Diane T. Sands

Dear Savvy Searcher,

My students keep wanting to enter their entire research question into the search bar. I keep trying to tell them that’s a bad idea. How do you teach students to identify the right words to use in a search?

Frustrated Educator




Dear Frustrated,

I had a particular conversation with a student a while back. It might sound familiar:

“But how do I know what the important words are?” The student looked up at me, perplexed. She stared back at her paper, where she had written Did George Washington ever write a diary? “Every word is important, or my question wouldn’t make sense!”

She had a point, of course. We had been discussing a method to distill a question into its components and turn it into a strong query, the string of words she would type into a search engine to look for her answer. Students have often expressed that it’s hard to identify “just the words they need.”

Based on how Google ranks search results, typing in a question will be more likely to bring back pages with a question for a title. In many of our everyday searches this is an easy way to find question and answer sites when we want them, but Q&A sites are not necessarily authoritative sources for school work. So I have students write down their questions and teach them how to mark them up to create queries, the first step being to identify the significant words.

A marked up question

Explaining how to distinguish the important words has sometimes proven challenging with younger students. Recently, however, fellow Googler AJ Kimbembe observed that the mark-up process reminded him of rebuses. You might remember these puzzles from childhood, where select words in a narrative are replaced with pictures. We started playing with the idea, and realized this could be a great lesson for students in identifying the best search terms.

Nouns frequently make good search terms, so students can start by drawing the people, places, and things in their questions. For example, I challenged another child with the question about whether George Washington ever wrote a diary, and he drew this:

Drawing of George Washington and his diary

The searchable parts of this picture are [George Washington diary].

Compare the results:

Search results for: "Did George Washington ever write a diary?"

Search results for: George Washington diary

From an academic standpoint, the second result brought back highly authoritative sources that are specifically about diaries, rather than other books. The sources in the second search also appear relatively straightforward and clear, which is preferable for a younger researcher.

Verbs and adjectives can also help in many cases. They may be harder to draw, but it strikes me that the challenge can be framed appropriately to help children think more critically about where to place their efforts. Consider this visualization a child drew for his question: What is the best wood for dogs to chew?

This search did not get satisfactory results. Why? It appears that there is a general agreement among dog-lovers that there are healthier items for dogs to chew than wood, so he found no recommendations for a “best wood.” He could not have done any better with shorter searches, though, as dog wood gets results for the dogwood plant. A good rebus does not guarantee a successful resolution to a question, but neither does it preclude using verbs and adjectives.

Usually, the strongest queries do not include particles or other function words, but sometimes they make a big difference. Here is an example of why Google considers all the words you type in:

Trying to decide which little words to toss out becomes easier when you illustrate.

There are other benefits of illustrating searches. For example, on the Search Education team, we often find that searchers get stuck with the phrasing in which a question first occurs to them. Working from images seems to free up the mind to look for synonyms. When the young boy illustrated his question about wood that is good for dogs, he drew a tree to represent wood. Looking at his drawing, the word stick also offered itself as a search term. Similarly, librarian and cartoonist Diane T. Sands’ daughter wanted to know what lizards eat, which prompted her to sketch out the rebus at the top of this post. Even knowing her original question, looking at the rebus I searched for lizard food, rather than lizard eat, which brought back different results.

As students graduate to more sophisticated questions, this method will not take them as far. But it makes a great teaching tool to get students off on the right foot…leading to teachers and students who are less frustrated.

Try your own rebus and send me your favorite!

Contact Tasha and check out the Search Education Team’s resources.



  • wow, love this post.  this is a dilemma my classes have been heavily struggling with during our current unit.  will rectify immediately!

  • Work-School Mom

    How odd, we always type in our full question. Our searches have been very successful using without leaving out words, especially since most search engines automatically ignore words like “the” and “a”. 

    • Work-School Mom

      I meant to say our searches have been successful without omitting any words from our questions.

      • Tbm

        Please note that Google does not automatically ignore words like “the” or “a.” Try the searches in the example above, with [who]/[the who]/[a who]. Each of those brings back different results, because Google found that those particles really make a difference in this context. Consider the difference in meaning between [onion] (food) and [the onion] (satirical newspaper), or the different results you get for [cars], [the cars], and [a car].

        I am pleased that you are happy with your search results, since we work very hard to bring you good ones. Mostly, I would note that while you may find the information you need whether you write a full question or an “important word only” query, you will often get *different* pages in response to these different types of searches. Depending on your needs, one may be more suitable than the other.

        For instance, when considering my examples in this reply, I Googled the long-form search: [band names that start with the] because I specifically figured a Q&A site or something similar would have just the answer I needed, and I knew that the search [band names the] would throw out the word “the.” By using a common parlance search, I successfully got Google to find and give as my first result a page titled: “Band names that start with ‘the’?” Exactly what I needed in this instance, where a traditional scholarly source might not tackle this type of information, but tons of people have asked and answered it  through more social channels. Of course, that search was also possible because Google does not automatically throw out the particles.

  • Savvy searching is essential when it comes to moving away from the ubiquitous Google and into the library resources and databases that will be available once a student is at University, if not already exposed to in his or her high school and public library. For some reason the databases feel more intimidating to students and they like Google because something will come up, whether it’s good or bad, the return results of something seem to ease anxiety. I propose that we keep working on more savvy searching in Google and also in the databases to work toward more awareness of other resources beside just Google. 

    If we don’t start the foundation of savvy searching young then students will keep making these same mistakes in addition to just thinking Google is the only game in town. 

    Thanks for the topic. This is always heavy on my mind! 

  • I love this idea. Not only does it improve search skills, but it can improve vocabulary and abstract thinking skills. Thanks. 

  • yahaya Abdullahi

    most of my students lack the search skills to getwhat they want on the net, thanks for this stuff #ict4te

  • Michele Garabedian Stork

    Great post! This is a skill I find my college students in pre-service teaching need to develop!

  • Brook Berg

    Hmm, I would love to see the images in this article, but all they are all missing. Any chance I can get access to them?


Tasha Bergson-Michelson

Tasha Bergson-Michelson is a member of the Google Search Education team. She is a professional librarian and searcher with a passion for helping people find, assess, and use the information they need. Contact Tasha and check out the Search Education website at: http://www.google.com/insidesearch/searcheducation/.

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