Effectively Using Boolean Internet Searches

If you find the graphic shown below to be confusing, you are not alone. It is only meant to be a funny example of a Boolean expression. Despite the strange name, there is nothing fearful (“Boo”lean) about its meaning. It is far from rocket science. In fact, you may have used something similar and not even been aware. Odd as the name sounds, Boolean logic is the foundation of all Boolean internet searches today.

Boolean expressions are at the heart of Boolean internet searches!

Background of Boolean 

Derived in the nineteenth-century by George Boole, Boolean logic is a form of algebra. All answers are either a TRUE or FALSE value. This discovery proved its worth in the early stages of computer science when everything was denoted by a single bit-value of zero or one. The value one equaled true, and zero equaled false. Now all those binary ones and zeros actually made sense! As time went on, Boolean search capabilities became even more powerful when searching databases. Different operators included or excluded certain elements depending on the type of search. To clarify, all Boolean operations contain at least one possible search operator. This provides users tremendous flexibility to limit, expand, or just further refine their search.

Boolean Operators or Terms?

Early on, Boolean operators were first introduced using mathematical symbols (ie addition was a plus sign, and subtraction was a minus sign). These signs were translated into more user-friendly Boolean search terms (actual words with the same meaning) at the start of the internet.

The AND Operator

One of the most common examples of substituting a term for an operator is using the word AND in place of the addition operator (+).  Results will include all terms as a means of limiting your query. To illustrate this, if you searched for the terms: black AND white, only results containing both terms would be returned. Thus, every AND used in your Boolean search logic will further restrict your search by only providing results containing just those terms specified.

The NOT Operator

Similarly, replacing the subtraction operator (-) with the word NOT is an exclusionary way of refining your search. It excludes the term(s) specified preventing the query from returning any results containing that term (or terms). Let’s say you wanted to search for an airline, but did not want to include Delta. Your search terms would be: airline NOT Delta, which should return results for any other airline but Delta. The NOT operator can have two main uses in that it can be used to exclude specific terms you do not want to retrieve, or allow for a more restrictive initial search which can be gradually loosened until the desired results are obtained.

The OR Operator

One Boolean search term not often considered is the pipe (|) or OR operator.  In many internet search engines this operator does not get used much. Being the default, it does not need to be included as part of your search. Many people assume this operator is an either/or operator however this is not the case. The OR operator actually offers elastic inclusion, meaning it will typically expand your search results. It can be interpreted as “at least one is required, more than one or all can be returned.” (booleanblackbelt.com) Referring back to our airline example, searching for multiple airlines such as Delta OR United OR Southwest yields results containing one, two, or all three terms.

The NEAR Operator

One last (but not least) Boolean operator often overlooked is the NEAR operator. This operator incorporates Boolean search strings into your searches without using quotation marks.  An example of this could be: NEAR The Cat in the Hat. This search only produces results containing that specific string or phrase. Using the NEAR operator “is equal to putting a search query in quotes… essentially telling the search engine that you want all of these words, in this specific order or this specific phrase.” (www.lifewire.com)

While other Boolean operators are available to work with, the four previously mentioned are the most common. As a matter of convenience, each operator can often be swapped with its math equivalent (where applicable) depending on the user’s preference and search engine used.

Boolean Search Modifiers

In addition to Boolean operators, search modifiers can also enhance your Boolean internet search techniques. The most common modifier previously referenced is using quotations marks to search for word strings or phrases.

The Asterisk Modifier

Another type of modifier, the asterisk (*) will shorten your searches. If you entered sun*, you may get results such as: Sunday, sundial, sundown, and even sundress. Your results will include anything beginning with the word used in your search. Not all search engines recognize the asterisk as a Boolean search modifier however. In that case, you may be left creating long OR statements attempting to identify every way a term can be expressed. It is in this scenario where parentheses, the last of the search modifiers can come in handy. Parentheses encapsulate multiple OR statements to ensure Boolean internet search engines perform the search as the user intended generating the desired results.

Boolean search engine technology is the backbone of modern search engines today. As their reach continues to expand, the principles behind internet Boolean searches remain the same. There is no reason to be intimidated by the uncommon term by which it is called. Practice using the common search operators, along with the correct search modifiers where appropriate. Doing so will allow you to effectively hunt down any form of electronic media your heart desires. Say goodbye to unrelated gobbledygook. With a little practice, and a lot of experimentation, anyone can become a Boolean search master!