“I Googled his name but I didn’t find anything.”

As a professional investigator, I’ve heard this phrase thousands of times. There are a number of reasons why a person will turn to a search engine with a name. Perhaps you want to know a little more about a new neighbor or a renting tenant. Maybe you’ve lost contact with a family member and want to reconnect. Maybe you’re searching your own name to see exactly how much of your personal information is available online, and what sites are using it.

When a person wants to find another person, the first place he or she usually turns to is the Internet. Sometimes it’s easy to just punch in a name and locate a person, especially if that person is involved in heavy-duty social networking or has a business of some kind. Other times it isn’t so easy, especially when the person in question has a common name. That is usually when somebody decides to hire a professional. Clients are often shocked when I bring up information about the subject that I learned using the same search engine that didn’t offer anything useful to them an hour prior.

There’s no secret investigator’s technique at work here. It’s simply a matter of knowing how to properly use a search engine, beyond just typing words into the search bar. There are countless techniques that can be used to provide more exact searches and to filter those results more accurately. Today I’d like to introduce you to a few simple ones to help you search like a professional.

To bring out the true potential of any search engine, you must master three techniques: exact queries, string variations and wildcards. While this may sound daunting, the concepts are far from difficult to learn. In a nutshell, it breaks down to using quotation marks, strategic placement of the words “and” and “or,” and the asterisk character.

Note that while almost every search engine can make use of these techniques, certain details (like the wildcard character) may vary among search providers. For this article, I’ll use Google.

The usefulness of exact queries when searching for a person’s name in Google cannot be understated. The usual way of searching for something is just to type it into the search bar and click search. But this often introduces far too much variation to provide any useful search results.

By putting a phrase in quotation marks, the search is restricted to finding exact matches to that phrase – and only exact matches. For example, “Julie Anne Doe” will not return any results related to “Julie Ann Doe”, “Julieanne Doe” or documents with “Julie” in one part and “Anne” and “Doe” in others.

This is also useful for identifying where a particular passage comes from and is often used to check documents for plagiarism. For example, let’s say we want to identify a document where the phrase “what sort of risky game” occurs. Searching for the phrase without quotes yields a number of useless results while searching for the same phrase in quotes reveals only entries that match exactly. From this latter search, we learn it is a segment of a letter written by Albert Einstein.

The next important concept is string variation. This can be combined with the quotation-mark technique. While exact queries are powerful, they rely on knowing the exact way a given phrase will appear. This is problematic when searching for a name, as a search for “Julie Anne Doe” will not find links for “Julie Doe” and vice versa.

You can solve this problem through the use of the words “and” and “or.” When searching for multiple exact phrases in Google, put one of these words between the phrases and put parentheses before and after the phrases. If you now search for (“Julie Anne Doe” OR “Julie Doe”), you will get results that match either phrase.

I recommend taking this concept to the logical extreme when searching for an individual: Use every name variation possible along with a lengthy string of ORs and finally the geographic area you want. This would read something like (“Julie Anne Doe” OR “Julie Doe” OR “Doe, Julie Anne” OR “Doe, Julie” OR “Julie A Doe” OR “Doe, Julie A” ) + Idaho.

That would provide the most comprehensive results in finding an individual online.

Leave out the area if you want to look for results outside a certain state or city. Try it with your own name.

Finally, the last important concept in advanced searching is the wildcard. A wildcard is simply a placeholder, usually represented by an asterisk (*), that tells the search engine to return results where any word is present wherever the asterisk is in the query.

For example, searching for “I * what I *” in direct quotes returns results for “I am what I am, “I know what I like,” and “I know what I’m here for.” This is extremely valuable when it comes to running a search with limited available data. For example, imagine that you’re searching for a particular individual, but you know only the first and last name. By typing “Julie * Doe,” results are returned with a variety of middle names. From here we can read the various web pages and documents to best determine which of those individuals is the one we’re looking for.

There are many more advanced search techniques out there. Even so, armed with these three tips, you should be able to uncover far more accurate and useful results.

Knowing how to run advanced searches is especially useful in protecting your own privacy. Give these techniques a try using your own name, and see just how many websites out there are broadcasting your private data. You may be surprised.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.