There’s more than Google out there

You used Google today. Certainly you used it yesterday. Right? If you’re looking for something online, that’s what you do. But there are other options and some of them are so much better at certain types of search that they are extraordinarily useful to have.

Lifehacker has half a dozen suggestions, including somewhere you just ask people – that seems so quaint – and it’s first one is a favourite of mine:

Wolfram Alpha Crunches Big Numbers and Statistics

Wolfram Alpha is to Google’s answer cards as movies are to paper flip books. Google will tell you everyday things like how many ounces are in a cup. Wolfram Alpha can tell you about median salaries in a given field, or perform key financial calculations. You can even estimate your blood alcohol content. The site is excellent at in-depth research and calculations that go beyond web search results.

The Best Tools for Finding Information When Google Isn’t Enough – Eric Ravenscraft, Lifehacker (6 January 2015)

Take a look at Wolfram Alpha yourself: it’s a website but there’s also an app for it that’s rather useful. And read Lifehacker’s full piece for the rest.

Google: the search engine that looked at goats

It’s not a metaphor. But it is a warning. Here’s the intriguing bit:

A few weeks ago, I discovered that Google knows the lifespan of a goat. Search for “how long does a goat live” and you’ll see it displayed in a special card above the search results. 15 to 18 years! It’s not an important fact, and I can’t imagine people ask it very often — but there it is. I couldn’t tell you where they got the answer (it’s surprisingly hard to nail down, as I’ll get into later) but I’m pretty sure it’s right. It’s the kind of accidental discovery that Google loves to serve up. I went looking for a fact, and there it was. You come away feeling as if the engine knows the answer to any question you could ask.

The official name for this feature is the Knowledge Graph, Google’s project for converting information on the web into easily managed cards. The sudden appearance of the goat data says a lot about the piecemeal way Google has been building it. How long had they known about goats? I made a few calls and Google got back with an answer: the card was added a year ago, as part of a broader animal expansion that also included a goat’s mass (45 to 300 kilograms) and height (40 to 58cm), with similar specs for other beasts. Unless you’d thought to Google “how long does a goat live”, you would never have known.

Why Google is learning about goats – Russell Brandom, The Verge (28 October 2014)

Read the full piece for the warning bit. Spoiler: what we think of is fact can be just a lot of good guesses.

I’ve given you secret and malicious intelligence information. Apparently.

I use this so often. And I’ve mentioned it to you in a piece about searching for specific email addresses. If you type this into Google:


You get an awful lot of results. If, instead, you type this:

omnifocus at

Well, okay, you still get an awful lot of results. But you’re telling Google to solely and only and specifically and exclusively search my site. Now, Google doesn’t exactly do that. First it searches me, then it searches everywhere else like it always does. But those first few entries are on my site.

I do go a little further. I’ll search a site like that and if I’m looking for a screenplay, say, I might specify that I want “filetype:pdf”. That returns only PDF results. Fine. It cuts down a lot of time searching but apparently that’s a problem:

Malicious cyber actors are using advanced search techniques, referred to as “Google dorking,” to locate information that organizations may not have intended to be discoverable by the public or to find website vulnerabilities for use in subsequent cyber attacks. “Google dorking” has become the acknowledged term for this malicious activity, but it applies to any search engine with advanced search capabilities. By searching for specific file types and keywords, malicious cyber actors can locate information such as usernames and passwords, e-mail lists, sensitive documents, bank account details, and website vulnerabilities. For example, a simple “operator:keyword” syntax, such as “filetype:xls intext:username,” in the standard search box would retrieve Excel spreadsheets containing usernames.

Malicious Cyber Actors User Advanced Search Techniques – Intelligence for Police, Fire, EMS and Security Personnel – 7 July 2014

You go through a range of reactions to this, don’t you? Like a typical man, I preen a bit at the idea that searches I do every day are ‘advanced’. I don’t fully understand the term ‘cyber actor’ but it sounds exciting. And then you get called a dork. Google Dorking is such a new term that there isn’t a Wikipedia page about it. (There is this and it seems a nice place to visit.)

I think the onus is on the people who put classified or confidential information on their computers. Let them shut out searches like this. Especially as apparently it’s a bit easy for them to do.

But hey, if anyone asks where you learnt how to crack NATO defence secrets or whatever it is, you point them right at… um… anyway, is that the time?

“How many days is it since 26 November 2013?”

I’m just after telling you that it is 265 days since The Blank Screen news site launched – but I didn’t tell you how I knew that.

It’d be good if you thought I was some incredibly organised savant type but, no, I just know about Wolfram Alpha.

You’ll think it’s a search engine when you see it but rather than looking for websites that happen to have something like the answer you want, Wolfram Alpha does its best to work out that answer. It’s easier to give you examples so here are the last few questions I’ve asked it:

How many days is it since 26 November 2013?
How deep is the English Channel?
What percentage of 2Gb is 250mb?
What is the date in 934 weekdays?
How far is New York from here?
What is 16% of 919.86?
When is mother’s day?

I need to explain that last one: mother’s day is on different dates in the UK and the US and I get easily confused. I’m sure one year my mother got two presents though, curiously, she didn’t complain.

I’m not saying that Wolfram Alpha is flawless: I asked it what the tourist population of Paris was and it threw up its hands. (I worked it out from a combination of tourist board information and general Paris statistics though, maddeningly, I can’t remember it now. I do remember looking out across from a café and being sure that something ridiculous like four out of five people I could see would be tourists.)

I am saying that not enough people know about Wolfram Alpha and when it’s the right tool for you, it is superb. Plus it’s free – with an option to pay for a premium version – which you can go to right now on the web at the official site. You can also get an iPhone or an iPad app for it.

Search Twitter by number of retweets

This is a clever idea: if you want to find something on twitter, it stands to reason that the best information is the one that has been retweeted the most:

Go to the Twitter search box, type any search term and append the operator min_retweets:[number] or min_faves:[number] to filter your search results. For instance, here’s a sample search that will only shows tweets pointing to the domain that have been favorited or retweeted at least 5 times. min_retweets:5 OR min_faves:5

If you are brand manager trying to find out the most viral tweets generated for an event or a content, the min_retweets and min_faves search operators may save you several hours. You can also archive tweets to a Google Spreadsheet automatically.

A Twitter Search Trick You Didn’t Know About – Amit Agarwal, Digital Inspiration (25 July 2014)

The full article explains that you can do this most easily on Tweetdeck, the twitter client that includes a feature specifically for this, but the trick works everywhere with a bit of effort.

Hat tip to Lifehacker for spotting this.

Save your emails into Evernote for quicker searching

I’m not convinced by this because Mail in OS X is quick at finding things but I can see a lot of advantages to saving emails into Evernote because it’s a good pot for all things. It’s a good place to save everything and know that it’s all there, to know that everything you save is therefore everywhere you go.

But the official Evernote blog is persuasive about all this – and has a lot of tips for how to do it. Take a read, would you?

2014 is the Year of Deep Linking

Sure it is. It’s also the Year of the Horse, the Year of Family Farming, the Year of Encryption, you could go on and it feels like I have done. But this claim of the Year of Deep Linking aside, writer Liron Shapira makes a reasoned argument for why deep linking is important – and just what it is, too:

Say you’re looking for an awesome karaoke bar, and use Yelp for a quick search. What’s wrong with this picture? Your friend goes on Yelp’s website and searches for nearby karaoke places, then texts you: “Check out all these karaoke places! Here’s a link.” The text comes with a link to a Web page full of karaoke search results. That’s convenient, and exactly what you need. But if your friend is using the Yelp app, the text has to read: “Check out all these karaoke places I found! Open Yelp and search for ‘karaoke.’” The app can’t offer a direct link to the right content, putting you and your friend one step farther from your signature rendition of “Lights.”

Liron Shapira – 2014 Is the Year of the Deep Link – Re/code (15 May 2014)

Okay, so that’s what it is and there is money in searching. Read the full piece for what is happening with this idea, why firms are investing in it and how we are likely to see it everywhere soon.

PS. There are no awesome karaoke bars. Just wanted to save you the trouble of searching.