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Become a Google Guru

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Most of the time, when you run a Google search, it simply works. You type in The Simpsons, press Enter, and you've got all the character bios, episode guides, and Bart hood ornaments you could ever want. That's the beauty of Google.

But what about when you want to find something trickier? Say you're a journalist on deadline, and you need a quote from an expert in negotiations. You have two potential sources but neither of them is returning your calls. A friend, however, recently raved about a negotiations trainer his company brought in from a place called something like Watershed Consultants. So you run a search for Watershed Consultants ... and Google gives you 120,000 results-all about saving ecosystems and revitalizing rivers.

Your friend is on vacation, and your story can't wait. What do you do?

As you may know, a Google search for Watershed Consultants gives you every page that mentions both those terms. If you want to find only pages that discuss the phrase, put quotes around it, like: "Watershed Consultants." That hones your results from 150,000 to about 670-not an insane number to sift through. But if "Watershed Consultants" is not the exact name of the firm, you're out of luck. You could try the same trick with "Watershed Consulting," but again, you'd need an exact name match.

Instead of quotes, you could add terms to your query to narrow things down. Since you're looking for an expert in negotiation, and your friend works in Washington D.C., rebuild your search like this: Watershed Consultants negotiation DC. But that still leaves you with more than 8,000 results. Time to tell Google to ignore the pages with words you don't want. Use the minus sign before extraneous terms (you can have up to 10 words in a Google query), like this: Watershed Consultants negotiation DC -water -river -ecological -aquatic -environmental -conservation. Now you're netting a very manageable 86 results-and the first one is Watershed Associates, a Washington firm that consults on negotiating skills. A watershed moment, you might say.

Here're a few more Google search tips:

• Google lets you search for a range of numbers-a surprisingly handy feature if you're looking for prices, dates or product features. Here's how it works: If you type two periods between the numbers at either end of a range (1970..1990), Google shows you results with every number in between. For example, if you want to find references to boxers in the first half of the 20th century, try 1900..1950 boxers. Google gives you pages mentioning boxers during that entire span of years. This trick is great for prices ($50..75 Tiffany) and other types of numbers, too, like 45..55 MPG Honda, or 400..600 thread count.

• Google is a national Yellow Pages. If you type in your search terms along with a name and state or zip code, Google offers you "Local Results"-listings of relevant businesses in the area you've asked for. For example, if you want to send flowers to your cousin in Boise, Idaho, type florist Boise, ID, to get a handy list of businesses-along with their addresses and phone numbers-that'll deliver a bouquet in Boise.

• Google is a calculator. If you type in 2*2=, the blank search box is smart enough to know that you want to perform some math rather than run a search. (If you actually want to search for instances of the equation itself, then put it in quotes, like this: "2*2=".) The Google calculator can do very complex calculations, and it can also perform unit conversions, like: How many acres in 13 hectares? Or 5 kilometers in miles. You never have to wonder again how many teaspoons are in a cup.

• When you have a question, type in the answer you want to find, rather than the question. For example, if you want to find out who the original drummer for the Beatles was, try original drummer for the Beatles. If you type your query in the form of a question-who was the original drummer for the Beatles?-Google matches your search terms and shows you pages with that question.

Sarah Milstein is the author of Google: The Missing Manual (O'Reilly & Associates). Adapted from "Google: The Missing Manual," by Sarah Milstein and Rael Dornfest.