs the advertiser money. It costs him nothing unless the searcher actually clicks on his ad (which then takes them to the advertiser’s website).

So why should I care about the difference?

A lot of people maintain that they are never swayed by ads, never read them, would never click on them on a Google results page etc. These same people are happy, however, to use Google search to provide them with apparently “fair and impartial” organic results.

Well, I think that those people need to re-consider what’s actually going on here because the “organic” search results are most definitely NOT unbiased, value-free, simple reflections of the websites that are the most pertinent to their search term.

Google do not divulge how they work out which websites to display and in which order (known as ranking). They do, however, issue guides as to the kind of things that are most likely to impress them so that they show a particular website in their results and, just as importantly, how high up the list. They develop ever more complicated “algorithms” that are meant to fine-tune the validity of the results they display. “Validity”, however, is defined – in this context – by Google themselves and evaluated by their (secret) algorithms.

Since a good, high, listing in Google search results is a valuable asset to anyone wanting more website traffic, it stands to reason that it’s worth spending time (and money) honing a website so that it will be looked on favourably by the Google-gods. This means jumping through all of Google’s hoops (both known and guessed-at) to get the website up the rankings.

A whole industry (called “Search Engine Optimisation” or SEO) has developed to cater for this. If you own a website your are quite possibly being bombarded with unsolicited email and phone calls from so-called SEO experts promising to get your website ranked near the top of page one of Google results. As a provider of computer support, I would suggest that Google advertising in general, and SEO optimisation in particular, may well be marketing tools that you should investigate, but be very careful in selecting a company to act on your behalf.

So, my point here is not that we shouldn’t use Google search. After all, they have over 90% of the UK search market. My point is that all those purists who claim never to click on ads because they “never take any notice of advertising” (which is, of course, utterly impossible in our society) are being illogical by clicking on Google’s organic results as these organic listings are no more free or unbiased than the entries which are more openly listed under the heading of “ads”. Their appearance and prominence has just been paid for in a different way.

Google logo magnifiedAlmost everyone I know uses Google’s Search engine. And very nearly everyone seems to use it at its very simplest level: just type something in and see what comes up.

Trying to get a detailed grasp of Google products can be mind-numbing and I don’t advocate it. Nevertheless, with something as ubiquitous as Google Search I thought it might be worthwhile to spend just a few minutes becoming aware of some of the simplest ways to make it work better for us, so I’ll just “bullet-point” a few hints and facts.

To make it a bit clearer which parts of the following text are search terms to be keyed into Google, the search terms are enclosed in square brackets [like this]. These square brackets are not included when you type something into Google. They are just here to distinguish the search term from the surrounding text.

  • Google searches are case-insensitive – typing in [Clapham High Street] is the same as typing in [clapham high street], so just type in whatever is easiest for you.
  • If you want to search for a specific phrase (as opposed to just searching on more than one word) then enclose the search term in double-quotes – eg [“clapham high street”] will only return results where those words appear together and in that order.
  • Google will try to match ALL of the important words in your search term, So, if your search term is [ham or bacon] then it will, in fact, return pages that contain references to both ham and bacon! This is because Google is ignoring what it sees as an unimportant word (the word or). The way to force it to recognise the true meaning of your “or” term is detailed below (confusing, isn’t it ?)
  • The way to force Google to return results containing either one word or another is to type the word “or” in capital letters eg [bacon OR eggs] will return results where the page includes either of those words. In other words, the results you see will have some pages referring to ham and some pages referring to eggs (but not necessarily on the same pages). As I said – confusing.
  • Google will usually ignore “unimportant” words. For example, if you enter [I want to buy a plasma TV, preferably from a shop in Camberwell], you will get (more or less) the same results if you type in [buy plasma tv camberwell]. Grammar and normal syntax are irrelevant. Google is just matching the important words in your search term with web pages in its index.
  • Google will usually ignore most punctuation and unusual characters such as @#$%^&*()=+[]\. There are exceptions to this – see below.
  • If you want to exclude results that include specfic words then add the word to the search term preceded by a minus sign. For example, if your search term is a street name then the results will be swamped with pages from estate agents. Maybe Google will sort this out one day, but in the meantime you can try filtering the results by searching for (for instance) [“edgeley road” clapham -property -estate -agent]. This will return results that contain the exact phrase “edgeley road”, that also contain the word “clapham”, but which do not contain any of the words “property”, “estate”, or “agent”.
  • Despite all the rules above, Google do sometimes tweak their searches to take account of facts in the real world. For instance, the character “&” is usually ignored in a search term but if your search term is [M & S] the result is what you probably wanted – Marks & Spencer come at the top of the list of results. Similarly, if you just type in [who] the results relate to just that word, but if you type in [the who] it will recognise that you are referring to a rock group.
  • Finally, you may remember that Google’s search page used to have an option that said “search within results”. You would expect that this means that if you enter a new search term it will narrow down the previous results to take account of the new criterion. This option has now disappeared. I’ve been reading a rather “lively” exchange on this subject. Google claims that all you have to do is add the new search term to the original search term and you will get exactly the same as you used to since the previous “search within results” was just a con. Google claims that the second search merely repeated the first search but with the second term added to it. The other side in the exchange maintains that that’s just not true and that the previous “search within results” produced a better and different result. I don’t know the truth. I just know that I sometimes used “search within results” and it’s not there any more, so don’t bother looking for it. Just add your new term to the end of your previous term and search again.

There are lots of Google web pages that go into far more detail on the subject of search. If you want to investigate further, I suggest starting here.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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