The Behavior of the Quotes (Google Search Report)

booleanstringsBoolean 11 Comments

[Edited: apparently, there is an explanation – see Danny Sullivan‘s comments below.

Bottom line: if you are a researcher, consider using quotes!

My summary.]

To Whom It May Concern At Google Search:

There is currently a problem with Google search, specifically, quotes. It might be an unintended outcome of How we’re improving search results when you use quotes. We welcome the improvement. But here is something odd: try

What? I expect the numbers of results to be the other way around, i.e., for Google to bring in synonyms if I do not use quotes – and show more results.

Quotes even affect OR statements, e.g., “developer” OR “engineer” <keywords> finds more than developer OR engineer <keywords>  (I expect to see the same results if OR is used):

I noticed the unexpected behavior while at #sosueu in Amsterdam last week. None of us could explain it. It is as if Google works harder if you use quotation marks. And most Google users do not use them around single words.

As far as I can tell, it is a bug (unusual for Google search). Let’s see if they fix it or give us an explanation. In the meantime, keep in mind the phenomena.

I hope a fix will happen faster than it has for LinkedIn (9 months and counting).


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  1. This was an issue before they put out the post about “improving search results when you use quotes”.
    I noticed that a search for “teacher” was returing more results than the same search without quotes all the way back in May.

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  2. Thank you for your post. I work for Google Search. Here’s what’s going on.

    When you use quotes, we match only content with quoted material, so there’s nothing broken with that. Everything you get when doing a quoted search should have the quoted material in it.

    Instead, the issue you’re raising involves counts. Our counts are estimates, and they can vary as people go further into a set of results, and we do more work to better understand potentially matching content.

    This leads to what happens when you do NOT use quotes. In that case, we’re going to look for anything that is generally a match for the quoted material – the exact words indicated, but also synonyms and so on. Because that’s a broader search than when using quotes, typically it means we’ll find more possible matches and so counts will be higher.

    That makes sense. A more restrictive search should always have fewer matches than a broader search. But with how our systems work, this isn’t always the case, especially a query involving a lot of terms.

    In such cases, because there are no restrictions and so many terms and so many possible matching documents, our systems work to narrow down what we ultimately display to what seems to be most helpful. That’s generally efficient and useful.

    For many of these types of queries, it will still find hundreds of matches – and people typically do not look at every single match. Usually they’re going to review the first page or so of matches – say 10-30 results, and if something helpful isn’t there, they’ll reframe a query.

    When we get a restrictive query, our systems react differently. The results are already being narrowed down as a natural consequence of the restrictions. So there’s often no need to do further narrowing as with a broad search – and that’s why in some certain circumstances, a restrictive search might have more matches than a broad one.

    We certainly understand this can be confusing to those who do very specific queries and look at counts closely. We’ll certainly look at it more.

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      Thank you, Danny, interesting!
      We are not like most Google users; we prefer to get as many results as possible for (most of) our queries. An example is finding public LinkedIn profiles with certain keywords. So the lesson is to use quotes (or at least try quotes around some of the terms).
      My guess is that using an operator such as site: will also make the query restrictive. I also sense that some queries may be more restrictive than the other.
      Do I understand this correctly?
      We welcome any hints to make queries restrictive.

      1. Yes, that’s generally correct. Our systems are designed to help people who are generally happy for us to do all the things that can help them locate information especially when they’re not certain how to look. For example, we tap into synonyms and meanings to find pages that might not contain all the indicated words but which are often what someone is seeking.

        But we also have search commands that allow advanced searchers to provide more specific requests. When those are used, to direct or restrict a query, then some of the general system won’t work.

        But! If you use quotes around a term, it’s still possible you’ll get fewer matches than without if there just aren’t many pages out there with the quoted terms — but maybe the other terms are important as well.

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