Beyond the Reboot #9: How To Search Effectively

No one can be expected to know everything. I sure don’t! I often turn to search to find what I need. When my customer’s see my searching they’re often surprised first that I have to look things up like they do. But they’re also surprised with the speed in which I find what I need. There is searching, then there is searching effectively.

Search for specifics.

When you have a problem, search for the most specific thing you can. When email stops working don’t look up email stopped working or email problem. Get more specific. Try Outlook 2007 won’t open or Thunderbird not sending mail. The more specific you get with your search the better information you’ll get back.

When I search, I imagine I am talking to another person. I try to ask the most specific question I can. Google is that person. Talk to Google like you’d talk to a person. Here is exactly what I need, please help me.

Search for error messages.

Do you have an error? Great! That means you probably have an error message. Search for it. “Outlook has a problem and needs to close” will get more helpful results than “Outlook won’t open”. Try adding in the version number to get even better results. Outlook 2011 has a problem and needs to close. Excel 2007 has too many different cell formats.

Error messages are known issues in a program. When the program displays an error message, it’s showing you the problem. All you must do is find the solution. Searching for the error usually returns the solution. Sometimes you may need to contact the program’s creator to get the answer if they don’t have it listed in their help documentation and if you can’t find it by searching. But the answer is out there. All that’s left is to find it.

Look for unique terms.

What if you don’t have an error message to look up and the program isn’t doing anything you can easily search. There are instances when a program just won’t load or fails silently. Use the information you do have. Search the program’s version on the operating system you’re running it on. Looking up Outlook 2011 won’t open on Mac OS 10.8 will get far better results than Outlook doesn’t open on Mac.

There isn’t always a good starting point so use what you can. Often times, I stumble across another person having similar problems. From there I can find a solution or at least some other things to try. Problem solving is trial and error just being persistent and you will eventually find what you need.

Once you have found the solution, write it down. I guarantee you will see this same problem 6 months or a year from now and you’ll have no idea how to fix it, only that you fixed it before. Or worse, someone on your team will ask you since they know you fixed it before. I love being able to go back to my own notes and send a link to my teammates saving them the time I put in to find it initially.

Document your findings

It is absolutely vital to document your fixes. In my experience, if you see an issue once, you’ll see it again. At the time I tell myself that I’ll remember what I did to fix it. But six months and hundreds of support calls later, I never do. I have taken the words of my 7th grade math teacher to heart, Show Your Work.

There is a wiki we use at work and I add new information and updated outdated articles. It’s important to not only document fixes and bugs but to update those notes and fixes. Your future self will thank you, instead of cursing your past self for not making any notes on how you fixed a problem.