Find Information More Quickly with Alfred

Need to quickly check a quotation or gather missing publication information? Ever wish you could find a way to make the process more efficient?

This is the third in a series of posts describing some of my areas of “friction” and how I have attempted to solve them. I’d love to hear from you about the things that slow you down and the strategies you’ve found to overcome them—please leave a comment and join the conversation!

In my last post, “Becoming More Efficient: Keyboard Shortcuts for Word,” I described the way that I edit more efficiently and effectively by customizing Word and learning keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts can be useful far beyond Word.

As I edit, I find myself needing to move away from the editing window for a couple of key reasons. First, I often need to check the spelling of a name or term or need to check on the publication information of a book or article.

If I’m checking the spelling of a word, I can switch spaces to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, which I have as a standalone app (a license for the program is included in some hardcopy versions of the book). By the way, I have found that app invaluable, just as I have found the online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style invaluable. Together, the two allow me to edit from a coffeeshop or elsewhere without having to bring anything besides my Macbook. And the dictionary app doesn’t require an internet connection, permitting me to work offline as well.

I have set up shortcuts for a number of other searches—including Google Books, WorldCat, and Amazon—using Alfred, a very useful productivity-enhancing application. I use Alfred many times every day; it saves me both time and frustration.

Using Alfred

Alfred is hard to describe unless you have used similar programs (like LaunchBar or Quicksilver). It allows you to type shortcuts for a variety of functions, such as launching applications, searching for files, conducting web searches, and much more. The basic version of Alfred is free, but there is a Powerpack available that adds many additional functions, including the ability to build your own workflows. The functions I am describing here are available in the free version.

I use Alfred primarily to do three things: (1) launch applications, (2) save my clipboard history, and (3) search the web. First, I use it to launch applications. Rather than using my mouse to select an application from the dock or from OSX’s Launchpad, I simply press the keyboard shortcut to activate Alfred, then begin typing the first few letters of the name of the application I want to start. A list of items will appear and I use the arrow keys to select the item I want. After a while, Alfred will learn the key combinations I usually use and the items I select using those keystrokes will show up at the top of the list. That feature saves me a lot of time and is very convenient. Second, I use Alfred to save and retrieve my clipboard history.

Here I’d like to describe the web search function, as that is deeply embedded in my editing workflow and makes things a lot faster! Alfred already has an number of web search shortcuts built-in, including Twitter, imdb, ebay, various Google services, LinkedIn, Youtube, Facebook, and many more. However, I have added a couple more that I use frequently while editing.Alfred web search

Checking Quotations for Accuracy with Google Books

Google Books provides access to millions of books. As the site explains, you can use the Google Books site to “search the latest index of the world’s books. Find millions of great books you can preview or read for free.” Sometimes as I edit, I run across a quotation that seems to be grammatically incorrect or have a typographical error. By searching Google Books, I can often find the selected passage and make changes (or query the manuscript author) to ensure that the quotation is rendered correctly. I have created a custom web search using Alfred to make quick work of such searches. I’ve placed the search string below.

Google Books Screen Shot

https://www.google.com/search?q=test&btnG=Search+Books&tbm=bks&tbo=1#q={query}&tbm=bks

To create the shortcut, do the following:
1. Activate Alfred using its hotkey.
2. Open Alfred’s preferences using Command-comma.
3. Select the “Features” tab at the top of the preference box.
4. Select “Web Search” from the items in the left sidebar.
5. Click “Add Custom Search” in the lower righthand corner of the box.
6. Paste the search string above into the “Search URL” box, check the “Enter spaces as +” box, enter a title for the shortcut (such as “Search Google Books for {query}”), and then enter into the “Keyword” box the shortcut that you would like to type to activate the search.
7. Click “Save” and then your custom search will be available.

To use the search, activate Alfred, then type the shortcut, then a space, then the search string. When you press return, a browser window will open up in your default browser with the search results.

Checking Publication Information with WorldCat and Amazon

WorldCat is, as their website explains, “the world’s largest network of library content and services.” If the book is in a participating library, its record will be on WorldCat. Thus, WorldCat is often the quickest way to find publication information or check the spelling of an author’s name). Access to WorldCat is free, and with Alfred’s custom web searches, I can search with only a few keystrokes. I’ve placed the search string for my custom search below:

WorldCat Screen Shot

http://www.worldcat.org/search?qt=worldcat_org_all&q={query}

To create the shortcut for WorldCat, do the following:
1. Activate Alfred using its hotkey.
2. Open Alfred’s preferences using Command-comma.
3. Select the “Features” tab at the top of the preference box.
4. Select “Web Search” from the items in the left sidebar.
5. Click “Add Custom Search” in the lower righthand corner of the box.
6. Paste the search string above into the “Search URL” box, enter a title for the shortcut (such as “Search WorldCat for {query}”), and then enter into the “Keyword” box the shortcut that you would like to type to activate the search.
7. Click “Save” and then your custom search will be available.

To use the search, activate Alfred, then type the shortcut, then a space, then the search string. When you press return, a browser window will open up in your default browser with the search results.

A shortcut for searching Amazon is already built into Alfred. In combination with WorldCat and Google Books, it provides publication information and access to searching many books.

Creating More Custom Searches

The process of creating an additional custom search is straightforward. The important task is to determine how searches are encoded at the site you would like to search. There’s an easy way to figure this out. Do the following:

  1. Go to the site you would like to search.
  2. Use the search function on the site to search for something (ideally, something that is two words long).
  3. Look carefully at the resulting URL when the search results are given. You will likely see your search term somewhere in the URL. It is possible that there will be a plus sign (+) between the two words.
  4. Follow steps 1 through 5 from the examples above.
  5. Paste the URL that resulted from your search into the “Search URL” box, but replace the search term(s) in the URL with {query}. I’ve included an image below showing the search string for merriam-webster.com so you’ll have a sense of how it works.
  6. If the URL had a plus sign between the two words in your search, then check the “Enter spaces as +” box. If not, leave that box unchecked.
  7. Enter a title for the shortcut (such as “Search Sample Site for {query}”), and then enter into the “Keyword” box the shortcut that you would like to type to activate the search.
  8. Click “Save” and then your custom search will be available.

Merriam Webster Screen Shot

To use the search, activate Alfred, then type the shortcut, then a space, then the search string. When you press return, a browser window will open up in your default browser with the search results.

Windows Alternatives

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find Windows alternatives that are as robust as Alfred (or LaunchBar or Quicksilver, both of which are as powerful as Alfred but have different interfaces). I use Launchy as an application launcher on my Windows machine, but it does not seem to have the ability to perform specific web searches. I understand that Launchy used to have a number of plugins, one of which added the ability to perform web searches, but it does not seem to be currently available.

Do You Have Any Shortcuts to Share?

There you have it—shortcuts to improve the efficiency of your editing process. Do you have any other shortcuts to share? Please let me know in the comments. I’m always trying to improve my own processes.

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