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Interpreting Your Query

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

1. All Search Terms Count

Google returns only pages that match all your search terms.

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

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

Note: If you want pages containing any (instead of all) of your search terms, use the OR operator.

Note: Google sometimes returns pages that don't contain your query terms, as you can see in example. 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.

2. Search Terms Match Exactly

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

3. Similar Words Match

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, surround each such word or phrase with quotation marks (" "). See Quoted Phrases and Quotation Marks Replace the + Operator.

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.

4. Stop Words

Some common words, called “stop words” (such as the, on, where, how, de, la, as well as certain single digits and single letters) generally don't add meaning to a search.

Stop words appear on so many pages that searching for them usually doesn't help you find relevant results.

Screen shot showing what Google does with “stop words” and other needless search terms

Because the words you search for -- except stop words -- must appear on the page, we've told Google to show only pages that contain the word "read." (The search might find pages for people who want to read about tourists.) A better search has words that should appear on all of the pages you're looking for. For example, try:

Note: Surround each such word or phrase with quotation marks (" ") to insist that Google search for exactly these words. We'll describe these basic operators and others soon in 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.

Note: Find more pages mentioning the rock band The Who by entering [ "the who" ], a notation you'll learn about soon in the page Quoted Phrases.

5. Word Limit

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.)

The following query finds pages with 32 words likely to appear at the start of a dictionary.

Screen shot of Google searching for 32 words.

If you add any more words, Google will include a warning similar to: "absolve" (and any subsequent words) was ignored because we limit queries to 32 words.

6. Terms Nearby

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.

7. Terms in Order

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.

8. Not Case-Sensitive

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.

9. Characters Ignored

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.

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.

10. Apostrophes

A term with an apostrophe (single quote, ') 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

11. Hyphenated Terms

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

Also:

  • 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.

12. Summary

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 termsin 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.

  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?
tags (keywords): , , , , , , ,
This page was last modified on: Sunday February 26, 2012

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By Nancy Blachman and Jerry Peek who aren't Google employees. For permission to copy & create derivative works, visit Google Guide's Creative Commons License webpage.

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