Google Groups

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You can search Usenet newsgroups, both recent and from times past, through Google Groups.

Usenet Groups, text-based discussion groups covering literally hundreds of thousands of topics, have been around since long before the World Wide Web. And now they're available for search and perusal as Google Groups ( Its search interface is rather different from the Google web search, as all messages are divided into groups, and the groups themselves are divided into topics called hierarchies.

The Google Groups archive begins in 1981 and covers up to the present day. Over 200 million messages are archived. As you might imagine, that's a pretty big archive, covering literally decades of discussion. Stuck in an ancient computer game? Need help with that sewing machine you bought in 1982? You might be able to find the answers here.

Google Groups also allows you to participate in Usenet discussions, handy because not all ISPs provide access to Usenet these days (and even those that do tend to limit the number of newsgroups they carry). See the Google Groups posting FAQ ( for instructions on how to post to a newsgroup. You'll have to start with locating the group to which you want to post, and that means using the hierarchy.

Ten Seconds of Hierarchy Funk

There are regional and smaller hiearchies, but the main ones are: alt, biz, comp, humanities, misc, news, rec, sci, soc, and talk. Most web groups are created through a voting process and are put under the hiearchy that's most applicable to the topic.

Browsing Groups

From the main Google Groups page, you can browse through the list of groups by picking a hiearchy from the front page. You'll see that there are subtopics, sub-subtopics, sub-sub-subtopics, and - well, you get the picture. For example, in the comp (computers) hierarchy you'll find the subtopic comp.sys, or computer systems. Beneath that lie 75 groups and subtopics, including comp.sys.mac, a branch of the hierarchy devoted to the Macintosh computer system. There are 24 Mac subtopics, one of which is comp.sys.mac.hardware, which has, in turn, three groups beneath it. Once you've drilled down to the most specific group applicable to your interests, Google Groups presents the postings themselves, sorted in reverse chronological order.

This strategy works fine when you want to read a slow (of very little traffic) or moderated group, but when you want to read a busy, free-for-all group, you may wish to use the Google Groups search engine. The search on the main page works very much like the regular Google search; your only clue that things are different is the Google Groups tab and each result has an associated group and posting date.

The Advanced Groups
Search (, however, looks much different. You can restrict your searches to a certain newsgroup or newsgroup topic. For example, you can restrict your search as broadly as the entire comp hiearchy (comp* would do it) or as narrowly as a single group like comp.robotics.misc. You may restrict messages to subject and author, or restrict messages by message ID.

Of course, any options on the Advanced Groups Search page can be expressed via a little URL tiping [Tip #9].

Possibly the biggest difference between Google Groups and Google web search is the
date searching. With Google web search, date searching is notoriously inexact, date referring to when a page was added to the index rather than the date the page was created. Each Google Groups message is stamped with the day it was actually posted to the newsgroup. Thus the date searches on Google Groups are accurate and indicative of when content was produced. And, thankfully, they use the more familiar Gregorian dates rather than the Google web search's Julian dates [Tip #11].

Google Groups and Special Syntaxes

You can do some precise searching from the Google Groups advanced search page. And, just as with Google web, you have some special syntaxes [Section 1.5] at your disposal.

Google Groups is an archive of conversations. Thus, when you're searching, you'll be more successful if you try looking for conversational and informal language, not the carefully structured language you'll find on Internet sites - well, some Internet sites, anyway.

  • Searches posting titles for query words.
  • group:
  • Restricts your search to a certain group or set of groups (topic). The wildcard * (asterisk) modifies a group: syntax to include everything beneath the specified group or topic. rec.humor* or rec.humor.* (effectively the same) will find results in the group rec.humor, as well as rec.humor.funny, rec.humor.jewish, and so forth.
  • author:
  • Specifies the author of a newsgroup post. This can be a full or partial name, even an email address.
    author:fred author:fred flintstone
  • Mixing syntaxes in Google Groups

    Google Groups is much more friendly to syntax mixing [Tip #8] than Google web search. You can mix any syntaxes together in a Google Groups search, as exemplified by the following typical searches:

    intitle:literature group:humanities* author:john intitle:hardware* pda
    Some common search scenarios

    There are several ways you can "mine" Google Groups for research information. Remember, though, to view any information you get here with a certain amount of skepticism - all Usenet is is hundreds of thousands of people tossing around links; in that respect, it's just like the Web.

    Tech support

    Ever used
    Windows and discovered that there's some program running you've never heard of? Uncomfortable, isn't it? If you're wondering if HIDSERV is something nefarious, Google Groups can tell you. Just search Google Groups for HIDSERV. You'll find that plenty of people had the same question before you did, and it's been answered.

    I find that Google Groups is sometimes more useful than manufacturers' web sites. For example, I was trying to install a set of flight devices for a friend - a joystick, throttle, and rudder pedals. The web site for the manufacturer couldn't help me figure out why they weren't working. I described the problem as best I could in a Google Groups search - using the name of the parts and the manufacturer's brand name - and it wasn't easy, but I was able to find an answer.

    Sometimes your problem isn't as serious but it's just as annoying; you might be stuck in a computer game.
    If the game has been out for more than a few months your answer is probably in Google Groups. If you want the answer to an entire game, try the magic word "walkthrough." So if you're looking for a walkthrough for Quake II, try the search "quake ii" walkthrough. (You don't need to restrict your search to newsgroups; walkthrough is a word strongly associated with gamers.)

    Finding commentary immediately after an event

    With Google Groups, date searching is very precise (unlike date searching Google's web index). So it's an excellent way to get commentary

    during or immediately after events.

    Barbra Streisand and James Brolin were married on July 1, 1998. Searching for "Barbra Streisand" "James Brolin" between June 30, 1998 and July 3, 1998 leads to over 40 results, including reprinted wire articles, links to news stories, and commentary from fans. Searching for "barbra streisand" "james brolin" without a date specification finds more than 1,300 results.

    Usenet is also much older than the Web and is ideal for finding information about an event that occured before the Web. Coca-Cola released "New Coke" in April 1985. You can find information about the release on the Web, of course, but finding contemporary commentary would be more difficult. After some playing around with the dates (just because it's been released doesn't mean it's in every store) I found plenty of commentary about "New Coke" in Google Groups by searching for the phrase "new coke" during the month of May 1985. Information included poll results, taste tests, and speculation on the new formula. Searching later in the summer yields information on Coke re-releasing old Coke under the name "Classic Coke."

    Google Groups and the Google API

    At the time of this writing, Google Groups is not supported by the Google API. If you want to save your searches in a comma-delimited file, however, you can use the Google Groups scraper [Tip #46].