More on OR: the Google Boolean Dilemma

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Anthropology and Psychology study human behavior. Ethology is the study of animal behavior. As a Sourcer, I am finding myself more and more studying software behavior. (Is there a term for that?)

Studying a software application may sound odd. Isn’t writing software also called “programming” which means that its behavior is fully predictable?

There are two factors related to studying software behavior:

  1. We usually don’t have access to the code, and documentation covers its behavior only partially.
  2. If a user is interacting with the system, the user’s input triggers various code behaviors. Trying various inputs, we can derive, with some confidence, what a particular application does.

Sure enough, there’s code complexity, bugs, and other factors interfering with our study, but the knowledge we gain is worth the effort. It provides invaluable practical tips on using software.

This post is a result of studying Google search behavior. Here is a hypothesis on how Google search responds when we use OR statements.

It’s well known that Google has semantic search capabilities. As part of that, for every keyword in the search string, Google would also search for variations of the word (called stemming: manager/management) and synonyms (developer/programmer).

However, as our study shows, for keywords in an OR expression, Google stops looking for variations or synonyms. It searches for the exact expression as if we put the word in the quotation marks (meaning “no variations”).

Take a look:

Do you see what is happening? When a term is part of an OR statement, it is used exactly, with no variations or synonyms (search on the left). With no OR used, we see variations in the results (search on the right).

When I source, I prefer to let Google bring suggestions. I almost never user OR statements, leaving Google’s semantic power at work. For somebody who can sit down and list every possible synonym and variation you would want to see, the OR statement is for you.


Do not use OR statements for synonyms and similar terms; Google will bring in additional relevant results, and your job would be just to collect them.

If you have in mind variations of a term to search for, that you want to make sure are included, you can still search several times using each of the terms separately.

If you feel you need to be in tight control of the terms to use, or if you have a longer list of terms that are not synonyms (for example, names of target companies), use an OR statement.

We will soon be offering a fully updated webinar Boolean Basics; if you are interested, keep an eye on our schedule >>>