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Discovery & User Experience

Google + Operator

It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t default to Google whenever they need to find something on the web. But it’s even harder to find anyone that takes full advantage of Google’s search modifiers. (Admit it, even we get lazy sometimes!) However, some searches absolutely require the ability to focus results, and search modifiers have traditionally been used to do just that.

Consider the following example, taken from the blog Google Operating System. By default, a search for the characters [ai],  Goggle will also match terms like “artificial intelligence”, “Amnesty International”, and “Adobe Illustrator”. Previously, you could replace your query with [+ai] to restrict search results to pages that contained an exact match to [ai]. Sadly, Google recently removed the + operator from their search engine, replacing it with quotation marks: [“ai”]. Although this will force Google to match the exact spelling of the query, it will not force the results to actually contain that exact query.

Let’s examine another example to illustrate this subtle change. Imagine I want to search for ‘pink flying pigs’ and, although I prefer flying pigs that are also pink, what I am really interested in is whether or not they can fly.  Before, I could structure my query like this: pink +”flying pigs”. This would do both an exact match on ‘flying pigs’ and restrict the results to only those hits with ‘flying pigs’. Now that the + operator is no longer available, the query would be structured like this: pink “flying pigs”. This will still do an exact match on ‘flying pigs’, but it will also return pages that don’t have ‘flying pigs’ anywhere in them at all. In other words, quotation marks have only half the functionality of the + operator and there is now no way to quarantee that a particular phrase or term will appear in the search results.

Why is this such a big deal? Long time Google users may remember that when Google first launched, every search was an “AND” search. That is, every term that was entered in the query string was required to appear in the results. About three years ago, Google began ignoring search terms altogether, building on their successful spelling suggestions engine. This effectively changed Google to an “OR” search with more results and less precision. (For more on this, read Andy Baio’s Google kills its other plus, and how to bring it back. ) Google argues that this is an improvement for the mainstream Google user who never uses any modifiers or advanced search features, and they are probably right. But for certain groups of users, like programmers, this change radically impacts the effectiveness of Google searches. Searching for technical documentation is now much less precise and tends to return many more unsatisfactory hits.

There are some alternatives, like Blekko, which allow you to structure a query like this: perl /programming. The phrase following the slash is called a “slash tag”, and ties the query to a specific group of curated sources. Another option for programming issues is StackOverflow, which is part Wiki, Blog, Forum, and Digg/Reddit. DuckDuckGo is another Google alternative, that prides itself on protecting user privacy and Microsoft has it’s offering in Bing. Like most people, I have used Google for years and have generally been very happy with it. But, given the recent changes and the number of alternatives, perhaps it is time to sample something new?

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