Monday, October 31, 2011

The + operator is gone... So what?

Just the other day, Google turned off the + operator.  There was a bit of a kerfuffle about it in a few blogs, and Danny Sullivan got bent out of shape about it, but relatively few people noticed that the behavior of the double-quote operator also changed at the same time. 

Here's the deal:  LOTS of people believed incorrectly that the + operator was the opposite of the - operator.  You know what does, it excludes the term from the search results.  That is, if you do a search like [apples macintosh] the results will not contain the term macintosh in the results.  That makes sense.  (Some places use the NOT operator for this.  Same behavior.)  

Unfortunately, many people believed that a search like [apples +macintosh] would require the term to be in the search results.  That's NOT what it did.  While the + term would usually be in the results, it was only there because you'd put it into the query!  

So what did the + do?   Answer:  It turned off synonymization and spell-correction.  That is, with a query like [apples +macintosh] you wouldn't get that term macintosh being synonymized for a term like gala, gravenstein or jonathan.  (Those are other apple varieties, if you're wondering.)  

NOW... we no longer have the + operator.  So what can you do if you want the same effect?  

Answer:   Use double-quotes for single terms.  You'd write that query now as [apples "macintosh"], and it'll give you the same effect as what the plus used to do.  

Some people complain that it's an extra character to type.  Geez.  Give me a break--you're going to complain about 1 extra character?  

The double-quote mechanism is actually pretty interesting.  For instance, did you know you can do the following kinds of a query? 

     [ intitle:"abc" ]  finds “ABC” in title of a web document, no synonyms allowed

     [ intitle:a intitle:b intitle:c ] finds the single letters A, B, C in any order in title 

And you can use double/double-quotes to look for non-synonymized terms in a particular sequence.  A la, 

     [ " "abc" "cnn" "cbs" " ] finds those 3 terms in that sequence without synonyms

and you can extend that to include

     [" intitle:"a" intitle:"b" intitle:"c" "]   finds the single letters A, B, C in title of page,
                                                                     in that sequence

Search for these terms in ANY order in the title of a web page: 

Search for these terms in THIS given order on the web page  (using double-double quotes):

Contrast with this result, where the 3 terms can appear in any sequence... 

Does this help you understand the new power of double-quotes?  Yes, the + operator is gone, but what we now have makes a bit more sense.  


  1. > Unfortunately, many people believed that a search like [apples +macintosh] would require the term to be in the search results. That's NOT what it did. While the + term would usually be in the results, it was only there because you'd put it into the query!

    It seems like many people want it - is there a way to require terms in a Google search?

  2. @Matt -- There sure is! Use the intext: operator. Example: [intext:"daniel m russell" ] This searches for my name and REQUIRES it to be in the body of the landing page. The site: operator then restricts the search to just the site. (I like this example as it generates exactly 1 result.)

  3. I believe that people are going to interpret your example [ intitle:a intitle:b intitle:c ] as searching for those letters when they are a part of a word, rather than just the word a, the word b, the word c (i.e, that this search would pick up titles that contain abc). So far as I know, that's not how it works -- I think you need to change your example.

  4. Yeah, you're kinda missing the point. Firstly, Google - as per usual - changes well understood and widely used syntax, without a single mention. That's fairly indicative of their attitude towards search and searchers. Worthy of comment I'd have thought. Secondly, it makes life more difficult when you're running a meta search across a number of different search engines. Third, it IS another character and for those of us who use it a lot, it IS a bigger deal than you're making it. Fourth, one should be asking *why* they're doing it, and wondering how it's going to be coming back in the future.

  5. Thanks for the update Daniel! Definitely makes sense. and seems like a better tool. Have to admit, I have used dbl quotes around a single word in the past hoping for the effect you describe.

    I have not used the intitle operator. I will have to experiment with that one to try to understand better what it does. Wonder if you could also clarify what the * can do if included inside or outside of quotes. (This may be another whole post.)

    A shame that Phil, above, is mad at you for sharing these bits of wisdom. I can see that in the long run, Google is looking for the most intuitive search tools possible and slowly phasing out tools that users struggle with. It is frustrating that Google shares so little about changes but I, and I'm sure many like me, appreciate your efforts to clarify and promote the good ones.

  6. I hate that you now have to apply by force a whole array of syntax in order to beat Google's fuzzy search correction. You're moving too far in the wrong direction, and this is just another small step.

    I remember when the + operator wasn't actually required.

  7. Google listens to its users:
    New From Google for Web Searchers: “Search Using Your Terms, Verbatim” A couple of weeks ago we removed the “+” operator, encouraging the use of the double quotes, which are more likely to be used correctly. Since then, we’ve received a lot of requests for a more deliberate way to tell Google to search using your exact terms. We’ve been listening, and starting today you’ll be able to do just that through verbatim search.