How to Google: 5 Search Literacy Tips

Knowing how to search makes any user’s online experience better, especially when browsing or researching for educational purposes. Even if you think you’re a search star, check out the following tips and tricks to up your Googling game.

1. Understand operators

At a basic level, a search engine works by searching pages that include the words you type in, such as [baby elephants]. Operators are “tricks” you can use to refine your search, and they work beyond searching library databases—you can incorporate the same concept to make your web-searching more effective.


Understand search engine operators to improve your academic searching (adapted from

Google changes its approach to search constantly, so don’t get too caught up in specific characters (like ~ to find related terms—a Google search will pull up the same functionality with or without it), but do understand some basic commands like the asterisk (*) for wildcard search or “intitle:example term” to find pages with a heading that’s an exact match to your term.

Another favorite little-known trick—use two periods to indicate a range. Example: [kings of england 1776..1976]. If the idea of operators sounds familiar, it’s because good web searching involves simplified Boolean Logic—the AND OR stuff you may have learned from a librarian.

Here are more search operators to be aware of from Google. Microsoft search engine Bing also has a great search operator resource site, as does anonymous, open-source alternative Duck Duck Go.

2. Filter images by usage license

Google Image Search recently rolled out a convenient feature—an easier way to find Creative-Commons-licensed images.

From the image search tool, click on “Search tools” to expand search options. You can now filter results for the query in several different ways (find baby elephant pictures published in the last week!), including the option to bring images labeled for (commercial) reuse (with/out modification) to the top of your results.


Search by usage license directly within the Google Image tool

Creative Commons also has a great, wide-ranging search tool that finds labeled-for-reuse media by entering your query directly into the search functionality of your chosen site (YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr etc.). (I also added CC Search to my Firefox search bar.)

3. Reverse image search

You’ve found the perfect image for your presentation (it’s labeled for reuse and everything), but you’re not sure where it came from and so can’t give proper attribution. Here’s what you can do to quickly find the image (and thus its source) again:


Search by image URL or by uploading an image

With Google, go to image search and then click on the camera icon in the box. This will allow you to paste in an image URL (for example, the above image’s URL is or even drag in the file itself (for example, from your desktop to the “Upload an Image” area).

You can also use advanced image search to find images similar to a particular one, a cool feature if you’re looking for something particular and you’ve come close but your results aren’t quite what you’re going for.

4. Find and save scholarly research with Google Scholar

If you’re doing serious academic research, you’re likely using library resources of some kind. But you may want to consider using the Google Scholar tool for quick-finding web-published academic papers. After a recent roll-out, you can also use this tool to save what you find in an online “library” of your very own.

5. Know that Google isn’t the only game in town

I’m guilty of using Google as the search example (and even short-hand for web search) throughout this post. That’s because I like a lot of its specific tools, but one of the costs of Google is its lack of privacy.


A San Fransisco ad from the open-source underdog. Image from

In addition to subject-specific search engines, consider using just-as-good-if-not-better alternatives next time you do some serious searching.

Extra bonus tip: Once you’ve completed a lot of research (be it for a Serious Term paper or for recipes to try), you’ll likely want to save all the info you gather. For quick saving, I like the free & cool tool Diigo.

Teaching students (of all ages) how to be better searchers

Google’s Story of Search page is a nice introduction to indexing and the basic functionality of search algorithms. For educators, Google has gone a step further, putting together targeted lesson plans on search strategy.


Alex is online course support technician at IDS, working to support all online, hybrid and LMS-enhanced instructors and students in using Blackboard and several media servers. She's also the administrator for the MCC Blogs network. You can reach her at

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Posted in Blog, IDS Tech Academy

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