Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Confusion about the mythical safesearch operator

I figure one of my little jobs is to help people understand what's possible and what's NOT possible with Google search.  To do this, I read a lot of blogs (and LOT of blogs) and try to extract the sense of what people are thinking about how search works.

Turns out there's a lot of misinformation out there about advanced Google search.  Rather than take them all on at once, let's fix one thing at a time.  Here's today's insight...

    There is no SAFESEARCH: operator.

Yes, I know, there are about 1 million results for the search [ safesearch operator ], but I'm telling you.  It doesn't DO anything.

You can see this yourself by comparing the queries:

[ safesearch:breast cancer ] and [safesearch-breast cancer]  (I'm using this because it's the standard example used to "demonstrate" how it works.

You can see that the results are the same.  IF safesearch: was a real operator, you'd expect them to be different (because the hyphen wouldn't mean anything in that context, it's just ignored).

I'm pretty sure the way this got started is through a mis-reading of the CGI arguments used in the URLs passed to Google.  A URL used to run a Google search for the search [ breast cancer ] will look something like this (some things elided):


But you can't quite reverse engineer operator arguments from the query string.   It just doesn't work that way.

In any case, this is a broken meme.  Safesearch: doesn't exist.  Use the safesearch setting instead!

Search on!  (Safely.)

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