Learning Search

Anatomy of an Information Trap, Part I: Starting From Scratch

EDIT: Leo asked me to define Information Trap. So here goes: it’s a trap for information. HA! No, seriously, an “information trap” is a monitor placed on the Web in general or on specific Web site or network to grab new or updated information. I use the term “information trap” instead of “Web monitor” because often people think that a Web monitor monitors a Web server in case it goes down.

My husband, Phil, is into drones. He has a couple, and likes to spend summer evenings flying them some of the time and crashing them into the backyard fence most of the time. Just kidding, sweetie.

So I wasn’t surprised when he came to me and asked me to help him set up Google Alerts for drone flight simulator software. He wants to keep up with new offerings and developments and he doesn’t want to have to run regular Google searches.

Here’s the thing, though: I know very little about drones. I know they fly, and it makes sense there would be flight simulator software for learning to fly them better. But I don’t know any software titles, developer brand names, etc.

Trying to do a “patron interview” with Phil didn’t work; he said his information was “out of date,” which is why he wanted my help. I really was starting from square one.

The good news is I realized this would be a perfect opportunity to build an information trap / web monitor from scratch – from an absolute minimum of knowledge to a set of useful Google Alerts. And I’m gonna write it down so you can follow along. It’ll have to be in multiple parts – so let’s start by learning some topic-specific vocabulary and brand names and assessing it for good ongoing search results.

I need two things to make good search queries for drone flight simulators: the brand names, which describe the companies making and selling the software, and the actual vocabulary that is used to describe what the software does.

Get the Names

We’ll begin with brand names. Let’s start with drone flight simulator, which hopefully will find me lists of simulator software.

First search - Drone Flight Simulator

Excellent, the second search result is a comparison guide at http://www.dronethusiast.com/drone-flight-simulator/ . Exactly what I need.

Now I need a place to store the information. Depending on how complex I want to get, I can use a text editor, a Google Doc, Evernote, etc. There has been a lot of curiosity about it, so for the purposes of this article I’m using OneNote, from Microsoft. It’s free and available at https://www.onenote.com/ . If you want a bunch of tutorials and tricks, try http://office.about.com/od/OneNote/tp/Your-Complete-Guide-to-OneNote-Free-Tips-Tricks-and-Tutorials.htm . For the purposes of this article I’ve created a OneNote “notebook” called “Drone Research” and I’ll be doing all my work there.

Okay, back to the searching. With this first search I’m trying to develop two things: first, a list of vocabulary words, and second a list of brand names. In my notebook I’m going to start a page called “Vocabulary Words,” and start it with the URL I’m examining.

Next I’m going to go through http://www.dronethusiast.com/drone-flight-simulator/ and pull out all the words and phrases that look specific to my topic. I’m not doing brand names yet, just trying to get a feel for what this software is called. When I find likely words or phrases (all phrases in this case) I paste them into OneNote. When I’m done going through the page I’ve got a nice list of vocabulary words:

Vocabulary Words

Now I’m going to create a OneNote page called “Brand Names,” go through the article again, and pull out brand names. The important thing here is not to grab anything that’s too generic. There’s one software called “Liftoff” that I’ve decided to skip because I’m afraid that name won’t find me good results.

And at the end of that I’ve got seven good brand names.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.11.22

I have gone from being completely ignorant about drone flight simulators to completely ignorant with a hatful of vocabulary words, which is a big step up! Now let’s use those words to find queries which will make good Google Alerts. We’re going to start with the brand names.

Use Your Words

In 2006 I wrote a book called Web Search Garage, which in addition to providing information on search resources had an entire section on philosophy – it was my attempt to provide guidance on how to think about searching via a series of principles.

One of those is called the Principle of Mass Similar – the idea that if you search for many of the same brand name you’ll get results that are heavily (overwhelmingly) oriented toward your topic. So let’s try that with this list of flight simulator brands and software titles. We’ll plug this into Google:

Simpro Dronesimpro RealFlight Aerofly “Immersion RC” “Heli-X” “FPV Freerider”

Notice I’m not adding any non-brand words like “drone simulator” or software. It’s not necessary; we have seven brand names here. That should be more than enough to keep our search results focused.

It sure did keep the results focused – in fact a little too focused:

Learning search vocabulary

The only result we got was from the page we originally got the brand name from. We might infer that page was really thorough, and that it mentioned brand names and software titles that perhaps aren’t very popular or well known. Great for our initial research, lousy for this step. So let’s try using just a few brand names:

Simpro Dronesimpro RealFlight

Learning search vocabulary

Meh. The search results here aren’t driving me wild with excitement, but I’m getting one important signal from Google. See the note about Dronesimpro at the top of the results page? Sometimes Google is wrong about spelling corrections but not in this case; a quick comparison of searches tells me the software name is Dronesim Pro, and not Dronesimpro as I pulled from the first page where I was doing research. Let’s fix that in my keyword list in OneNote and start the search with all the brand names again, using the proper spelling:

Simpro “Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly “Immersion RC” “Heli-X” “FPV Freerider”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.25.44

I’m still getting only one page here, which reinforces my belief that the original page was pretty thorough, but it’s not moving my research forward much.

Okay, let’s try a small set of brand names again:

Simpro “Dronesim pro” RealFlight

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.27.49

Three results! Not enough.

Now, how many is too many and how many is not enough is a matter of personal taste. I know my husband is going to want a cross-section of results and I know he’s going to want a pretty thorough overview of the topic, so I’m going to want a search to review that’s at least 10-20 decent results.

Simpro, I think, is too generic. Let’s throw that out and put something else in.

“Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.37.41

Much better: about 134 results. Plenty, but not overwhelming (and this time Google’s search correction is, in fact, wrong.)

But I’m getting too many commerce-related results in this search. I need to get rid of those.

Changing the Focus Of Your Search Results With Specialized Vocabulary

In November 2015 I wrote an article about focusing searches with specialized vocabulary, and noted that you could exclude words to move your results focus away from things like shopping sites. These are not words that are related to your topic but rather are related to other general topics that might overlap with your subject of interest. Shopping words, for example, or forum words, or teaching words.

In this case we want to get rid of shopping words because want to exclude ecommerce sites. Let’s see what happens when I try this search:

“Dronesim pro” RealFlight Aerofly -shipping -auction -“buy it now”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.43.40

Wellll, it’s better, but it’s still junkier than I prefer. I need to spend some time cycling through the different brand names, excluding vocabulary related to shopping when appropriate, and see what I get. And as this article’s already over 1000 words long, let me do that “off camera.”

Okay, I’m back. Let’s quickly compare the search results above to the search results from this search:

Aerofly “FPV Freerider” “heli-x” -shipping -auction

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 10.46.49

953 results here, and they’re much better quality. Look what you can see just in this small set of results on the front page. Blog posts, forum discussions, and another product page. Clicking through to a few of these pages showed me these were rich results, and not just spam. I could, in these search results, learn about which flight simulators are best and why. I’m acquiring drone flight simulator knowledge, which is what Phil wants.

Doing a regular Web search gets me good results here, but what about a Google Alert? Will this search keep me informed about developments in drone flight simulators? Let’s find out.

The first thing we should do is try the search for the last 24 hours. Use Google’s Search Tools to limit your searches to pages from the last 24 hours, sorted by date.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.47.40


That didn’t work, did it? Zero results. Let’s try results for the past week.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.48.44

No good. Searching for things from the past year is too long, but let’s find things from the past month:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.50.48

No results. Except there are two results, and you can’t see them. I’m going to show you a trick. Change the sort by date option to sort by relevance. Ping!

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 11.52.41

Magically, search results appear.

I like to sort by recent search results by date because it gives me an immediate insight into whether a recent set of search results (as would be provided by an alert) will be useful. But if you’re doing repeated recent searches and are getting very few results, try changing the sort from date back to relevance. You may find some hidden results.

Unfortunately these hidden results aren’t getting me anywhere – they’re not useful. I need to change my focus and find out which of these brand names are most likely to get me plenty of search results.

SIDE NOTE: You might ask yourself, “Why are you trying to find the best combinations of brand names? Why not just set up Google Alerts for each brand name?” Two reasons. Reason one is I’d drown in Google Alerts, most of which would not be useful to my husband. Reason two is that by finding an active Google Alert with multiple brand names, I’m guaranteeing that products of that alert will have a certain density of information that will be useful. Using multiple brand names in a search is the easiest way to pointing my alerts toward information-rich, relevant pages.

Checking Brand Name Popularity

There are many, many keyword tools out there, including a lot of tools used in SEO – Search Engine Optimization. That’s the opposite type of search work I usually do, and not my expertise. In a future article I might explore some SEO keyword tools, but in this case we’re going to stick to a basic tool called Google Trends, which is available at https://www.google.com/trends/ .

Google Trends

At Google Trends, you can take five searches at a time and compare them to see what their search popularity has been like over time. In the search box, enter your search terms, separating them with a comma. You’ll get a results page that looks like this.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.06.23

The first thing you’ll see is the search result page giving you additional options. I do not, for example, need search popularity from 2004 when drones were unheard of, at least as a popular hobby. I probably also don’t need trend information from all over the world. (You can also limit your search results by category and by type, but I don’t trust Google Trends to do category coverage well, and I’m looking for Web search results so that’s fine.) I’m resetting my search to cover just the United States for the last 12 months.

Once you’ve narrowed the focus of Google Trends you’ll find the results page looks a lot different.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.20.12

There are some spikes, but nothing dramatic. Glancing at this, though, tells me that for search volume the front runners are probably RealFlight and Aeroflight, followed by Immersion RC, Simpro… and Dronesim Pro’s down in there somewhere. Which explains why the first set of searches using Dronesim Pro were so miserable.

NOTE: I had multiple brand names, and I’m searching only five in Google Trends. I am not doing it for the sake of keeping this article a manageable size, but ideally what I’d do is cycle through all the brand names through multiple Google Trends searches, and keep the most popular results for my Web search testing.

Let’s see what happens when we do a Google search with the two most popular brand names, RealFlight and Aeroflight.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.33.05

Now, this is more like it! Plenty of results from all kinds of sources. But peeking at a few of them it looks like they’re more skewed toward RC (Radio Controlled) flying objects, which is not what we want. Let’s add the word drone to see if there’s a simple fix to get our search focused the way we want.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.41.53

Oh boy, Google’s being stupid. Look at the search result count. Note in our first search we had less than ten thousand results. Now we’ve added a word, and suddenly Google’s giving us over 110,000 results! Instead of narrowing the search down, adding a word has actually opened it up!

I’m going to have to use the search tools again and change the search from “All Results” (Google takes your search terms and does what it likes) to “Verbatim” (Google actually searches what you tell it to search for.)

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.43.55

You don’t get a results count here but I’ll tell you it’s 30. A quick glance tells me that these are actually pretty good results. So I’ll check and see what the 24 hour, week, and month results are like. Here’s the week:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 12.52.38

You’ll note that once you narrow your search results to a certain time span you can no longer set your search results to Verbatim. If you try Google will give you full search results.

But what I’m seeing here is pretty good. I might want to do a little tweaking the search terms to exclude some of the shopping results, but I think we’ve got our first candidate for a Google Alert: realflight aeroflight drone . I’m going to create a new page in my OneNote “drones” notebook and call it Google Alerts. This will be the first entry.

SIDE NOTE: Should you refine your searches until your search results are 100% useful with no junk at all? (Junk I’m defining here as “results not useful to your search project,” not “spammy or poor-quality search results.”) No, because that means your searches will be so narrowly-focused you will miss things. In monitoring the Web, there is a constant balance between getting overwhelmed with non-useful information and not missing anything. Try to resign yourself to at least a little junk in your search results, though it’s up to you to decide how much you want to tolerate.

Now I’m going to spend a little time experimenting with the various brand names and seeing how they do in various combinations.

After 20 minutes or so I’ve got five solid candidates for Google Alerts, using brand names. That’s a very good start to information trapping on a topic, up until I started this, I knew very little about! I still know very little, but I know brand names and thanks to the pages I’m skimming, I’m learning a tiny bit of vocabulary.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 13.13.23

And speaking of vocabulary, we need to start on our second round of searches, this time for vocabulary words. But why? Why aren’t we just searching for brand names?

Brand Names Versus Topic-Specific Vocabulary

I started writing about search engines in 1996. Imagine if I’d just tried to keep up with the search engines of the day and did not try to expand my searches.

I would still be monitoring the Web for reports on HotBot, Lycos, and AltaVista. And while those were great search engines (well, AltaVista went downhill in a hurry, but that’s another rant) they’re not the prevalent search engines of today. I had to make sure I was monitoring for search engine terminology to make sure that I learned about new search engines like Bing and Google and Teoma and Gigablast and so on.

Any search you do for popular brand names is going to be a single moment in time. You cannot rely on that static snapshot to keep you abreast of new brand names, or to let you know when one you’re monitoring has fallen so far out of favor that it’ll impact your Google Alerts. To keep up with new names and new software and new offerings, you need to monitor topic-specific but generic vocabulary. You’ll also see that you need to build your search queries a little differently to find quality content.

What does my list of topic-specific vocabulary for drones look like?

Drone Flight Simulator
uav simulator
Quadcopter Simulator
fpv flight simulators
multirotor flight
drone flying simulator program
FPV drone flight
quad simulator
simulators for drones
R/C helicopter flight sim

I don’t know enough about drone flight simulators to even know what would be the most popular terminology, so I’m going to take five of these terms and plug them into Google Trends.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.20.43

Google Trends starts by providing all trend information from 2004 again, but this time it’s got something to teach us. Look there at the “uav simulator” result, the red line. Look how popular it is in 2006 or so, but its popularity has eroded a lot. I suspect that’s because the term UAV (which stands for “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”) has been supplanted by the word drone.

If you narrow the Google Trends search result from 2004 onwards to the last twelve months and limit your results to the United States, you can see how dramatic the drop in popularity is:

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.27.22

Looking at Google Trends results, I can see that of these five search terms, the two I’ve really got to focus on are “drone flight simulator” and “quadcopter simulator”.

Taking a Different Search Tack

When we were exploring drone flight simulator brand names, the focus was on getting as many brand names into a search as would be useful. If you try that same strategy with topic-based vocabulary, at least general topic-based vocabulary, you might actually hurt your search.

A site that refers to “drone flight simulators” may have that as its preferred vocabulary and not refer to them as “quadcopter simulators” at all. On the other hand, a site which contains both “drone flight simulators” and “quadcopter simulators” might be focusing too much on having as many relevant keywords as possible to get clicks from search engines results. Does this focus on keyword inclusion mean the content is going to be good? In my experience, usually not.

Earlier in this article I showed you that you could use other topic-specific vocabulary to remove shopping and ecommerce sites by excluding words like shipping and order. Now let’s narrow our search results to useful content related to drone flight simulators  by adding topic-specific vocabulary.

Adding Topic-Specific Query Terms to Our Drone Simulator Vocabulary

What are some words you think of when you think of product reviews? Off the top of my head, here are a few:

Best review choice stars new comparison

Not all reviews assign stars, so let’s take that out. And not all reviews are going to be new, so let’s take that out. Let’s try the search-focusing words best review choice comparison and add them to one of our top two vocabulary picks.

best review choice comparison “drone flight simulator”

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.44.14


Ah, look at that. What a great set of results. Just over 1800, very focused, lots of information here. Unfortunately all the search results for the past day, week, and month aren’t any good, so let’s try again for a search that’ll work better with Google Alerts. After a little experimenting and tweaking I found a search that worked well with results for the past week and the past month:

best review “drone flight simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.51.11

I had to exclude some words because I was getting a lot of app results, which I didn’t want. Was this search solid enough that could just substitute “quadcopter simulator” for “drone flight simulator” and get equally useful results? We’ll find out in a minute.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 14.54.13


Yes! Very good results. I now have two Google alerts based on topic-specific vocabulary instead of brand names to start my monitoring.

In this article, I started with a request from my husband and one search broadly defining his topic. Roughly 3300 words later, I have a set of brand names, some topic-specific vocabulary the popularity of which I’m confident of, and seven search queries which look like they’ll give me decent, useful results on a regular basis.

“Immersionrc” “FPV Freerider” drone
realflight aeroflight drone
aeroflight “heli-x” drone
“heli-x” “fpv freerider”
“heli-x” RealFlight drone
best review “quadcopter simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK
best review “drone flight simulator” -intitle:”google play” -intitle:APK

The next step is turning these search queries into Google Alerts – and that’s the next article! See you soon.

Thank you to everyone who’s supporting me on Patreon. You’re the reason this article got written. I hope very much it’s useful to you! 

4 replies »

  1. I like this article very much. It made a smilingly very complex subject comprehensible to me. Thank you. Mason Redd

Leave a Reply