As we all know, Google searches typically return huge amounts of results — numbering well into the millions — for practically any initial search. As frustrating as this can be, it’s especially vexing when adding additional search terms not only fails to limit the number of results in any significant way, it also may screen out lots of possibly useful items.

But it turns out that there’s a way to limit your results that doesn’t involve adding search terms — and that can help you retrieve useful items much faster. This method involves adding a domain search along with your search terms. And while this may sound daunting, it’s actually quite easy.

First, you can search in a wide domain, such as .edu, .org or .gov. The latter can be especially useful in finding an array of public materials, such as government reports, statistics and court cases. Suppose we’re looking for statistics on gun violence. If we search for “gun violence statistics” (without using quotes in the search), a Google search turns up 4,550,000 results — a hodgepodge of news stories, government reports, nonprofit organizations (including pro-gun advocacy groups like the NRA) and Wikipedia entries. But if we enter the following string into a Google search, we’re now at 30,700 results:

gun violence statistics site:gov

See how you do that? To whatever search you’re doing, you add the word “site,” followed by a colon, followed by the domain. In this search — which now only looks at sites with the “.gov” domain — the very first link that appears is a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics documenting firearm violence statistics from 1993 through 2011.

Screen Shot gov search
What’s more, once we know that the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (bjs.gov) may be a useful site in which to look, we can limit our searches to only sites within the Bureau’s domain, that is: “gun violence statistics site:bjs.gov”. To wit:

Screen Shot bjs search

We now have only 425 results to comb through. Moreover, we can easily see other categories, such as “Weapon Use,” on which the BJS offers information, and adjust our search terms accordingly to pinpoint the items that might be most useful to our project.

This technique can be used to similar effect to search .org or .edu domains — whether we’re looking within entire domains or particular sites. It’s especially useful when searching organizations big, complex web structures, such as the United Nations (un.org). There are, of course, pros and cons to searching any one of these domains, and this may be the subject of a future blog post. In any case, it’s worth remembering that limiting to a wide or narrow domain may help you find useful items quicker, and at the same time lessen one’s experience of information overload.

— Fred Folmer

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