In open source investigation you rely on information you can find on the Internet. If the results are in Google’s index, they can be found. To find what you need, you need to know how to search.
Google offers an Advanced Search option on their page: Google Advanced Search.
There you can search by words, phrases, numbers, and narrow your results by language, region, last update, site or domain, terms appearing in the page on title, file type, and so on.
And it also offers options to narrow the results:
Still, the advanced search is easier to use if you know search operators. Here are some basic search operators as well as advanced search operators that you might find useful in your open source research.
When you simply type in the words you want to search, Google wants to make sure it will not fail to find you what you need. On the one hand, this is a good thing: for instance, it usually uses the same word order for the search as you did when you typed in the words. On another hand, it can be over-helpful: sometimes it includes other grammatical categories of the word, and also synonyms. That can be a good thing when you are not quite sure what are you searching for, or whether you spelt the words correctly. But when you need to search for a specific phrase or word, using quotes can give you better results.
For instance, searching for information manipulations gives you different results from searching for “information manipulations.”
You can also use quotes to search for a single word: that avoids Google being a little too helpful and giving you a synonym when you don’t really want it. Quotes are also useful when you search for words that are not included in an official dictionary: for instance, neologisms like Fake-ality, a word you can find on social media posts. And sometimes you just need to search by the word that you intentionally misspell, for instance “unpresidented” or “uniom.”
Use OR between the words to find any of these words. OR is useful to specify alternatives to use as synonyms in a search. For instance, people and organisations use different words to refer to disinformation, and the query “information manipulation” OR disinformation OR “fake news” gives you the results that contain “information manipulation”, “disinformation” or “fake news.”
You can also use the | operator instead of OR – these two work exactly the same.
The minus sign is useful when you do not want pages that contain a specific word to appear in your results. For instance, if you want to find information about disinformation tactics not concerning China, type in “disinformation tactics” -China
You can exclude as many words as you want by using the – sign in front of all of them. Just make sure you place a minus sign immediately before a word,, with no space.
The minus sign can be used to exclude more than just words. For example, you can use it to exclude a specific site from your search results, placing a minus sign before the site operator (again, without a space). For instance, if you want to exclude New York Times articles, type in “disinformation tactics” -site:www.nytimes.com
The * or asterisk, sometimes called a wildcard, is useful when you don’t know that one key word, phrase, or number you need in order to find what you are looking for, or you need to get several different results with same search. If you include * in your search, Google treats it as a placeholder for any unknown terms, up to 5 words.
For instance, let’s say you have recently read a really good quote on how human rights (like the right to free speech) are granted to humans and not bots – since those are not human begins but automated accounts – but you just can’t recall whether the quote said “free speech” or “free expression.” No worries, just fill the blanks with stars: “The right to free * is granted to humans”
Google thinks that that is the article that contains the quote. Let’s find out if Google is right:
Google is indeed! (A hint: if you do not have access to an article, try to use the Wayback Machine, discussed elsewhere in this guide.)
Note that the * operator works only on whole words, not parts of words.
The star operator is also useful when you need to get several different results with same search. For instance, if you need to find out which countries voted on disinformation bills, type in *voted on disinformation bill.
The number range operator searches for results containing numbers in a given range. Just add two numbers, separated by two periods, with no spaces, into the search box along with your search terms. For instance if you want to find out about disinformation during the Cold War, type in disinformation 1947..1991
When you want to restrict your search results to a specific site or domain, use the site: operator.
For instance, if you need to find some information on any of the US government’s web pages, use site:.gov operator. For a UK government web page use site:.gov.uk, for Kenya site:go.ke, for Nigeria site:gov.ng. The whole list of .gov domains is available here. If you want to search from any (English language) web page of any government, combine the operator site: with the star operator * : site:gov.*
Let’s say you want to find a document on disinformation on any Nigeria government web page. Type in disinformation site:gov.ng
Similarly, if you need to find information on the web pages of universities, use the domains .edu or .ac – type in site:.edu or site:.ac.
You can specify a domain with or without a period, e.g., either as .gov or gov.
You can also use the site: operator to find information from a specific web page like https://statehouse.gov.ng/. Type site:statehouse.gov.ng and the word or phrase you want to search for, for instance site:statehouse.gov.ng COVID-19
The filetype: operator is one of the most useful operators for open source researches. When you need to find documents, databases, manuals, presentations, etc., the filetype: operator can help you.
You can search for Word documents (doc, docx, txt, rtf), Acrobat documents (pdf), Excel documents (xls, xlsx), presentations (ppt, pps, ppsx, pptx), database files (mdb, dbf, et al), music files (mp3, m4p, et al), movie files (mpg, avi, et al), archive files (zip, rar, et al), image files (jpg, png, et al) and many, many more.
Also, you can search for several file types at the same time using the OR or | operator. For instance, if you type in filetype:ppt | filetype:pdf | filetype:doc “disinformation in Nigeria“, you ask Google to find you all available .ppt, .pdf and .doc documents that contain the phrase “Disinformation in Nigeria.”
This operator is useful when you want Google to show you only those results that include your search term in the title. For instance, when you need to find a study on Cold War propaganda, you most probably are not interested in all the results that include this phrase but only in these that have it in the title. The intitle: operator helps you to narrow down the results so that your most important search terms are shown in the title of a page or document. To find academic studies, let’s combine the operator intitle:”Cold War propaganda” with the operator site:edu
Or, for instance, let’s say you have recently read a really good article on disinformation but you can’t recall the whole headline. Just type in what you remember and fill the blanks with stars (star operator): “how to*disinformation”, and then use the intitle: operator. The search intitle:”how to*disinformation” gives you a list of articles; hopefully the one you were searching for is among them.
Put @ in front of a word to search social media. For example: @twitter
Put # in front of a word to search hashtags. For example: #disinformation
Most of the operators can be combined.
For instance, if you want to find pdf documents with the word disinformation in the title from any (English language) government web page, combine the operators intitle:, site:, *, and filetype: and type in disinformation site:gov.* filetype:pdf
Give these Google advanced search operators a try! You are going to be amazed by the amount of information you can find. Just keep in mind that not all sites are safe to enter, and not all files are safe to download.