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Tips for Searching the Internet for Solutions
to Computer Problems

In one of my jobs I work on a Helpdesk that deals with all Windows desktop, server and networking problems.
The problems I'm presented with tend to fall, fairly equally, into 3 categories:-

1 -

The ones where I know the answer off the top of my head

2 -

The ones where I know the direction in which the answer lies but I need to do some research to prepare an accurate, step-by-step instruction list, on how to fix it

3 -

The ones where I haven't a clue

For that 3rd category it's amazing how often, with just 10 minutes' searching, I can be confident that I've found the answer and send a reply, with instructions for solving the problem as if I were a long-standing expert in that area of computing.

And most-times the solution works.

So instead of being valued as a repository of large amounts of technical knowledge and experience I'm just someone who knows how to use a search engine a bit better than someone else.

Perhaps, soon, this will become the skill that separates the people who hold positions of power in society from the people who don't.

OK so maybe this knowledge and experience of mine allows me to filter and interpret the search results more effectively thus giving me a better chance of success, in a shorter time, to find where the answer is hiding.

If your unfamiliar with some technical term then Wikipedia is a good place to find a definition and a comprehensive explanation.

So here's a guide to the things I do when searching for the solution to a technical problem, and if it enables you to self-help your way through your own computer problems then:-
more power to you!

Search on Google Groups and the normal Google Web Search.

Google Groups searches Usenet, the vast newsgroup system that's been around since the early days of the Internet.
People with computer problems post details to the most relevant newsgroup, out of all the 10s of 1000s available, and then other knowledgeable, kind people post a reply.
Often, more people chip in with replies or comments and a discussion ensues.

Usenet is not just about computers and technical issues, there are newsgroups on almost any subject you can imagine and it's also a relatively easy process to start your own newsgroup if there isn't, but newsgroups on computing issues are the most well represented segment of Usenet.

To read the contents on Usenet, you don't have to become a member or pay anything and you certainly don't have to post any questions or replies - most times you'll find that someone else has already had the problem you're experiencing.

Just as Google doesn't own the web, Google Groups doesn't own Usenet - I don't think anyone does - it just searches and indexes it and provides the most convenient way to access the knowledge it contains.

It's still worth performing the normal Google web search as this uncovers technical information pages, such as this one, which are not part of Usenet.

A web search also can access the Microsoft Knowledgebase and other, product specific, discussion groups that are not part of Usenet.

Google Groups is best for specific problems; normal Google is best for general information and "How To"s, but if you can't find what you are looking for in one, try the other.

What to type in the Search Box

1 -

Try to include at least 4 words in your search term.
More words means fewer, more specific results.

2 -

Try adding the word "problem" to the end.

3 -

If your problem is produces an on-screen warning message on your computer then type this message in exactly as it appears (you can drop small words such as "the", "and", "of" and "it" but keep the remaining words in the correct order).
If this yields zero results then try dropping more words.

4 -

If you're searching for some software or driver add the word "download" to your search terms.

5 -

If you are not getting any useful results then try describing the problem using completely different words.

6 -

It may hurt, but use American spelling and terminology:-
…ize not …ise
…or not …our
checkbox not tickbox
grayed-out not greyed-out

7 -

"cannot" seems to work better than "can't"

Interpreting Results

1 -

If a Google Groups result says "1 author" at the end, it means that nobody replied to the original request for help.
It may be comforting to know that someone else has the exact same problem as you but it doesn't help with finding a solution.
You should usually skip over results with only 1 author.

2 -

Look at the date of a result.
Results over a year old start to become less relevant.
When no year is shown in the date it means "this year".
You can refine a Google Group search by specifying, for example, to only show results from the last 12 months.

3 -

Some results pages are very long and, if you can't find the part that deals with your problem, then click on the down-arrow next to the magnifying glass in the top right corner of Internet Explorer and choose Find on this Page... to locate the words you are looking for.
Sometime a webpage has changed since Google last indexed it and so the content promised in the in the search result excerpt really isn't there.

Miscellaneous Searching Advice

1 -

If your search term is a filename - the file's on your system but you don't know what it does - and you get no results it may mean it's a virus as many viruses choose random names for their executable files which are different on each PC they infect.

2 -

If you can't find anyone who's had your problem then maybe you've assumed something incorrectly and your problem is actually something else.
It could, of course, be some weird problem that nobody's experienced before.

3 -

Often people who post replies on Usenet use a signature and you'll come across Microsoft employees and Microsoft Valued Professionals (MVPs).
Advice from these people is usually authoritative and very useful but it's also the
"gospel according to Microsoft" when what you might actually need is the unofficial solution.

4 -

If you can wait a day or so for an answer, you can try posting your problem to the relevant Usenet group.
You'll need a newsgroup program such as Outlook Express and an ISP that supports Newsgroups to do this as Google Groups is only for reading.
You may find web-based computer help forums easier to work with, such as this one:-

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…and if it means that
you can sort out your
technical problems
without bothering our
Support Department then:
more power to us!

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