Friday, October 23, 2015

6 common misconceptions when doing advanced Google Searching

As librarians we are often called upon to teach not just library databases but also Google and Google Scholar.

Unlike teaching other search tools, teaching Google is often tricky because unlike library databases where we can have insider access through our friendly product support representative as librarians we have no more or no less insight into Google which  is legendary for being secretive.

Still, given that Google has become synonymous with search we should be decently good at teaching it.

I've noticed though, often when people teach Google, particularly advanced searching of Google, they fall prey to 2 main types of errors.

The first type of error involved not keeping up to date and given the rapid speed that Google changes, we often end up teaching things that no longer work.

The second type of error is perhaps more common to us librarians. We often carry over the usual methods and assumptions from Library databases expecting them to work in Google when sadly they don't.

It is very difficult to detect both types of errors because Google seems to be designed to fail gracefully, for example it may simply silently ignore symbols you add that don't work.

Also the typical Google search brings back estimated count of results. e.g. "about" X million so it's hard to see if your search worked as expected.

As I write this blog post in Oct 2015, what follows is some of the common errors and misconceptions I've seen about searching in Google while doing research on the topic. Some of the misconceptions I knew about, a few surprised me. Of course by the time you read this post,  a lot is likely to be obsolete!

The 6 are

  • Using depreciated operators like  tilde (~) and plus (+) in search strings
  • Believing that all terms in the search string will definitely be included (in some form)
  • Using AND in search strings works
  • Using NOT in search strings works
  • Using asterisk (*) as a character wildcard or truncation  in search strings works
  • 6. Using parenthesis (  (    ) ) in search strings to control order of operators works

1. Using depreciated operators like  tilde (~) and plus (+) in search strings

As of writing these are the list of operators supported by Google, anything else is probably not supported, so if you are teaching people to use tilde (~) , or plus operator (+) please stop.

About tilde (~)

Karen Blakeman explains here what it used to do.

"Although Google automatically looks for variations on your terms, placing a tilde before a word seemed to look for more variations and related terms. It meant that you didn’t have to think of all the possible permutations of a word. It was also very useful if you wanted Google to run your search exactly as you had typed it in except for one or two words.

The Verbatim option tells Google to run your search without dropping terms or looking for synonyms, but sometimes you might want variations on just one of the words. That was easily fixed by placing a tilde before the word"

However as of June 2013 tilde (~) no longer works. (See official explanation).

About plus operator (+)

Another discontinued operator often still taught is the plus (+) Operator.

The plus operator used to force Google to match against the exact search term as you typed them. In other words,  "It turned off synonymization and spell-correction".  So for example if you searched +library , it would match library exactly and wouldn't substitute it for libraries or librarians for example.

However as of Oct 2011, it no longer works. (See official explanation)

According to Google help page, the plus operator is now used for Google+ pages or Blood types! (It generally can see the plus at the end eg C++ etc.)

If you wanted to force exact keywords you should add quotes around even single words. Eg. "library"

Of course we librarians know double quotes also have another purpose, they force words to be in an exact phrase say "library systems" . This works in Google as per normal.

Interesting enough in the latest Google Power Searching course (September 2015), Daniel Russell, mentions that you can do quotes within quotes to combine phrase searching with exact search around a single word.

For example he recommends searching "daniel "russell" " (note the nested quotes) because "daniel russell" alone gets him results with Daniel Russel (note only one 'L')

Another option if you want as near to as possible to what you typed in is to use the verbatim mode (which is kind of like + operator but for everything typed) 


As noted in the video above, even in that mode, the order of operations is not enforced, so you should use double quotes on top of verbatim mode for further control.

I believe even verbatim mode or using quotes around single words doesn't absolutely stop Google from occasionally "helping" by dropping search terms if including those search terms causes too many results to disappear - sometimes called  "Soft AND", more about that next.

2. Believing that all terms in the search string will definitely be included (in some form)

I've mentioned this before in the past, but Google practices what some call a "Soft AND", it will usually include all terms searched but occasionally one of the search terms will be dropped.

In the above Power Searching Video, Daniel explains that when you search for term1 term2 term3 you might find some pages with only term1 term2 but not term3. He states that some pages rank so highly on just term1 and term2 that Google will drop term3.

What's the solution? He recommends doing the intext operator. So for example term1 term2 intext:term3 , where the intext operator will force term3 to be on the page.

Note you can do phrase search together with intext as well, eg. intext:"library technology"

3.  Using AND in search strings

Believe it or not Google does not explicitly support the AND string in search.

For example neither the official google help or the official Google power searching course mention the AND operator!

Let me be clear, of course if you do something like library systems  , Google will do an implicit AND and combine the terms together (subject to the issue stated above).

But what I am saying is you shouldn't type something like library AND systems (whether AND, and, AnD, aNd etc) because at best it is ignored because it is too common (a stop word), though occasionally it may actually just search and match the word AND like a normal term!

To avoid such issues just drop the AND and do library systems

As an aside, OR works as per normal, and the power searching course states it's the only case sensitive operator.

4. Using NOT in search strings

Many of us Librarians are too used to literally typing NOT to exclude results. So for example we will automatically do libraries NOT systems ,not knowing this fails.

What you should do of course to exclude terms is to use the minus (-) operators. For example, try libraries -systems

5. Using asterisk (*) as a character wildcard or truncation in search strings

Another thing that doesn't work is that you can't find variant words of a search term by using * behind a string of letters.

For example the following doesn't work , organ* 

I believe Google automatically decides on stemming already so you don't need to do this to find words with the root of organ.

What works is something entirely different like this

a * saved is a * earned

The official guide says * is used as "a placeholder for any unknown or wildcard terms" , so you can match things like a penny saved is a penny earned where * can stand for 1 or more words.

But see tip 7 for interaction with site operator. 

6. Using parenthesis (  (    ) ) in search strings to control order of operators

This one is perhaps most shocking if you are unaware. When we combine AND with OR operators, a common question to ponder is, which operator has precedence?

My testing with various library databases shows that there is no one standard, some databases favour OR first others favour AND .

So it is a favourite trick of librarians to just cut through the complication and just use parenthesis to avoid having to memorise how it works in different databases.

So we love to do things like

(library AND technology) OR systems

First off we already said in #2 you shouldn't use AND in the search so let's try

(library technology) OR systems

But I am sorry to inform you that doesn't work too. In fact, the parenthesis is ignored , actually what Google sees is

library technology OR systems

Don't believe me? See here, here and here.

On Quora , a Google software engineer (search quality) says this

So what happens when you do something like library technology OR systems ?
In fact it's the equalvant of a library database search with library AND (technology OR systems)

It looks to me that OR has precedence which makes more sense to me than the other way around.

So what happens if you want (a b) OR (x y) ? Typing that out won't work in Google since it actually gives you a AND (b OR x) AND Y, but here's a complicated untested idea.

7. Bonus tips

Around operator

There is a semi-official operator known as the Around function. It allows you to match words that are within X words. This seems to be the same to a proximity operator without order.

So for example you can do

"library technology" AROUND(9) "social"

As noted by Dan Russell , AROUND needs to be in caps. For more details.

Combining asterisks with site operator

I guess everyone knows about the useful site: function . But did you know it works with wildcards as spotted here?

There's a lot more detail here that I recommend you read for interaction between wildcards and site operators. Combine it with the minus (-) operator for more fun!


As you can see while Google does generally support Boolean searching loosely (though it often does unexpected things like drop terms and may or may not include common words searched), the exact details are very different!

If you want to know more into the nuts and bolts of boolean operators in Google, I highly recommend

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