Google + Operator

It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t default to Google whenever they need to find something on the web. But it’s even harder to find anyone that takes full advantage of Google’s search modifiers. (Admit it, even we get lazy sometimes!) However, some searches absolutely require the ability to focus results, and search modifiers have traditionally been used to do just that.

Consider the following example, taken from the blog Google Operating System. By default, a search for the characters [ai],  Goggle will also match terms like “artificial intelligence”, “Amnesty International”, and “Adobe Illustrator”. Previously, you could replace your query with [+ai] to restrict search results to pages that contained an exact match to [ai]. Sadly, Google recently removed the + operator from their search engine, replacing it with quotation marks: [“ai”]. Although this will force Google to match the exact spelling of the query, it will not force the results to actually contain that exact query.

Let’s examine another example to illustrate this subtle change. Imagine I want to search for ‘pink flying pigs’ and, although I prefer flying pigs that are also pink, what I am really interested in is whether or not they can fly.  Before, I could structure my query like this: pink +”flying pigs”. This would do both an exact match on ‘flying pigs’ and restrict the results to only those hits with ‘flying pigs’. Now that the + operator is no longer available, the query would be structured like this: pink “flying pigs”. This will still do an exact match on ‘flying pigs’, but it will also return pages that don’t have ‘flying pigs’ anywhere in them at all. In other words, quotation marks have only half the functionality of the + operator and there is now no way to quarantee that a particular phrase or term will appear in the search results.

Why is this such a big deal? Long time Google users may remember that when Google first launched, every search was an “AND” search. That is, every term that was entered in the query string was required to appear in the results. About three years ago, Google began ignoring search terms altogether, building on their successful spelling suggestions engine. This effectively changed Google to an “OR” search with more results and less precision. (For more on this, read Andy Baio’s Google kills its other plus, and how to bring it back. ) Google argues that this is an improvement for the mainstream Google user who never uses any modifiers or advanced search features, and they are probably right. But for certain groups of users, like programmers, this change radically impacts the effectiveness of Google searches. Searching for technical documentation is now much less precise and tends to return many more unsatisfactory hits.

There are some alternatives, like Blekko, which allow you to structure a query like this: perl /programming. The phrase following the slash is called a “slash tag”, and ties the query to a specific group of curated sources. Another option for programming issues is StackOverflow, which is part Wiki, Blog, Forum, and Digg/Reddit. DuckDuckGo is another Google alternative, that prides itself on protecting user privacy and Microsoft has it’s offering in Bing. Like most people, I have used Google for years and have generally been very happy with it. But, given the recent changes and the number of alternatives, perhaps it is time to sample something new?

Making Your Webpages Mobile-Friendly

Smartphones are everywhere, and their popularity is likely to continue to grow. A survey published in July by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 35% of American adults own a smartphone, and a fourth of them use it more often than their traditional desktops to access the Internet. More recently, Nielsen’s third-quarter survey similarly found that a third of the adults who use mobile devices own smartphones, and that proportion is inflated to 62% in the 25-to-34 age range.

Many of the students (and staff!) using our libraries’ resources are logging in with iPhones, Androids, and other palm-sized devices. Even if you have limited control over the layout of your webpages (you’re using the Content Manager, a blogging service, or templates, for example), there’s a lot you can do to make these users’ experiences as rewarding and painless as possible.

1. Test your webpages on mobile devices
The easiest way to find out how your webpage designs affect mobile users is to experience them yourself! If you don’t have access to a mobile device, Media & Reserve Services circulates an iPod Touch equipped with Safari.

2. Use a logical layout
Present the most important information to your users directly in the body of your webpage. Avoid busy right side boxes and dense blocks of text. Make sure your links on the main left menu are also available in the content; users may not notice the submenus opening off the tiny screen!

3. Minimize bandwidth
People buy mobile devices because they want information fast–they don’t want to wait all day for your figures to load. Most data plans also cap bandwidth per month, so help your users out by limiting the amount of data on your pages. Try not to embed long videos or link to large PDFs. If you have images, resize them before uploading to the server; don’t load an enormous JPG and scale it down in the HTML.

4. Limit Javascript
Widgets are all the rage, but resist the urge to use them instead of plain Jane text when you can. Users with touchscreen devices can’t hover over buttons to trigger drop-down menus. Your desktop may have plug-ins that aren’t available on certain phones. Fancy scripts also increase power consumption, which shortens battery life.

5. Go easy on the styles
A curly font may look lovely on your workstation, but be impossible to read when it’s shrunk down on a phone. Non-standard fonts may not be supported by many mobile devices. Mobile phones often have lower contrast and are used in less-than-optimal lighting conditions, so avoid custom-colored text that blends into the background. When in doubt, imagine what your webpage would look like as a small, blurry rectangle outside at night or in a dim restaurant.

For more comprehensive tips, see the W3C’s recommendations for Mobile Web Best Practices. Webcredible also offers a nice set of principles to apply in your webpage design.

What’s My IP?

It is often useful, when testing or troubleshooting access problems (especially when a user is having trouble accessing an electronic resource such as a database or e-journal), to find out one’s IP address. There are a number of commercial sites which provide this service, along with a bunch of ads. In its neverending quest to be everything to everyone, Google is now also doing this – and it’s probably the easiest way to obtain this information. Just go to and type “IP” into the search box; at the top of your search results you will see something like: “Your public IP address is – Learn More”

This trick will also work in DuckDuckGo, which gives you your city/state/zip code in addition to your IP address. (How does it know where you are? Your IP address includes that information. Sneaky little IP address!)

For more info on IP addresses: and

Thanks to Lifehacker for this useful tip!

A Tweeta’ at LITA: 13 Tips for Using Twitter to Enhance your Conference Experience

Twitter logoI recently attended the LITA National Forum in St. Louis, and found that my experience was much better because of Twitter. I’m a fairly shy person when it comes to chatting with people I don’t know, but introducing myself to someone I’ve been following on Twitter for a while seems easier. I’ve also been an active tweeter during virtual conferences, and find that restores some of the one-on-one networking/discussion possibilities that one might otherwise miss from an in-person gathering. Not everyone finds that the “twitterverse” adds a useful extra dimension to conferences, but I thought I’d share some helpful tips for those who think they might like to try it.

A bit of nomenclature for newbies: A hashtag is a short string of characters (a tag) preceded by the hash mark (#), appended to or included in individual tweets Twitter hashtag symbol and used to track a particular topic, meme, event, etc.  (Twitter’s version of metadata.) Ideally, conference organizers will declare an official hashtag well in advance of the event. For example, the LITA National Forum is #litaforum and the 2011 ALA National Conference was #ala11. Most Twitter apps will allow you to search for a specific hashtag and either save the search to quickly redo it (e.g. Seesmic), set up a column to follow the hashtag continuously (Tweetdeck), or some other means of tracking. Mashable has a pretty good introductory article about hashtags, and here’s a more specific article about how to “follow” them.

This post will focus on tweeting during in-person conferences like LITA, but many of the suggestions also apply if you’re tweeting a webinar or virtual conference. So without further ado, read on for my tips! Continue reading “A Tweeta’ at LITA: 13 Tips for Using Twitter to Enhance your Conference Experience”

Accessibility Tip: Header Tags

As good information practitioners, we all know to put “alt” tags on our images and make our text legible for users with disabilities. But one aspect of accessibility often overlooked by the producers of web content is the structure of individual webpages. We’re more concerned with the alignment of a paragraph under a title than we are the association of that paragraph to the title. We create long blocks of text separated into flat paragraphs, without marking where one section ends and another begins. If we do use header tags to mark pages and sections, we think of them as style elements: they make certain text bigger and more visible. But header tags are not merely decorative: they are an essential element that denote the organization and meaning of the content on your webpages to screen readers.

If you use font styles or sizes to mark your section headers, this is what the page looks like to a sighted user:

Page Title

Section 1
Text text text text text.

Section 2
Text text text text text.

It seems nice and hierarchical, with a clearly defined structure, doesn’t it? But this is how a screen reader processes it:

Page Title. Section 1. Text text text text text. Section 2. Text text text text text.

In order to find “Section 2,” the user has to wade through the rest of the page. Since all of the text has equal weight, they can’t use the handy features of their screen reader software to scan the page quickly for a sense of its structure and contents. However, if you mark up “Page Title” as header 1, “Section 1” as header 2, and “Section 2” as another header 2, users with screen readers could read the page the same way a sighted user would.

Beyond accessibility, proper structuring of webpages takes us one step closer to the semantic web we all love to talk about. <strong> means “strong.” <em> means “emphasis.” Neither of them mean “I start a new section.” This is what headers are for!

With this in mind, make sure your headers follow the proper order when you apply them to your webpages. Another issue that arises from thinking about headers as styling elements is that people are sometimes tempted to skip over <h1> and use <h2> or <h3> because they’re smaller and fit what the designers want it to look like on screen. This makes as much sense as putting a title in the “subtitle” field of a book record because it looks prettier that way in the online catalog! If you put an <h2> tag in your webpage, you must have an <h1> before it. Then you can use CSS or the “style” attribute to modify the font size and looks, e.g. <h1 style=”font-size:120%”>.

Note: In the IU Libraries Content Manager, the title you enter for your webpage (the “page name”) will always be in <h1>. Each webpage should have only one <h1>, so begin your page content headers with <h2> and go down the line.

For more information on structuring webpages with headers, see the W3C’s HTML Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The Accessibility and Usability Guide for Penn State also offers practical advice and examples, with nods to other common pitfalls in structuring HTML documents.

Tips & tricks for web page creators: Permalinks!

With the onset of the new academic year, you may be busily creating bibliographies, pathfinders, class pages, etc. for your students. You may find that you want to link to an individual bibliographic record for a print item (or something else you’ve found in IUCAT). Or, you want to give your users a link for a particular search in order to jumpstart their research.

Did you know that the “new, improved” OneSearch@IU (powered by EBSCO Discovery Service) offers some very nice permalink options? These can make your life (and the lives of the students and faculty you serve) easier!

To find the permalink for an individual item:
• Search for the item in OneSearch
• You will see a “Tools” menu in the right-hand column; select “Permalink”
• The permalink will open in a window just above the item record. Copy and paste it into your web page or document.
• You can shorten this long link by using IU’s official URL shortener, go.iu!

To create a permalink for a search:
• Execute your search in OneSearch
• On the search results page, in the red bar just above the results list, you will see “Alert/Save/Share” – click on this
• From here you can copy the permalink, or create an alert to notify you of new results via email or RSS feed. You can also share via Twitter, Facebook, or other services.
• Again, you can shorten the permalink by using go.iu!
• Note that when a user clicks on this link, OneSearch will re-execute the search, so they may see new results.

These permalinks will route users through our proxy server, so if they are off-campus they will be prompted to log in. After logging in they will be able to access subscription resources as usual. If you want to provide a permalink to an IUCAT item and make it accessible to those who are not affiliated with IU, you will need to use the permalink option within IUCAT.

If you have questions, please send them to DUX at

Getting the word out: putting your slides online

Love it or hate it, sometimes you just have to crack open PowerPoint (or Keynote, for you Mac users) and put a slide deck together.  Even though Steven Bell opined on ACRLog a couple years ago that, as a profession, we might put too much pressure on ourselves about snappy presentations, I’m guessing most folks aren’t going to cast worry to the wind when it comes their turn to stand in front of the crowd. Frankly, I hope we don’t, because the consequences can be serious: don’t tell me you haven’t heard of the dreaded “death by PowerPoint.” I also enjoyed a recent column from Tweed (via the Chronicle of Higher Education), tweeted as: “When PowerPoint is outlawed, only outlaws will have the power to bore us.”

After you’ve spent all those hours preparing your talk, or workshop (or interview presentation), you might want to share it with the world, right? I’ve done some presentations and workshops in my time, and while there are many other venues available, my money is with SlideShare. (Actually – not my money, because SlideShare is free.) SlideShare lets you freely distribute your presentations to the world while at the same time choosing the Creative Commons copyright level you feel to be appropriate.  It also allows you to choose whether you’d like to enable downloading, which gave me the good feeling of having control over my content while still being able to share it. My PowerPoint files are very image heavy, but SlideShare handles the large file size without any problems and even lets you embed YouTube videos.

SlideShare also incorporates a number of social-networking features, so other SlideShare users can “favorite” your presentation or leave comments, for example. It displays related content next to your own slides, so you can view similar presentations. Best yet, as previously mentioned, it’s free to sign up for an account.

More features to consider:
●   Share the stable URL for your slides on Facebook and Twitter, embed your presentations directly into your LinkedIn profile, or install a blog widget.
●    Want to know how many times your presentation has been viewed? No problem! SlideShare keeps track of hits for you, as well as how many times it’s been embedded in blog, etc.

Other (free) options: Prezi, 280 Slides, Google Docs

Does your heart belong to some other online slide sharing service? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Password Tips

Password security is becoming increasingly important as individuals move more and more of their personal data into online services. In her Microsoft Small Business center article 5 tips for top-notch password security, Kim Komando offers some password best practices:

  1. Don’t be complacent: Attacks can and do happen.
  2. Know what makes for a bad password.
  3. Get proficient at creating good passwords.
  4. By all means, safeguard your password(s).
  5. Change your password(s) often-as in several times a year.

Of these, it seems many people struggle with number two, knowing what makes for a bad password. Ashlee Vance of the New York Times wrote in January 2010 about the popularity of simple passwords:

According to analysis by security firm Imperva, one out of five Web users still decides to leave the digital equivalent of a key under the doormat: they choose a simple, easily guessed password like “abc123,” “iloveyou” or even “password” to protect their data.

The weakest passwords are those that are short, use only letters and numbers, and are easily memorable or associated with a person’s identity. What goes into a strong password? Some tips include avoiding words found in the dictionary, replacing letters with numbers (think zero instead of the letter “o”), utilizing special characters like “!”, “$”, and “*”, and making passwords longer in order to provide protection from brute force attacks. How long is long enough? In another NYT article this past June, Randall Stross wrote:

Here’s a little quiz: Which is the stronger password? “PrXyc.N54” or “D0g!!!!!!!”?

The first one, with nine characters, is a beaut. Steve Gibson’s page says that it would take a hacker 2.43 months to go through every nine-character combination offline, at the rate of a hundred billion guesses a second. The second one, however, is 10 characters. That one extra character makes it much, much stronger: it would take 19.24 years at the hundred-billion-guesses-a-second rate. (Security researchers have established the feasibility of achieving these speeds with fairly inexpensive hardware.)

Another important consideration is how often passwords should be changed. Ms. Komando recommends changing passwords as often as every 30 days. Also, users should consider using different passwords for different services. Many times hackers are able to access a single user’s entire digital presence because they use the same username and password for all their services. Lastly, none of these measures matter if the password is known by another person!

404 Pages

404 pages are the worst. As a user, you don’t know why you can’t find what you need; as a designer, you hate that users can’t find what they need. On the IU Libraries website, there is a chat box on all 404 pages, providing the user the opportunity to immediately connect with a librarian, who can then point them in the right direction and provide further research help. However, not all 404 pages are the same-check out a collection of some of the best 404 pages (some of which include cats and Storm Troopers!).

When Not to Google

You’re familiar with Google, of course – as are the faculty and students that you work with. You probably know of one or two others – Bing, perhaps. If you’ve been around for a while, you probably remember some of the earlier search engines, like Altavista and Yahoo (both of which are still around). But have you ever heard of DuckDuckGo or Blekko? Check out this interesting rundown of a few current (non-Google) search engines – how they work and what they do best – from Lifehacker.