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What's the one computer-related skill that you should improve?

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This is Leo Notenboom for

I often get asked questions that boil down to "how do I get better at using my computer". Many people have a basic level of frustration using their PCs because they can't necessarily find the answers to all the questions they have.

In fact, it's one reason sites like Ask Leo! are so popular.

And that word - find - is the key.

If there were one skill I would recommend that everyone invest in it's using search engines such as Google more effectively.

It's frustrating to watch people take wild guesses of what to search for, and then quickly give up in frustration when their answers aren't at the top of the results. The search engines try to interpret what you're looking for, but they can only go so far. The better you can state your query, the better the results you're going to get.

The most common mistake I see people make? Starting out way too specific by including every term they can think of to narrow down the search from the beginning and then giving up when what they want isn't in the results. Even using a naturally complete phrase or description often results in poor results or missed search engine hits that would have been relevant.

The second most common mistake? The exact opposite: using only one or two words and then giving up after getting lost in a flood of irrelevant results.

Effective searching involves, of course, knowing what to search for - what words and phrases and partial phrases are most likely to get you what you want. But really effective searching also means knowing what to do next. Refining and adjusting searches is as important as that initial search - perhaps even more. It involves understanding just a little bit of how search engines work, and using that knowledge to pick the right things to search for.

And yes, while I've positioned this as a "computer related" skill - it really does apply to anything you might look up on-line, computer related or not.

I'd even go so far as to say that principals of effective searching should be taught in school and made available as an adult education course as well.

It's that important.

There are several on-line resources to get you started, and I've included some links in the notes for this podcast. The problem, though is that many cover only the mechanics of the search engines; how to use various features and options. I'd like to recommend my friend Tara Calishain's excellent book Web Search Garage, which includes a section on searching effectively - exactly what I'm suggesting you learn how to do.

As you probably already know, there's a wealth of information out on the internet - if you can only find it. Searching more effectively will get you there, and get you there with less frustration.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit and enter 11146 in the go to article number box and leave me a comment. While you're there, search over 1,000 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for

Article C2921 - February 4, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Greg Bulmash
February 5, 2007 12:51 AM

Very astute. Searching is definitely a skill. An additional skill is learning some of the advanced search syntax at search engines like Google.

For example, if you were searching for stuff with the phrase "any day now", just entering:

any day now

... would get you a list of search results where the text of the pages contained those three words, but not necessarily that phrase. By putting it in quotes, you tell Google to search for that exact phrase and you cut out a huge number of irrelevant results.

Leo Notenboom
February 5, 2007 8:50 AM

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What I'm suggesting is way more fundamental than that.

Effective searching, to me, means first understanding if "any day now"
is even the right thing to search for to get to your desired results.
Understanding where "any day" alone might be more appropriate, or "any
day now someone will heed the call" might be better.

And then knowing how to refine the results.

And that's all before thinking about quotes, no quotes, or other search
engines syntaxes and tools.

- -Leo
Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)


February 10, 2007 9:55 AM

I found you reference to "Using Search Engins - A Tutorial very valuable. It will improve my future searching.
But should not be surprised - I learn something everytime I read you material.

February 10, 2007 10:02 AM

Not what I was expecting.

Though I found this article personally helpful (thank you), this is not the "One computer skill I wish people would hone."

I would have to give that title to:
Basic FILE MANAGEMENT (such as Windows Explorer).

My biggest frustration in trying to help friends is their ignorance of what windows (and other programs) do with their files ... "where's it stored at, how do I find it, how do I copy it, how do I back it up, what's a folder, what's a file, etc. etc. etc."

I used to teach a drafting class that used an easy-to-learn CAD software (Solid Edge). The students who understood Windows Explorer breezed through the other software; Those who didn't ... well...didn't 'breeze.'
Understanding "File Management" seems to be the foundation which makes all other computering more than a "just-get-by" experience.

Leo Notenboom
February 10, 2007 11:29 AM

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I expected a little disagreement :-).

I *totally* agree with you that basic file management is way, WAY up
there on my list of recommended skills. Many of the questions I get
would, in fact, be resolved by a better understanding thereof.

There are a couple of reasons I prioritize search skills above it,

I consider search a "gateway skill". It's a skill that can be used to
find information about or learn other skills. So, to use your example,
should I determine I need to get better at file management, having a
good ability to search for that information will make it easier for me
to locate it on the web.

It's also a general pupose skill. As I said, I agree that it's way high
up there and imporant, but in all honesty, not everyone needs to
understand file management, nor would absolutely everyone benefit from
it. Search skills are independant of any particular field or endeavor.
At some point or another everyone searches for something. Be it how to
use a program, how to fix a leaky roof, or where to have dinner next
week, I believe that more effective search skills would more positively
impact more people.


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January 26, 2011 7:58 AM

I keep showing friends that typing plain English into Google will often pull up someone else who has the same problem: "how do I format my drive", or "how can I find a file"; "what does filetype .tif mean?".

For those who can't seem to get file organization, I find Copernic desktop search (freeware) the best of the lot; people with poor filing skills can still find their documents if they can just remember a key phrase (now we're back to search skills!)

My girlfriend tries to be "digital" so she scans in many receipts or important papers. Of course now she has converted a text file to an image and Copernic cannot find words in it any longer. She lets the scanner program name the files so she ends up with Scan028, Scan 039, Scan 456, etc.
One MUST give their files understandable names like "business contact with Joe" so they can be found on the computer later.

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