NANFWRIMO #6 & #7: Focusing Your Searches With Specialized Vocabulary

Everybody has a unique vocabulary. You may start with the same language as everyone around you, but over time you will develop words and phrases that you use only in specific situations – at work doing a specialized task, at home talking about a favorite meal, with friends mentioning something funny that happened five years ago and became part of your history with them.

EggoYou can even develop a customized vocabulary with your pets. When my cat Eggo hears me say “Apocalypse” she knows this means she better stop what she’s doing and scram, or the world as she knows it is going to end.

(This usually involves me chasing her down the hall with a squirt gun.)

Specialized vocabulary comes from all aspects of your life. As I noted, you make use certain words and definitions only with family. You end up using words that are associated with certain Web sites or software programs. (Hashtag! Vaguebook! Swipe left!) You even learn words just because you live in a certain time and place. (On Fleek! Throw shade! Netflix and chill. Hulu and commit! Amazon Instant Video and pensively brood!)

(I made that last one up.)

Often advice on Internet searching tells you to consider your keywords carefully; make sure you’re describing clearly what you’re looking for, get specific, etc. And there, often, the advice stops. But you can take your searches to the next level by taking advantage of specialized language. You can slant your searches all kinds of ways just by adding an extra word or two — even if doesn’t seem to have much to do with your topic.

I have five tactics for you to try with specialized vocabulary. But first I need to teach you The Glossary Trick.

The Glossary Trick

Often you might find yourself researching topics that you don’t know a lot about. If you don’t know much about the topic, you almost certainly don’t know the vocabulary associated with the topic. Most of the time you can solve that problem by doing a quick search for the topic of your choice and the word glossary.

Try it:

chocolate glossary
sailing glossary
vaudeville glossary
telecommunications glossary

Your goal when looking at a glossary is not to instantly become an expert. It’s to gather words that will provide a greater depth to your search results. If you’re looking for rich, in-depth Chocolate sites, for example, you can really change your search results by adding cocoa nibs or couverture or terroir.

Sometimes this doesn’t work; if I’m looking for vocabulary for a place or a profession, the glossary trick can lead to spotty results. In those cases I will try searching for “only x knows” or “only x understands,” for example:

“only Californians (know | understand)”

(The parens denote two possible words separated by a |, which means “or”. So this query means either the phrase “only Californians know” or the phrase “only Californians understand.”)

The first search result when I try that is from a blog called Breezy Days and it gives me a few words I can try out. Nor-cal, So-cal? Fresno? D-land? Cali, as a possible excluded word? Looking at more search results might allow me to refine and lengthen my list of California-vocabulary.

You can try this with occupations too, though it’s less reliable:

“only nurses (know | understand)”
“only teachers (know | understand)”
“only engineers (know | understand)”

Now let’s play with some different kinds of specialized vocabulary.

1. Time-based

Time-based vocabulary is simply slang that was popular for a defined period of time. It’s not a word like wow, which has remained in use consistently for a long time. It’s a word like tubular, which is very 80s, or groovy, which is more 60s/70s, or fleek, which is recent.

(Where you are the slang may have been different. YSMV: Your Slang May Vary.)

Slang like this is powerful because once it falls out of popular use, it’s gone. Nobody runs around saying “Gag me with a spoon” anymore. It is so associated with an era that people will use it to invoke a time period. When people are writing about the 80s, they’ll use grody to the max or gross me out the door or whatever. Adding time-specific slang terms to your queries will focus them in a way that no attempts to just describe the era could.

To see what I mean, run these four searches on Google:

fashion “like totally”
fashion groovy
fashion fleek
fashion “daddy-o”

Do you see how one little word or phrase can completely bend your search results?

Protip I: Sometimes you’ll find that a slang term has been co-opted by a later era. Searching for fashion tubular will get you a bunch of pages about Adidas sneakers. Just try another one.

Protip II: Using slang to focus your results on a certain area only goes back so far — at this writing, roughly the 1940s. If you try to use 23 skidoo or oh you kid, both phrases from the early 20th century, you’re going to have spotty results. As we humans continue to fill the Internet and explore our history, this may change. I honestly don’t know.

2. Place-based

Lemon PieI am southern and I say y’all a lot. I also say “bless your heart,” mostly un-ironically. You can slant all kinds of searches toward places or regions by adding a place-based term. Try:

“lemon pie”

“lemon pie” “bless your heart”

The second search is not only a lot more southern, it’s moved you past simple lists of a recipes and into — well, basically lemon pie stories.

What slang is exclusive to your area? what happens when you add it to a general search?

Don’t think you have to use slang exclusive to your area, either. Try adding other regional slang to your searches. If you are less familiar with it, it might take some experimenting to change your search results in a meaningful way.

3. Activity-based

I’m going to work tomorrow, price my stacks, draw down my board and get a start on my seven-cards. That’s work vocabulary. This is specialized to me and what I do, so it wouldn’t work for an Internet search, but there’s plenty of industry-specific vocabulary.

Searching for retail information? You’ll make your results more industry-oriented by adding the words “loss prevention” or facing. Trying to get display ideas? Slatwall will turn your shelving search into a bevy of retail possibilities.

Think about the terms you use at work. Are there terms you have to explain to new employees? Those, if commonly used in your industry, are prime candidates for using in your searches to narrow your focus on a particular industry. And activity-based vocabulary isn’t just for work. It’s also for sports, hobbies, and even fandom! (What’s a parrothead? What are browncoats?)

4. Expertise-based

Expertise-based vocabulary is similar to activity-based vocabulary, but it’s more exclusive and indicative of a higher level of training. For example, you know in broad terms what a heart attack is. If you were a doctor you might call it a myocardial infarction.

If you do a search for

“heart disease” “heart attack”

you will get consumer-level information on heart health. On the other hand if you do a search for

“heart disease” “myocardial infarction”

You will get pages which are more dense with medical information and your search results will be prefaced with links to scholarly articles. Using language doctors (or other highly-trained experts) are more likely to use generally gives you more information-rich pages.

Protip I: Don’t know how to make your medical topic more “doctor-y”? Try searching “another term for x”: another term for heart attack, or another term for stroke, or another term for high blood pressure. These will give you different for each of these conditions.

Protip II: This is more like a stupid pet trick, but try adding one of those ridiculously-specific ICD-10 codes to your search. Who knows, perhaps when you add “W61.33XA” you’ll slant your search toward initial chicken attacks. This doesn’t work most of time, but when it does it’s hysterical.

5. Culture-based

There’s slang you learn because of where you grew up. There’s slang you learned because of when you grew up. And then there’s slang you learned because of HOW you grew up, and what you grew into. Your religion, your preferences for love, your ethnic background – the way you describe yourself and your context. These are all opportunities to change your searches to be more reflective of your life and your situation.

Or not. I’m not saying that if you’re southern you have to add y’all to every single search ever.

(DISCLAIMER: I am now tempted to try that for a week just to see how weird it would get.)

I am saying that words are symbols of how we describe our experiences to ourselves and each other, and because we all have different circumstances and contexts, we all use different symbol sets. If it helps you in one of your searches to add symbols that are reflective of your context, than that is a good thing. If you want to try to use symbols that are reflective of someone else’s context in order to get a different perspective, then that can be a good thing – as long as you remember that understanding how someone uses a word does not mean you understand how they experience their lives.

There’s one more specialized vocabulary that everyone can use, no matter what their symbol sets.

6. Outcome-based

Simply: what do you want to happen?

Do you want to cook something? Do you want to buy something? Do you want an opinion? Add words relevant to your outcome. Try these searches:

“lemon pie” nutrition servings

“lemon pie” shipping delivery

“lemon pie” reviews stars

When you’re adding outcome-based vocabulary to your search, think for a moment about your ideal search result – the recipe page, or the order page, or the review. Think about standard words that might appear on the page, and then add them to your search.

Protip: This is also a fantastic way to use exclusionary terms. Try searching for countertop -shipping -sale -order. You’ll find by excluding three words, you’ve removed a lot of sales stuff from your results and focused more on reviews, maintenance, etc.

It’s very important to get your initial search terms right. Once you’ve got that, however, do a little experimenting with specialized language and vocabulary and see if that nudges your results closer to where you want to go.

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5 replies »

  1. Another great piece! I was just reading along, when I got to countertop -shipping -sale -order. Third hit was a review from Consumer Reports. Amazing. Thank you for sharing the wealth of knowledge you have gathered over the years. I’m really getting your writing efforts. Great work.

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