Searching With Partial Information

Sometimes you know what you’re looking for, but you don’t know what it’s called or even how to accurately translate what you know about it into a relevant search query. When that happens, here are some options:

Use a Wildcard For an Unknown Word

The asterisk (or star) character acts as a wildcard, which represents an unknown word in a query. Asterisks can be used as a substitute only for an entire word, not for a part of a word, and there must be a space between the wildcard and other query terms and phrases.

Sometimes you want to look for a variety of phrases that contain specific keywords, such as ohio * cars, in which the asterisk would represent many useful words such as: used, wrecked, classic, red, convertible, or Honda.

It’s also a good way to separate two words that you don’t want to be treated as a phrase. For instance if you’re searching for advice on how to market a book, you’d be better off with a search for marketing * books than for marketing books, as the latter would focus on books about marketing.

The wildcard is particularly useful inside of an exact search phrase. For example, “standards * marketing” would return pages that match for the phrases standards for marketing, standards in marketing, and standards and marketing, to name a few.

Ask Google a Natural Language Question

If you don’t know the proper terms, names, or details of a particular topic, you can use a natural language query that looks a lot like a question you would ask a real person.

For instance, let’s say you recall reading a news story about poachers targeting an endangered bird, and you want to share it on Facebook, but you can’t seem to find it again. You can’t remember the name of the species or where its native habitat is, but you do recall that it has a rainbow-colored beak. A natural search query of what is the bird with the rainbow beak would provide you with the missing details.

Now that you know the animal is called a toucan, you can refine your original query and more easily find the news story you wanted to share.

Google Reverse Search By Image

If you have a clear photo of something you want to look up, you can ask Google Images to try to match it with a reverse image search. To do this, go to, click the camera icon in the search bar, then upload the image file.

There are also a variety of third-party smartphone apps that make this process quicker and easier for images you’ve downloaded.

Reddit: What Is This Thing?

If you have an image of what you’re looking for, and the reverse image search doesn’t help, then the next step is to ask real people via crowdsourcing. The ‘What is this thing’ community on exists solely for that purpose.

If you post a picture of the object there, hopefully you’ll get some insight on it from hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Want more search secrets? I’ve documented everything I know about searching with Google (and many other search-related services) in Google Power Search.

Posted in:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *