Lately I’ve been reflecting on just how much I love modern search. And I don’t just mean Google search, but search in general.
I didn’t really begin discovering the wonders of search until I was already a year into my IT degree, which scarily enough wasn’t all that long ago (circa 2007). Of course I was familiar with Internet search engines (I might have been pursuing the wrong career path if I wasn’t), but I’d never really used search much outside of it.
My first revelation in search came when I started using the humble
Ctrl + F to find text in Visual Studio.
That’s right – for my first two terms of uni I’d been coding up my C++ assignments without once using the find feature in Visual Studio. Not to mention all the time I’d spent coding in high school without it.
Find is such a simple feature really and one which is in so many programs that deal with text. Needless to say, after I actually started using
Ctrl + F in Visual Studio, I soon started using it in other programs like Notepad and Word too. This had been a definite blind spot for me; a rudimentary feature that had been around so long and yet I’d never really taken advantage of it. And yeah yeah, before anybody picks me up on it, I realise that Visual Studio has incremental search which is often the better option, but I didn’t know about it at the time and some search was better than no search.
Now that I use the find feature, I rarely bother scanning through more than a few pages worth of text when I’m looking for something particular, regardless of whether it’s Visual Studio, Word, Notepad or some other text editor. I’ll just
Ctrl + F it instead. Lazy perhaps, but sometimes laziness is good. It’s strange how something so simple can completely change how you work and save you so much time when you know what it is you’re after.
For me the next advance in search came when Windows Vista was released in 2007. Putting aside all the hatred that’s been directed towards Vista, there’s one feature in it that I’d truly miss going back to Windows XP – the ability to quickly search for programs from the start menu.
It takes just one stroke of the Windows key to to open the Vista Start Menu, and after having typed the first 3-6 letters in the name of the program I want to launch, it’s generally listed within the top three results, requiring a maximum of three more keystrokes; two with the down arrow and one for Enter. All in all I’d say that 95% of the time I use less than 10 keystrokes in total to launch a program. It’s a hell of a lot quicker than using the mouse to navigate through the start menu folders Windows XP style, especially when the program you’re after has been stashed off in some deeply nested and obscure folder, the path to which you might not even remember.
I’m constantly trying out new software and applications. Being able to type the name of the program I want to run rather than dig through the program list is what I consider one of the single best features of Windows Vista. Without a doubt the improved start menu in Vista has been instrumental in enhancing my laziness.
My next notable advance with search came when I actually started using Google Desktop in 2008. I’d had it installed for some time previous, but like so many other applications, it’d found its way through my Install > Try > Forget cycle that often occurs when I find no immediate use for an application. In retrospect, I’d been looking at Google Desktop from the wrong perspective. I’d always considered file system search tools as utilities for finding something when you lose it. Eventually though, I started seeing them as a means of cutting down on superfluous clicks and navigation. Instead of using Google Desktop to find files I’ve lost, I now mostly use it to quickly open up files I usually already know the location of.
The initial indexing Google Desktop performs can take some time, but once it’s done, it retrieves results lightning fast. Of course one might ask why you wouldn’t just use the search built into Windows Vista which is considered to have become quite reasonable. In practice I’ve found that Google Desktop has been quicker and provided superior results when searching for files, but your mileage may vary, so test for yourself.
I see Google Desktop as analogous to the Vista Start Menu Search – it’s not there just to help you find what you’ve lost, but to save you the clicks of navigating to stuff you already know about. It generally requires a similar number of keystrokes too. Two hits of the
Ctrl key and the search box is up. Another few keystrokes to type the first few letters of what it is you’re after and you’ll usually have the correct result in front of you. On average I’d say there’s a similar number of keystrokes involved in opening a file through Google Desktop as there is in starting a program from the Vista Start Menu. Compare that to opening up Windows Explorer and navigating through a folder hierarchy and I can think of very few instances where desktop search is slower.
So by this point in time I was pretty happy with myself and thought I’d done a reasonably good job of speeding up common tasks like finding my way through text files and opening up a program/file. It wasn’t then until Google Chrome was released as a beta in September 2008 that I found myself experiencing a new level of search awesomeness. Prior to the release of Chrome, I hadn’t been too fussed about which web browser I used as I’d considered them all to be more or less the same. Truth be told, had I given Firefox more of a chance, I probably would have switched over to it from Internet Explorer back before Chrome existed. Given that I have a soft spot for Google though, I figured it was worth giving Chrome a shot when it was announced.
After using Chrome for a few weeks I couldn’t believe the kind of search I’d been missing out on. Coming from Google though it does makes sense that Chrome is a browser centered around search. From the moment I opened Chrome, performing common tasks seemed crazy fast compared to Internet Explorer. And I’m not even talking about page load times, but interacting with the browser itself. I quickly fell in love with the Chrome omnibox, the speed and utility of which I believe has notably increased the number of searches I perform (Google’s plans have unfolded well).
Not only is the omnibox great for standard search, but adds a subtle feature that I’ve really come to appreciate over time. That’s the ability to issue a specific search on a website without having to load the site first. Take Amazon for example, which I’ve visited previously. Now when I type the letters ‘am’ in the omnibox, the first suggestion that comes up is www.amazon.com and it’s given me the option to press
tab to start a search there.
A feature so simple, but one I now find myself using over and over again.
The other search feature of Chrome that I find myself using all the time is incremental inline search (searching for text within a page). I used search every now and then back when Internet Explorer 7 was my primary browser, but it never really did much for me. Search in Internet Explorer 7 was like search found in so many other programs – a dialog box that didn’t provide results incrementally as each new letter was typed. Although this kind of search worked moderately well for me in Visual Studio, I found it didn’t really help me out as much on the web. In Google Chrome, I soon found inline search that was incremental and all instances of the search string were highlighted on the page as each new letter was typed.
Furthermore, there was no dialog box obscuring the view – the search was tucked nicely up in the top right hand corner of the page. All of a sudden, I started finding inline search useful on the web.
To be fair, Firefox had this long before Chrome was even released. In fact, Microsoft seem to have learnt their lesson too with Internet Explorer 8 and have adopted a similar inline search approach. The one thing Chrome’s inline search still has over both IE and Firefox is that it gives a visual indication of where in the page the search term appears by placing small yellow markers in the scrollbar on the right hand side, as illustrated above.
Anyone that’s used file comparison software before would probably have seen a similar visualisation being used to show where the differences exist between two files.
It’s hard to describe just how useful inline search can be when you’re dealing with a large page of text (or even a small one). I recently completed a university course where an electronic copy of our prescribed reading (~420 pages) was made available online. When it came time to do an online quiz, I was able to use inline search to pinpoint a topic which made working through the answers much easier (although I can’t say the university necessarily intended the electronic text to be used in this way). There are some things you just can’t do with a printed text.
The final application of search that I believe has had a notable effect on my productivity has been when I started using the Beyond Compare file comparison software. I kind of consider file comparison software as a way of issuing searches that are non-specific; they just say “I’m looking for what’s different, whatever that may be”.
For me file comparison software was another one of those things that didn’t sound so useful, until I started using it. I now use it frequently and would hate to go back to a time without it, manually eyeballing every line of code in two files looking for the difference that’s caused one file to break.
So there it is. My approach to search over the past few years has evolved to include:
- Using the generic find feature found in most text editors to save looking for things manually
- Using the Vista Start Menu search to launch applications
- Using Google Desktop to open files I know exist
- Using Google Chrome to speed up searching on the web, including inline searches and search within a site
- Using Beyond Compare to do file comparisons
If I were to go back in time a few years and give myself some general advice, here’s what I’d be saying:
- Don’t spend ages trauling through lengthy text files looking for something specific – use the find feature
- Use something that allows you to quickly launch applications and files (whether it be from Microsoft, Google, other)
- Use a browser that does a good job of search, including inline (Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer 8 )
- Don’t bother trying to manually look for differences between two files or folders – use file comparison software (Beyond Compare among others)
Had I been using these search techniques back then, I think I would have saved myself a substantial amount of time. What are your favourite search techniques?