Have you ever spent hours scouring the Internet for information? Do you know what it is like to hunt desperately for that one needle in the haystack? If so, you are not alone.
Search engines, like Google, allow us to probe the vast recesses of the Internet, but sometime they just don’t serve up the answer we’re looking for. Sadly, as a Linux user, you will likely be there again… staring at your computer screen, drool coming out the side of your mouth, tears welling up in your eyes, and not a single step closer to the end of your search tunnel.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the magic potion to end frustrating searches. But I do have a some tips that help reduce their frequency.
Some readers are surely wondering what I have against the other search engines. Microsoft’s Bing search engine is popular and very good. DuckDuckGo is good and sensitive to privacy concerns. Yet I am focusing on Google. This is purposeful.
In my experience, when it comes to finding Linux solutions, Google is far superior. Let’s take Bing for example. Bing heavily favors large, well-established websites, and pages that receive a lot of visitors. This strategy works well when searching for Khloe Kardashian’s birthday. But most Linux solutions are found on obscure blogs, long-dead forum posts, and mailing list archives. And this means Bing excludes or buries your needed results.
On the other hand, Google places more weight on relevancy. It is more likely to return that long-dead forum post so long as it is relevant to your search query. I don’t have a problem with other search engines. I use both Bing and DuckDuckGo on regular occasions, and like them. But for Linux, Google is the better tool.
Switch Between Asking a Question and Using Keywords
Five years ago, typing in a full question into Google was a bad idea. Results were better if you picked out key words or phrases from your question and searched for those.
You were better served using “Khloe Kardashian birthday“ instead of “What is Khloe Kardashian’s date of birth”
However, times are changing. Google is better at interpreting conversational language than it was five years ago. Now, asking Google a question as you would another person is often a better choice. But not always.
You must experiment. Try asking a question first, and if that doesn’t work, switch to keywords. Google is becoming more intelligent. Sometimes that intelligence is beneficial, sometimes not. Play around with your searches. Experiment and see what returns the best result.
Take Advantage of Search Tricks
There is a long list of tips and tricks for getting the most out of Google. Most won’t help you with Linux, but there are four crucial ones.
1.) Exact Phrase
Enclose your search in double-quotes to perform an exact phrase search. This is particularly useful when diagnosing error messages. Copy and paste part of the error, enclose it in double-quotes, and search.
2.) Site Search
Before or after your search query, type “site:” followed by the URL of the website. For example, “google search site:downtoearthlinux.com.” This will restrict results to a specific website which is useful if you want to search a particular distribution’s documentation or support forums.
3.) Related Pages
Type “related:” followed by the URL of a website to search for any related pages. This is useful if you’ve found the topic you are looking for, but the current page isn’t quite right.
4.) Include or Omit Words
Google automatically filters out common words such as “the.” However, sometimes you may want to include an omitted word. To do so, enclose it in double quotes just like you do for an exact phrase. Or, you can specify that you don’t want a word in your results by preceding it with a minus sign. Like this: “setting up the perfect linux home server -gentoo.” This will return all relevant results to “setting up the perfect linux home server” except any mentioning Gentoo.
Omit Unhelpful Data
Quite probably, error messages will dominate your Linux related Google searches. Often those error messages contain information specific to your computer. Including that data in a Google search will only weaken your results. Instead of copying the error message word for word, remove anything specific to your installation only.
Take the following error. “
rm: cannot remove Pictures/: Is a directory”
Part of that search is relevant only to my computer, when doing the task I am currently trying. If I were to Google this error message, I would omit “
Pictures/:.” I would also use the exact search feature discussed above and enclose the important portions in quotes.
Usernames, directories and files, times and dates, and several other types of information will only limit the effectiveness of your search query. Use only the information that other people have likely encountered.
Know Your Distributions
Most Linux distributions are very closely related to others. Under the hood, Linux Mint is very similar to Ubuntu. Ubuntu is very similar to Debian. Red Hat is very similar to Fedora. And so on. Sometimes, searching for instructions for one particular distribution won’t work. Substituting a similar distribution in your search may yield better results.
Furthermore, in some situations, your distribution doesn’t matter. Configuring Samba in Arch is essentially the same as in Debian despite the differences between the distributions. Use knowledge of your distribution and how distributions differ to broaden your search.
To get the most from your results, carefully construct your search queries. Ask yourself how someone with the solution to your problem would share it with the world? Let me use the directory removal error above as an example. I chose to search based strictly on the error message I received. I would have received better results if I had simply asked how to delete a directory.
If I were writing an article on how to use the “rm” command to delete a directory, I would choose a title like “Deleting a Directory From the Linux Command Line.” As a writer, I am trying to present my work to the widest audience possible. I choose my naming and writing strategy accordingly.
As a Googler, think about the strategy someone with the answer to your question would use to publicize it. Then construct your query using that insight.
Persistence is Key
Unfortunately, sometimes finding your answer is hard. It may mean sifting through hundreds of Google results. You may need to repeatedly rephrase your question. You might have to learn ten new skills to solve your one simple problem.
If you are getting frustrated, take a break. Come back later, start from the beginning, use what you learned earlier and the tips discussed here. If progress is not being made, try a new direction or strategy.
Share What You Learn!
If you finally discovered a solution to your problem, share it. I can almost guarantee that someone else has the same problem. Write a blog post. You can post it on your very own blog, or you can try submitting it as a guest post to someone else’s site. People with valuable information are always in demand.
If you don’t want to write your own post, then at least promote the solution. Go to a Linux forum or go to social media and share a link. With the link include a short description of your problem. Use the search queries you tried that were unsuccessful to help shape your description. Present the information the way it would have helped you.
You can also share your information with us and we can help get the word out.
Searching for common or mundane information is easy. Everyone knows how to do it. However, as a Linux user, you are now part of an elite. Sometimes Google can’t help you without you bending it to your will.
Now it’s your turn! If you have any other pro search tips, share them with us in the comments below. We don’t bite.