Ever watch people (we’ll just call them food enthusiasts) at Golden Corral pile up their plates and go back multiple rounds? Or, if you’re like me, ever piled up your plate at an all-you-cat-eat buffet like it’s sure to be your last meal? Pile it high and pile it often. Well, that’s exactly what Google lets you do with its Custom Search Engines (CSEs).
A lot of sites use Google Custom Search for site search. Nothing new and shiny there. But did you know you can use custom search engines (CSEs) for all kinds of cool purposes? I seem to have this inexplicable compulsion to take tools designed for one purpose and contort them to fulfill a more creative agenda. It’s like my Catcher in the Rye. :)
With a CSE you can restrict searches to a particular list of sites, pages, or a combination of both. For example, I have a CSE of sites that regularly have Excel tutorials that swing more SEO/analytics. I spidered through all the posts and tutorials I’ve saved in my Evernote and Delicious over the years and compiled my list from those.
I went on a CSE shopping spree for a while and created a bunch of them. But my fave one has been one I just created a few weeks ago. It searches all episodes of Web Analytics TV with Avinash Kaushik and Nick Mihailovski — who, I might add, looks and acts like Jim from “The Office”, right? (I feel your pain, Nick. I had to deal with being compared to Caroline from “Caroline in the City” all through the 90s.)
But back to our regularly scheduled blog post …. Here’s what it looks like embededed:
(If it doesn’t load in your browser, you can check it out here.)
The reason this works is the guys include detailed notes for each episode. (See an example of awesome on a stick.) Now when I get stuck on something with Google Analytics, instead of wading through pages of posts, I just pop my search into my CSE.
How to Build a Custom Search Engine
To get all the details on building CSEs you can go right to the source with this tutorial. I’m just going to hit the essentials to building a CSE that’s not for your website.
First, go to www.google.com/cse/ and log in to your Google account. Click the Create a Custom Search Engine button. I’ll let you figure out the Describe your search engine part.
Now you’re going to define your search engine. (This is where the fun starts.) You’ll see a text field, Sites to search. This is where you’ll list your sites or specific pages.
Just below the text box is a link to learn more about URL formatting. Essentially, what it tells you is that you can use the asterisk character (*) as a wildcard. I used this when creating my CSE of Web Analytics TV. To use this feature, just look and see what different URLs have in common and fill them in with asterisks. For example, here’s a typical URL of a WATV episode:
I’ve emphasized the parts of the URL that are consistent among all of the posts since February 2010. (Before that it was called Rapid Fire Web Analytics Q&A with Avinash and Nick. Good call switching up the name, guys!) So, to capture all of the URLs, I put this in the field:
And then to capture all of the Rapid Fire episodes, I entered this:
From there, you just follow the prompts, like pick your colors (I’d stay away from Bubble Gum), then grab the embed code. Bada bing bada bang bada boom — you’re done.
The URL formatting is what adds finesse to Google’s CSEs because you can really hone in on just the pages you want from a site. For example, one of the URLs I have listed in my Excel for SEO CSE is
This just says, “Grab any URL from the Search Engine Land site that includes excel anywhere in its title.” Obviously, I’ll get some stray pages that talk about things like how to excel at PPC, but those pages aren’t liable to show up in a search for how to use the OFFSET function anyway.
Uses for Custom Search Engines
There are so many ways you could leverage CSEs to refine your searches, but here are just a few examples of sites you might want to bundle together to search:
- Video hosting sites
- Social sites you participate in, including one for bookmarking sites
- Photo sharing sites
- Answer sites
- Torrent sites (tsk tsk)
- Deals sites
- Niche blog sites
- Job/networking sites if you’re job hunting
- All of the sites associated with a particular university, company, organization, etc.
You can easily add new sites to your CSE(s) with the Google Marker plugin. The bizarre thing is Google only makes the plugin for Firefox and Internet Explorer. Talk about the cobbler’s son has no shoes. It’s a cool little plugin, nonetheless, when you’re on the prowl for new sites/pages to add to your CSEs.
Really Dial Up Your Search
If you really want to go beast mode in your search workflow, combine custom search engines with these tips to search right from your browser’s address bar.
Hat Tip: Kudos go out to Meg Geddes (NetMeg on Twitter) for her help and insights into some cool uses of custom search engines when I was researching for this post! You should also follow her on Twitter. She’s snarktastic and really knows her stuff. And she rarely bites.
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