What to do with Google when you're bored

By Scott Kim|Monday, November 10, 2003

Needle in a Haystack

The idea is simple. You type in a word or two and Google returns a list of Web pages that contain those words. The technology to make it work is another story. To index every word of billions of Web pages that change daily, Google maintains an army of computers running 24 hours a day. To figure out which pages to show you first, Google uses an algorithm that ranks the popularity of a page by figuring out how many other pages point to it and how popular those pages are.

But before the search is initiated, you, the user, must decide what word or combination of words is most likely to get you the information you’re looking for. Google often finds things you didn’t expect. For instance, if you type in needle, the first few screens that the search engine returns cover topics as varied as the Seattle Space Needle, embroidery, and a source for old phonograph supplies.

I searched 10 common words using the Google search engine. Can you deduce each word from the descriptions of three sites Google returned? Here’s a hint to get you started: The answer to the first problem is needle. (Caveat: The Web is a constantly changing organism, so search results vary over time. If you opt to try this out for yourself, you may need to scroll through many screens to re-create these results.)

1. Seattle landmark, cross-stitching, old phonographs

2. Florida destination, Grammy Award–winning singer, typewriter history

3. Data acquisition terminals, music, calculators

4. Information for transplant candidates, sheet music, old movie theaters

5. Jokes, Thomas Edison, invention

6. Healthy cooking, a power utility, photography supplies

7. Facial surgery, packaging, recycling

8. Lab supplies, computer peripherals, a cartoon character

9. Harry Potter, folding art, air conditioning

10. Educational games, tools, dance teams

Pick a Number

If typing a single word into Google gets you too many documents, you can narrow your search by typing in more words. For instance, searching for needle sewing finds only documents that contain both the words needle and sewing—about 145,000 documents. Searching for needle sewing embroidery finds only documents that contain all three words—about 37,000 documents.

Sophisticated users target their hunts by performing advanced searches, which use terms and symbols such as minus signs, the word OR, and quotation marks. To omit a word, precede it with a minus sign. For example, searching for puzzle –crossword finds documents that contain puzzle but not crossword. To search for words that appear either separately or together in a document, use OR. Searching for cause OR effect returns documents that contain only cause or only effect, or both cause and effect. To specify an exact word order, use quotation marks. Searching for black hole finds more than 2 million documents that contain both words, not necessarily together, while searching for “black hole” finds only the scant 1 million documents that contain both words together and in order.

For puzzle purposes, let’s suppose we have 10 documents, each containing only a single word—the name of one of the numerals 1 to 10. We will use a Google search to pick out some of these documents by looking for particular letters. For instance, if we searched for e i, we would find the three documents five, eight, and nine—in other words, those documents that contain both the letters e and i. (Note: We’ve taken a few liberties in describing how Google works. In reality, Google will find an individual letter only if you precede it with a plus sign.)

1. [Easy] How many documents are found by the search t OR f?

2. [Easy] Which single document is not found by one of the following four searches: h OR w, f r, i –g, “en”?

3. [Medium] Find only the first five documents—one, two, three, four, and five—by replacing the question marks in ? OR ? OR ? with the right letters. For instance, searching for g OR h OR w would find the documents two, three, and eight.

4. [Hard] Find only the odd-numbered documents—one, three, five, seven, and nine—by replacing the question marks in “??” OR ? –?. For instance, searching for “fo” OR i –e finds the documents four and six.











In Other Words

One of Google’s most intriguing services is language translation. As with all machine translations, the results are useful but often askew.

I used Google to translate 16 common terms, most with a scientific bent, into another language (Spanish, French, German, Italian, or Portuguese). I then had Google translate them back into English. Can you reconstruct the original phrases from the somewhat mangled results? For instance, the original term for problem 1 is “boiling point.”

Hints: Problems 1 through 11 retain at least one word from the original phrase, while problems 12 through 16 have no words in common with the original phrase. Problems 10 and 11 involve reinterpreting one of the words in a surprising way.

1. Cooking point

2. Milky manner

3. Continental direction

4. Complicated numbers

5. Great standardized theory

6. Possible energy

7. Order of the size

8. Red movement

9. Theory of the rope

10. Time mistake

11. Curtain of the color

12. Great blow

13. Normal choice

14. Bond absent

15. Room of fog

16. Spin of harvest

For Boggler solutions click here

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