[This is the text of my Surf’s Up column, published in the St. John's Telegram on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.]
It’s the little tools in life that make things zippier and better. Think about the bottle opener: just a piece of metal, but one twist and pop! Or think about your favourite shortcut while you’re driving: it may not necessarily be life-changing, but once you know it, there’s no going back to the longer path.
Your online life is the same … although there may yet be tips you don’t know. Here are some handy things I’ve gleaned over the years and am always glad to share.
The all-time Chrome time-saver
If you’re a Chrome user, you automatically have a powerful shortcut out of the gate. A while back I was working with a colleague on a story; when he opened new tab on Chrome, he typed in the address for Google to so he could get a search started.
There’s no need to do this at all! Your address bar (also known as your URL bar) doubles as a query box for Google in its own right, which means rather than bringing up Google, you can just type in the search terms themselves. Since Chrome is a Google product, it makes sense they want you to use their engine as quickly and as often as possible.
Quote me on it
I’ve mentioned this before, but the best way to get closer to the information you want to find on Google (or Bing, if you must) is to group proper names and phrases with quotation marks. “Danny Williams,” for instance, will get you web pages about the former premier rather than many other pages that contain both names somewhere in what can be a large array of text. Both names, after all, are quite common. Multiple groupings, each with quotation marks, will make your search even more targetted.
If you’re trying to find something specific and you know where it ought to be, take advantage of what’s called an “inurl” search. For instance, let’s say you know the information you’re looking for is on the provincial government’s website. Typing inurl:gov.nl (note that there are no spaces on either side of the colon) will help refine your search; all you need with it are the right keywords.
Use your tabs
A while back, I was visiting a friend when I noticed her screen was, well, an unholy mess. She had the habit of launching a new version of her browser when she wanted to look something up without disturbing what she already was doing. All those different windows made things unwieldy and ultimately stressful.
It’s way easier to use tabs, but I’ve noticed a lack of knowledge about them. Tabs are critical for keeping your onscreen work tidy and efficient, because you’re working from one window, not many. To open a tab in Chrome, for instance, click on the little grey box on the upper-right corner or hit Ctrl-T (command-T, if you’re a Mac-head like me). With Firefox, Safari and Explorer, it’s a Plus symbol along the top. You can keep multiple tabs open at once, which is great for managing web-based email, popular sites, shared documents and so on.
Manage your tabs
The problem with tabs, and I’m a prime offender here, is that it is very easy to have way too many open at one time. I’m guilty of the thinking that I may just need to refer to such-and-such later today, or “gee, I should read that later when I have spare time.” (No, Virginia, there is no spare time later.) So, I keep opening another tab, and another until … you guessed it: things might turn into digital molasses. Much more often, it just becomes much too confusing.
Keep your tabs to a minimum. To find things I once consulted, I’ve come to rely on my browser history, or I email things to myself with an explanatory note in the subject header, which makes finding it later a snap.
Back and forth
In a typical working session, I have about a dozen tabs or so open, which may sound like a lot, but each is actually related to a program I need to access quickly. To move around, I use keystrokes, and they’re as easy as pie and faster than a mouse. To move from one tab to the next, hit Ctrl-tab, or the control and tab keys simultaneously. That will move you to the right; if you need to move back one, it’s Ctrl-shift-tab. This will work with any browser, as will Ctrl-T for opening a new tab, and Ctrl-N for opening a new browser window altogether.
Save your wrist!
Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, one of the best things to do to protect your hands and wrists is to figure out the various ways to not use your mouse. Repeat, not. Using your mouse is a good thing, but relying on it entirely is not good for you, and the same goes for keyboard-only use. Find ways to complement each other so that your fingers are not endlessly repeating movements, or are curled for too long. To find some ideas, Google “best keyboard shortcuts” and the type of computer you’re using. They vary depending on the operating system.
John Gushue is a digital producer with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue