In this installment of the Research 101 Series, I cover advanced search syntax.
Sometimes in your research using standard search engines like Google and Bing, you’ll find that just typing in a bunch of keywords doesn’t quite deliver the results you’re looking for. Search engines index an immense amount of information, and without knowing how to drill down a little further, all too often you can end up with too much information.
That’s where advanced search syntax comes in handy. It helps you sort out what you don’t need and zero in on what you do need.
In the interest of keeping this post concise, this won’t be an exhaustive list; rather I’ll show you some of the most commonly needed search operators. For everything else, I will direct you to the complete lists of advanced search operators on Google and Bing.
Advanced Search Operators
Whether you’re using Google, Bing, or any other search engine, most go beyond basic search capabilities if you use advanced operators. These are words and symbols that you can type into the search box along with your chosen keywords. Unless I specify, the examples below work relatively the same in most search engines.
Probably the most commonly used advanced operators are the use of quotes, and the AND and OR operators.
Search for a specific phrase
Quotes around a word or phrase allow you to search specifically for what appears between the quotes.
For instance, if I am searching for information about Oberlin College versus the town of Oberlin, Ohio, I can specify my search by entering “Oberlin College”
Add a keyword/phrase
If I wish to search for an additional term with that – let’s say, news about the racism hoax – to narrow it even further, I can use the AND operator (use caps) or the addition symbol (+):
“Oberlin College” + “racism hoax” – alternatively, “Oberlin College” AND “racism hoax” will also work.
NOTE: In Google, the (+)/AND isn’t necessary anymore, but will still work if used.
Search for either keyword/phrase
And if I am interested in finding news about one or the other, I can use the OR operator:
“Oberlin College” OR “racism hoax”
Exclude a keyword/phrase
Now, let’s assume I don’t want to include any news at all related to the racism hoax. I can also exclude certain terms. To do so, use the subtraction symbol to exclude a word or phrase:
“Oberlin College” -“racism hoax”
Note that due to the way some search engines index information, they sometimes pick up news widgets and similar content on websites that won’t always be entirely excluded through the use of the subtraction symbol in the syntax. But the syntax will narrow down your search significantly.
Combining Search Operators
Sometimes your information needs may require slightly more complex syntax that combines operators.
Search keyword/phrase plus a selection of either keyword/phrase
If I want to expand my search to include news about the racism hoax or trolling at Oberlin College, I can place several terms and the applicable operators within parentheses:
“Oberlin College” + (“racism hoax” OR trolling)
Additional Search Filters
Sometimes you might be searching for something on a specific website. For instance, if I want to know if Legal Insurrection has published anything about Syria, I can do that by specifying the site.
On Google and Bing both, the search syntax uses the word “site,” followed by a colon after your search word or phrase:
By file type
You can also search using other syntax to filter your results, such as file type.
Similarly, on Google and Bing both, if I want to search for a PDF related to the NSA, I can enter:
Date range, result type, location, category type
Using the available menus on the search engines, you can drill down by additional parameters.
On Google, you can do so by clicking the “search tools” link in the search menu, and additional parameters will appear.
Bing offers similar parameters in the same location beneath its search box once you’ve entered your search terms.
More search operators
There are a multitude of additional search keywords and filters you can use on either search engine. Google and Bing both maintain a list of the operators their search engines support, as well as more detailed instructions for using their advanced search syntax.
Lastly, I’ll add that Google’s image search is also a handy tool. I have had instances where I needed to see if a particular image was already used elsewhere or at a previous time. In research, such a thing is handy in determining the authenticity of an image. For instance, during Hurricane Sandy and similar events, people were tweeting images they claimed were from that particular event – but a quick image search was able to prove that the images had previously been used elsewhere.
Simply click on the “Images” link at the top of Google’s search page, and it will open up the image search. Click on the camera icon in the right hand corner of the search box, and it will allow you to either drag an image into the search box, or enter the URL of an image you want to search.
That should give you a relatively good start at learning some of the most useful search syntax. Sometimes all it takes is just a little bit of extra drilling down into the search results to get to exactly what you’re looking for.
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