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The topic today will be about advanced search features, specifically Boolean operators and search modifiers. I will start by explaining what an advanced search is, how Boolean operators work, and how search modifiers change how words and phrases are searched. The sources at the bottom of the page include visual aids that might be helpful.
A typical search includes 1-3 keyword. This is generally called “keyword searching.” An advanced search builds on this by specifying what the search engine should be doing with those keywords. On most websites, there will be a link to the advanced search page near the search bar. Google’s advanced search page is under the “settings” tab on the search result page.
The great thing about advanced search pages is that it will do a lot of the work for you. However, they are not perfect. Understanding Boolean operators and search modifiers will ensure that searches are performed properly.
Search modifiers tell the search engine how it should interpret the words in the search. For instance, it can be used to group a phrase together or search for multiple words at once. There are many modifiers but I am going to focus on 3 core modifiers: “_”,*, and ( ).
Let’s say I need to know if my cat needs to go to the vet because she ate chewed on a tiger lily. If I look at the keywords in that query, I would search for “cat tiger lily veterinarian.” This is a bad query because this search could result in websites about tigers, flowers, or vets. Search engines have improved but are not perfect. The only way to guarantee the search engine performs the right search is to explicitly instruct it to.
Right now,“tiger lily” are two words rather than one phrase. Search engines should be able to automatically group them but this is not always the case, especially if you are using databases. You might get search results about tigers or about flowers. Putting them in quotations ensures the two are grouped as a phrase. The search engine will look specifically for the flower.
The search looks like this: “tiger lily” cat veterinarian
The asterisk informs the search engine to include all words that start with the word typed in. This process is called “truncation.” In this example, I could search “tiger li*” to include the singular and plural forms of the word.
The search looks like this: “tiger lil*” cat veterinarian
Parenthesis are similar to quotations but have some significant differences. It groups the keywords together. However, it does not mean the words are a phrase. This is generally used with Boolean operators. Tiger lil* and flower would be put into parentheses because I want to search for one or the other.
So using all of these, the search could look like:
(“tiger lil* flower) cat veterinarian
This explains how the words should be interpreted but not how they should interact.
Boolean operators instruct the search engine how the key works relate to each other. There are 4 operators: AND, OR, and NOT. Most search engines exclude these words when typed into the search bar. Using all-caps informs the search engine that these words are operators. Boolean operators are used to clarify the relationship between keywords in a search.
AND instructs the search engine to find websites that have all of the keywords. In this case, I would receive results that include “cat,” “veterinarian” and my search would now look like this:
(“tiger lil* flower) AND cat AND veterinarian
The search results will be websites that have at least one of the keywords. It is the default search for most engines. While the relationship between cat and veterinarian have been clarified, it does not address the words in the parenthesis. Adding this instructs the search engine to search for sites that must include cat and veterinarian and EITHER flower or tiger lil”. It now looks like this:
(“tiger lil* OR flower) AND cat AND veterinarian
This excludes any search results that contain that word. Let’s pretend that there is a popular article about a cougar being taken to the vet for eating flowers that republished in multiple websites. Adding NOT cougar will exclude the article.
Now the query looks like this:
(“tiger lil* OR flower) AND cat AND veterinarian NOT cougar
This search query is comprehensive in that it is searching broadly for flowers but limited to websites that include both cats and veterinarians.
MIT Search Guide
Boolean Operators: A Cheat Sheet
boolean operators - YouTube Video