Google Strings vs. Boolean Strings

booleanstringsBoolean 2 Comments

(Can I please ask you to read to the end?)

It has eventually become such a mismatch in terminology. Most people in our industry refer to search strings on Google as “Boolean Strings”. However, the term “Boolean”, meaning AND, OR, and NOT, no longer applies to Google search best practices, and less so every day. Practical Google search strings do not use ORs and rarely use the minus .

This similarly-styled string (submitted yesterday to our NING site as a “favorite”) is also full of syntax errors – and finds no results:

I started this blog in 2008 and “Boolean” was different back then. Should I feel sad? We search about 40% of the time and our clients like the results, but the last time any of us used a single OR on Google was years ago. We now use the term “Boolean Strings” meaning “advanced search.”

Do not take me wrong, Google is the best search engine! Using advanced operators, especially, X-Ray (site:), is a must for any Sourcer, Researcher, or OSINT practitioner. Note that Google no longer documents all the operators, most likely because a minority of us uses them. Its search currently shows the list on my blog as a “featured snippet”; I do my best to keep the page up-to-date. Dan Russell’s document is another source you can trust (he works at Google!) Many other sites – even search engine-oriented publications – list the wrong operators and copy from each other, unfortunately. It is your responsibility to apply an inquisitive mind and stay in the loop.

If you continue with ORs, especially long OR strings on Google, your results will be mediocre. Why? When Google sees ORs, it stops bringing up relevant terms. Instead of trying to take control, it is more practical to trust Google’s interpretations. As a popular (but not popular enough!) example,

  • If you search for “software engineer” OR developer, Google will do exactly what you asked
  • If you search for software engineer, you will find Coders, Programmers, etc. – results you would miss if you use OR.

Since Google has learned to interpret long quieries,  ORs have become even less productive. The semantic component in Google search is AI-based, meaning that it improves all the time, making results relevant – unless you “turn it off” with ORs and NOTs.

Clair (Milligan) Mohamed’s share brilliantly summarizes the situation:

(“Boolean Search” OR Boolean Search)

I was asked yesterday if Boolean searching works in an X-Ray search on Google.

A timely post by expert sourcer Irina Shamaeva in her Facebook group flagged up how many recruiters are still using Boolean Strings in their Google Searches when better results will come from more simple searches.

Google uses Semantic Search and coined the phrase “things not strings” as far back as 2012.

Since then their search has evolved to include NLP, machine learning, and BERT (super-advanced tech that interprets search in a more conversational way).

The old idea behind long ORs was that a clever search will “cover it all”. It puts “the” “Boolean String” as the goal. Indeed, a one-click solution sounds attractive! (We continue to get requests for “the” string for someone’s job requisition, sometimes as a matter of urgency.) The goal is results, not a string.

It is best to keep Google search simple 95% of the time – and search (anywhere) an iterative process. Every string leads to a new one and uncovers information to take into account. If someone “builds” a “string”, runs it on Google, gets the results, and stops, they are using the best search engine not in its best way. It is difficult and unnecessary (like eating soup with toothpicks. )

As a practical example, when you write senior OR sr OR snr OR principal engineer OR developer OR lead OR coder on Google – that is 16 separate searches with no interpretation, results are somehow mixed up – not what you want. Just software engineer is better!

A Facebook discussion is here.

And here are the shortest strings ever! (Dan says it is a bug) 🙂 🙁


Comments 2

  1. Hi Irina, Super interesting article. Noticed you mentioned the – doesn’t work anymore. Two questions. 1.How would you tackle getting to many results over specific search in case you are looking for a bunch of criteria? 2. In case you would like to build a string for facebook or any other site how would you exclude unwanted pages or links? Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Waarom je Boolean search bij Google maar beter kunt vergeten - Werf&

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