Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You're Online, But When Are You Going to Start USING the Internet?

When people get online, most of the time they do one of two things: read their email or use a search engine. But how many of you really know how to use a search engine? Sure using a search engine is easy. You open the page, enter what you're looking for in the box and hit the search button. How hard is it?
Well, you're right, but there actually are a lot more features built into search engines than that, and knowing what they are and how to use them will help you harness the vast amounts of information that are on the Internet.
There are many search engines on the Internet: Google, MSN, Yahoo, Lycos and quite a few others. (There's even one that's named after a dog that "fetches" the information you're looking for... sheesh). For the use of this article I'll be using Google. I prefer Google because of its simple interface.
This AND That OR The Other
In every programming language I know, every single one has something called "operators". Operators are words such as "and" and "or", that help describe the results you are trying to get from whatever datasource you are using, such as a database or in this case Google. (Ok, ok... I'm on a plane right now and I can already see my wife's eyes glazing over, so I'll get back out of the weeds.)
Let's say I'm trying to find out why my dog insists on chewing on the window ledges in the kitchen when we leave him home alone. (No, that is not funny.) Now, our dog is a pureblood mutt, Beagle and Terrier mix, so I go to Google and I type in this query: 
Note the number of results... quite a few, and at first glance most of them aren't very relavent. Now I could stop right there and spend the rest of the afternoon going through these results myself, however, that would probably start to impose on my bike riding time so let's try something else instead. I'm going to get Google to sort through these for me.
With the first search I ran, Google read it like this: "beagle AND terrier AND chew AND alone". Well, I know that there aren't going to be any results that are thatspecific, so let's use the OR operator to tell Google what I really meant. This query is going to look much different from the first, but just follow along and I'll explain. So here's what our query looks like now:
Wow! What a difference a couple of words make. Now Google knows almost exactly what I was searching for. Notice that if you don't use any operators, the search engine assumes that you mean to put an AND between each word. But by writing our query this way, Google understands that I mean to search for "chew and alone and either beagle or terrier." (Wish you knew about that back in college, don't you?)
Ok, one last thing. What if you have a Great Dane and needed to find a kennel for him? If you just enter those words, then you'll be searching for "Great and Dane and kennel". But you could make that search even more specific by just adding quotes. Try this method whenever you are searching for something that has a proper name:
With these features that are built into almost every search engine, you'll find information faster and get back to whatever is more important.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Help Meeeeee!

We've all seen it.  The look on a co-worker's face that just says, "That's it, I've tried everything;  I must have tried every possible way to accomplish this, but I just can't figure it out", all in one look.  (Yes, that is a lot to say with one look.)  My bet is that, more times than not, this "look" was brought on by some type of computer-related problem.
Now, granted, I do have an extensive background in troubleshooting applications and problem solving.  But I think that when it comes to computers, a lot of people just give up way too easily.  They might try the first thing that comes to mind, but if that doesn't work... "AHHHH!!!!"
When you start to feel that way think of Kelly Clarkson.  Did Kelly, the homegrown superstar from Texas give up when Simon Cowell said she was too fat?  No!  DidTy Pennington throw down his hammer when Paige Davis broke the news to him about the ruined plywood?  Hardly!  Are you going to let that silly computer get the best of you?!? ...  ... (Are those crickets I hear?  Oh well.)
Most programs have the exact same option on the menubar on the far right side.  Help.  It is there for a reason.  (Yes, it really does do something when you click it.)  Yet, most people would rather bug their next-door neighbor (who is a "computer guy" that they haven't spoken to in over three weeks) rather than click this one little button that will probably answer the problem.  Why is that?  I have a couple of ideas.
I think people don't use the Help button because perhaps they think that since the button is on the computer which is what they are having a problem with, it can't possibly have the solution.  It's the "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" theory of anti-technologists.  If the user is having a problem with Word, they don't see as a problem of MS Word; they think, "Stupid computer... Honey!  Where's the phone?"
My other theory is that the user might actually realize that the Help button might contain the answer, but they don't want to look and find out for fear of being out-smarted by a computer.  (After all, what would the ladies at the PTA say?  I shudder to think.)
Whatever the reason is that people don't use the Help feature in programs, I suppose there is one silver lining:  Those people make the people who do use the Help menus look really smart.  Those are the people who soon get labeled as the office "computer guru" or "techie".  Most of the time this person doesn't know any more about the programs that he or she uses than the next person, but the difference is that when they have a problem they are resourceful.  When those people have a problem they don't go looking for help, they go looking for Help.