Top Secret! search tip

I do a lot of searching on Google. I literally perform tens of thousands of queries each year. If you want to know how much you search, check out Google Web History. It’s really fun to click on trends— I found out that on my personal, non-work account, the hour with the highest volume of queries from me is between 11 PM and midnight, and the most active day of the week is Thursday. Usually these queries are kept between myself and Google’s computers, but I’ll share a few of tonight’s searches with you.

A few hours ago, I came across this buzz from Leo Laporte. The image immediately made me think of a scene from a movie in which the shot begins with a man holding a magnifying glass up to his eye, then pulls it away to reveal that his one eye is actually larger than the other. I couldn’t remember the name of the movie, and the only other thing I could remember was that the same scene was played in reverse and it took place in a library.

Here’s how my queries began:

[library reverse scene]
[library reverse scene magnifying glass]

That second query actually had the movie listed on the first page of results, but I didn’t recognize it and kept searching. I switched to video search and tried:

[reverse library]
[reverse library magnifying glass]

No luck; back to web search with:

[reverse library magnifying glass]
[“shot in reverse” library]
[“shot in reverse” library “looking glass”]
[“shot in reverse” library “magnifying glass”]

Note that until tonight I didn’t actually know what a “looking glass” was. I had always assumed it was a synonym for “magnifying glass.” It’s not.

See how I narrow and broaden the results by adding and removing terms:

[“shot in reverse”]
[“shot in reverse” scenes]
[“shot in reverse” movie scenes]

At this point I’m trying to find lists of movie scenes that are shot in reverse. Still, nothing pops out at me. What I’m trying to do with all of these query refinements is try to think of words and phrases that may be on the page. Watch how I switch from “shot in reverse” to “played in reverse” since an author could write about the same technique either way:

[“played in reverse” movie scenes]
[movie scene reverse]

That first query had the movie listed on the second page of results, but I missed it. If I had thought earlier that “shot in reverse” and “played in reverse” were interchangeable, I could have saved some time with the OR operator:

[“shot in reverse” OR “played in reverse”]

Finally, I realized that perhaps the scene didn’t actually take place in a library. But there were definitely bookshelves:

[movie scene reverse bookshelves]

I went through a couple of pages of results and then switched to an image search for the same query, and went through several pages of results there. It’s easy to go through many image results pages since they can be scanned quickly if you know what you’re looking for. Reading… ha!

I tried another image search:

[movie scene magnifying glass]

And then finally thought of another way to describe it. I wasn’t just looking for a scene with a magnifying glass. I was looking for a scene with a magnifying glass that was used as a joke. Still as an image search, I tried:

[movie scene magnifying glass gag]

Almost immediately, I recognized one of the images and clicked on it, bringing me to this forum thread. I found the image on reply #68, which referenced a movie called Top Secret!

Now all I had to do was check my work:

[top secret]

That found the movie, but wasn’t specific enough, so I tried:

[top secret reverse]

From the snippet of the Wikipedia page, I was able to see that the scene took place in a bookstore, not a library. I did a search for [top secret swedish bookstore] and was presented with some video clips confirming that Top Secret! was indeed the movie I was looking for. The whole process took five minutes. I probably should have just known that it would be a Jim Abrahams movie ending in an exclamation point. My favorite gag of his is the pilot getting ready in front of the mirror in Airplane!*

I guess there are a couple of conclusions you could draw from this long list of queries:

  1. Even an expert searcher like Wysz doesn’t get what he wants with the first try, so don’t give up on your search too quickly. Stick with it.
  2. No wonder Wysz has had to do so many searches. He’s pretty bad at searching. 🙂

But what I’d really like you to learn is this:

  1. Search is not a solved problem, so there’s plenty of room for Google and others to innovate and improve. A perfect search engine should know what I’m looking for, even if I have a fuzzy memory or my search terms are ambiguous.
  2. There are techniques you can learn to become a better searcher. If you’re interested in learning some, one new resource you may want to check out is SearchReSearch, the personal blog of Dan Russell, a research scientist at Google.

* By the way, how do you punctuate a sentence ending with a movie title that ends with punctuation?

2 thoughts on “Top Secret! search tip”

  1. This is all very interesting.

    I agree with your “search is not a solved problem” statement, but I would say even more specifically: (this may be obvious to a Googler)

    1. Google has solved “search” if you think of it in terms of the “find” function in notepad, except for the web: Google will find a pretty comprehensive amount of the occurrences of that word or phrase on the web.

    2. Google hasn’t solved this: The problem is sometimes we don’t know what we are searching for. e.g. your example above, or a technical or industry term for a concept. We know ‘in our minds’ what we need, but we don’t know what ‘words’ would lead to it. More experienced searchers like you know to think about what types of words would surround the content you need, but most people don’t even get that far.

    Unfortunately, this problem sort of makes the case for “Yahoo Answers”, as bad as that content usually is… Is there another way?

    (also sorry to troll, I like your blog though.)

  2. @Andy You raise a good point: the keyword-based search box that we’re all accustomed to is great for many queries, but not all. For example, if you’re looking at a building and want to ask “What is that?” then it might be hard to form a text-based query, and something like Google Goggles is a better interface. And then there are those questions that do benefit from general services like Yahoo! Answers (and Aardvark) or specialized forums.

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