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Search faster with Google's built-in shortcuts

Get instant answers to common questions--such as the latest sports scores, weather, flight times, package tracking, currency conversion, calculations, and stock quotes--without having to scroll through a list of search results.

In today's plugged-in world, "right now" is too slow. We're spoiled by the ability to discover the most obscure bits of information in less than a second simply by entering a word or phrase in a Web search engine. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The need for search speed may not let up until Google is able to read our minds--a day that may not be far off, for better or worse. Putting aside fears of an information-utility monopoly, there's no denying Google's ability to save time. To ensure the productivity-boost curve continues its upward trajectory, put these built-in search shortcuts to use the next time you're in need of some fast facts.

Search operators deliver answers in a blink

Professional researchers know all about Google's handy search operators, which I first wrote about in a post back in December 2007. Here's a quick look at the five operators I use most often.

Definitions at your fingertips. Free dictionary sites bombard you with ads that often obfuscate the definition you're looking for. Skip the come-ons by typing "define:" before the word in Google's search box. The definition will appear above the search-results links, complete with an audio button that pronounces the word for you.

Limit your search to a single site. Most Web sites include a search box on the home page, but you can save time by entering your search term in Google's text box followed by "site:" and the site's URL, such as "smartphones" This single operator has shaved more time off my workday than anything since the invention of the fax machine.

Find pages similar the one you're on. Often you find a page that provides information close to what you're looking for, but not spot-on. One of the simplest ways to narrow your search is to enter "related:" and the URL of the close-but-no-cigar page in the search box.

Broaden the results for a specific search term. Searchers often refine their queries by changing, adding, or dropping a word in the term they're searching. A faster way to achieve the same result is to add a tilde (~) before a term to retrieve results including synonyms for that word, such as "yosemite ~hiking," which includes links to sites with information on backpacking, camping, and other related activities.

Narrow your search by file type. If you know the kind of file you're looking for, such as PowerPoint slideshows, the fastest way to exclude all other results from your search is to add "filetype:ppt" to your term. Conversely, you can exclude specific types of files from your results by adding the minus sign (-) before the term you want to exclude, such as "gettysburg address -ppt" to skip the many slideshow versions of President Lincoln's monument-dedication speech.

The fast way to refine your image searches

You could use the "filetype:" operator to find specific image file types, but Google's Advanced Image Search feature provides many more options for uncovering the images you're looking for. Click Images in the top-left corner of the main Google search page and choose Advanced Image Search to the right of the search box.

Google Advanced Image Search
Google's Advanced Image Search options let you specify the size, color, type, and other aspects of the images it finds, including those with no restrictions on reuse. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

In addition to restricting your image-search results by file type, size, color, and resolution, you can specify a site or domain to retrieve only images that can be modified and/or reused without having to pay royalties. The advanced options also let you limit your image search to a certain country or region.

Schedules, conversions, and other facts at your fingertips

There's no need to go to a specialty site to find up-to-date information or perform common calculations and conversions. Let Google do the heavy lifting. For example, you can convert measurements simply by typing an amount followed by two measures, such as "20 mi to km" or "32 f to c" to convert miles to kilometers and Fahrenheit to Celsius, respectively. Likewise, to calculate percentages and other simple mathematical equations, enter the terms in the search box to generate the answer in an instant.

But that's just the tip of the lightning-info iceberg. Enter a stock ticker, such as "goog" to get a real-time stock quote (as of 3:30 p.m. ET on September 30, 2011, Google's stock is down 9.93 points, or 1.88 percent). Find the sunrise or sunset time by entering one or the other term followed by a location (the same trick works for traffic and weather info).

Get the latest sports scores simply by entering a team's name. Was that a tremor or an overloaded semi-truck driving by? Find out by typing "earthquake" in the search box, which generates a list of recent earth movements.

Most people track packages by visiting the carrier's site and entering a tracking number. You can skip a step by entering the FedEx, UPS, or USPS tracking number directly in the Google search box. Likewise, get up-to-date flight information by entering the airline name and flight number, or make travel plans by adding "flights to" or "flights from" followed by a location.

Google provides a complete list of its Inside Search features, including several designed for searching on your smartphone (I'll describe these options in a future post). For tips on searching Gmail via keyboard shortcuts, see this post from April 2008.

With all the search time you'll save, you can spend even more of your workday reading about this year's Ig Nobel Award winners or complaining to your Facebook friends about how much work you have to do before you can kick off your weekend.