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Interpreting Your Query

Understanding how Google treats your search terms will help you devise effective queries and revise ineffective ones.

Google returns only pages that match all your search terms.

A search for [ compact fold-up bicycle ] finds pages containing the words "compact" and "fold-up" and "bicycle." Because you don't need to include the word AND between your terms, this notation is called an implicit AND.

[ compact fold-up bicycle ]

Because of implicit AND, you can focus your query by adding more terms.

[ compact lightweight fold-up bicycle ]

Note: If you want pages containing any (instead of all) of your search terms, use the OR operator, which is described in the next section Crafting Your Query.

Note: Google sometimes returns pages that don't contain your query terms, as you can see in the example in the Cached Pages section in Part II. Google returns pages in which your query terms are included in the link text (interpreted as a description) to another page or place on the page, more commonly referred to as the anchor text of a link pointing to the page.

Google returns pages that match your search terms exactly.

In his book Internet Research, Second Edition (McFarland & Company, 2001), Ned Fielden notes "Google simply matches strings of characters together and doesn't currently base inferences on uses of the language. Although this searching method has some drawbacks, it harnesses one of the fabulous powers of computers, [the ability] to sift through enormous heaps of data quickly and accurately."

 If you search for ...  Google won't find ...
cheap inexpensive
tv television
effects influences
children kids
car automobile
Calif OR CA California
Note: There are exceptions when Google finds pages that include synonyms of your search terms, which are displayed in a boldface typeface in Google's snippet.
 If you search for ...  Google finds ...
NYC New York City
SF San Francisco
GNP Gross National Product

Google returns pages that match variants of your search terms.

The query [ child bicycle helmet ] finds pages that contain words that are similar to some or all of your search terms, e.g., "child," "children," or "children's," "bicycle," "bicycles," "bicycle's," "bicycling," or "bicyclists," and "helmet" or "helmets." Google calls this feature word variations or automatic stemming. Stemming is a technique to search on the stem or root of a word that can have multiple endings.

If you only want to search for pages that contain some term(s) exactly, precede each such term with a plus sign (+) or enclose more than one term in quotes (" ").

Google doesn't match variants when your query consists of a single term.

Note: When you want synonyms or variants that Google doesn't find, consider using either the OR or tilde operator, which is described in the next section Crafting Your Query.

Google ignores some common words called "stop words," e.g., the, on, where, how, de, la, as well as certain single digits and single letters.

Stop words tend to slow down your search without improving the results. Google will indicate if a stop word has been excluded on the results page below the search box.

[ lyrics to the Dixie Chicks' songs ]

Screen shot showing what Google does when it ignores some common words, such as "to" and "the."

Note: Use the + operator or enclose more than one term in quotes (" ") to force Google to include terms it would otherwise ignore. I describe these basic operators and others in the next section, Crafting Your Query.

If your query consists only of common words that Google normally ignores, Google will search for pages that match all the terms.

[ the who ]

Note: Find more pages mentioning the rock band The Who by entering [ "the who" ], a notation you'll learn about in the next section Crafting Your Query.

Google limits queries to 32 words.

Google will indicate in a message below the query box at the top of the page if your query exceeds the 32-word limit. The 32-word limit applies to search terms and operators but not stop words.

The limit was previously 10 words, as shown in the following image.

Screen shot of Google message indicating 10-word limit.

The following query finds sites that have included Google Guide's description of how Google works.

[ "Google consists of three distinct parts, each of which is run on a distributed network of thousands of low-cost computers and can therefore carry out fast parallel processing. Parallel processing is a method of computation in which many calculations can be performed simultaneously, significantly speeding up data processing." ]

Google favors results that have your search terms near each other.

Google considers the proximity of your search terms within a page. So the query [ snake grass ] finds pages about a plant of that name, while [ snake in the grass ] tends to emphasize pages about sneaky people. Although Google ignores the words "in" and "the," (these are stop words), Google gives higher priority to pages in which "snake" and "grass" are separated by two words.

[ snake grass ]
[ snake in the grass ]

Google gives higher priority to pages that have the terms in the same order as in your query.

Consequently, you should enter search terms in the order in which you would expect to find them on the pages you're seeking. A search for [ New York library ] gives priority to pages about New York's libraries. While the query [ new library of York ] gives priority to pages about the new libraries in York.

[ New York library ]
[ new library of York ]

Google is NOT case sensitive; it shows both upper- and lowercase results.

Ignoring case distinctions increases the number of results Google finds. A search for [ Red Cross ] finds pages containing "Red Cross," "red cross," or "RED CROSS."

[ Red Cross ], [ red cross ], and [ RED CROSS ] return the same results.

There is no way to instruct Google to pay attention to case distinctions, e.g., you can't tell Google to find only occurrences of "Red Cross" where the first letter of each word is capitalized.

Note: The words "OR" and "AND" have special meanings if entered in uppercase letters.

Google ignores some punctuation and special characters, including ! ? , . ; [ ] @ / # < > .

Because punctuation is typically not as important as the text around it, Google ignores most punctuation in your search terms. There are exceptions, e.g., C++ and $99. Mathematical symbols, such as /, <, and >, are not ignored by Google's calculator.

Dr. Ruth ] returns the same results as [ Dr Ruth ]

What if you're seeking information that includes punctuation that Google ignores, e.g., an email address? Just enter the whole thing including the punctuation.

info@amazon.com ]

Be aware that web pages sometimes camouflage email addresses to make collecting such information difficult for spammers. For example, on some sites you'll find the @ sign in an email address replaced with the word "at."

Now we'll look at some special characters that Google doesn't ignore.

A term with an apostrophe (single quotes) doesn't match the term without an apostrophe.

A query with the term "we're" returns different results from a query with the term "were."

we're ] matches "we're" but not "were"
were ] matches "were" but not "we're"

Because some people spell hyphenated words with a hyphen and others with a space, Google searches for variations on any hyphenated terms.

When Google encounters a hyphen (-) in a query term, e.g., [ part-time ], it searches for:
  • the term with the hyphen, e.g., part-time
  • the term without the hyphen, e.g., parttime
  • the term with the hyphen replaced by a space, e.g., part time

[ part-time ] matches "part-time," "part time," and "parttime"
[ part time ] matches "part-time" and "part time", but
[ "part time" ] (with quotes) is better for space-separated words

[ e-mail ] matches "e-mail," "email," and "e mail"
[ email ] matches "email"

Note: Google may search for variations of your query terms that are included in the online dictionary that Google uses.

non profit ] matches "non-profit," "nonprofit," and "non profit"

If you aren't sure whether a word is hyphenated, go ahead and search for it with a hyphen.

The following table summarizes how Google interprets your query.

Search Behaviors  Descriptions
Implicit AND Google returns pages that match all your search terms. Because you don't need to include the logical operator AND between your terms, this notation is called an implicit AND.
Exact Matching Google returns pages that match your search terms exactly.
Word Variation
Automatic Stemming
Google returns pages that match variants of your search terms.
Common-Word Exclusion Google ignores some common words called "stop words," e.g., the, on, where, and how. Stop words tend to slow down searches without improving results.
32-Word Limit Google limits queries to 32 words.
Term Proximity Google gives more priority to pages that have search terms near each other.
Term Order Google gives more priority to pages that have search terms in the same order as the query.
Case Insensitivity Google is case-insensitive; it shows both upper- and lowercase results.
Ignoring Punctuation Google ignores most punctuation and special characters including , . ; ? [ ] ( ) @ / * < >

Next we'll look at how to fine-tune your query.

For more information on the basics of Google search, visit www.google.com/help/basics.html.

Exercises

These problems are intended to help you understand how Google interprets your search terms. For hints and answers to selected problems, see the Solutions page in the Appendix.

  1. Indicate which queries would match a page containing "GoogleGuide."

    [ guide ]    [ goog ]    [ googleguide ]    [ GoogleGuide ]    [ google ]

  2. What is the usual percentage gratuity (tip) to give in a big city in the United States to a person who provides take-out service, i.e., gives you your orders and accepts payment for the food?

  3. Indicate which words the following queries will find:

    [ year-end ] year-end year end yearend
    [ year end ] year-end year end yearend
    [ yearend ] year-end year end yearend

  4. Which queries would you predict to be most likely to find sites with discounted designer linens?

    [ discounted designer linens ]
    [ discount designer linen ]
    [ designer linen discount ]
    [ linen designer discount ]
    [ linen discounted design ]

  5. With the following queries, is Google doing stemming, i.e., matching variations of the search terms?

    [ color printer ]
    [ color printers ]
    [ color printer OR printers ]

  6. Why doesn't the query [ Be Manual ] include any results about the Be operating system?

This page was last modified on Thursday November 23, 2006.


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