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Monday, 5th July 2010

Google: Phrase Searching Using Quotation Marks

One of the very best blogs with a solid focus on Google is Google Operating System (GOS). This site provides well-documented and clearly explained Google news (ie. a new feature) many times long before others report on it a or Google makes an official announcement.

This time, GOS posted an article about phrase searching, aka searching for phrases using quotation marks. The item specifically points out a "shortcut" that once worked is no longer available. What makes the post even more interesting is a link to a page of documentation about Google advanced search. So, GOS gets kudos this time for starting a discussion on the topic.

Google's documentation notes that, "quotes are usually unnecessary for phase searching." We can save the discussion about when and when not to use for another time. However, here are a few things we came across in the past day.

A) "Usually Unnecessary" doesn't mean 100% of the time. Quotes still work but even using them doesn't mean that the precise phrase you enter between the quotation marks is exactly what will be returned.

B) This documentation discussing the quote/exact phrase search is not new. We know it is at least 8+ months old. Here's an archived page with the same text about phrase searching from October 2009.

C) It's interesting that when use using Google's advance search interface and place terms in the "this exact wording or phrase" box, the search terms are automatically surrounded with quotation marks. So, even if Google says they're usually unnecessary, Google still utilizes them on one of their user interfaces. Add a few terms or phrase to the "this exact wording or phrase" box and you can see for yourself.

So, if you are learning or training someone how to use Google and have moved on to the advanced interface, you might if the quotes are really needed? Having them appear when using the advanced interface sends a strong signal that they're probably worth using.

D) Example Searches

1. A Search for "Alexander Bell" or Alexander Bell for the most part return identical results.

So, even when you search for a specific phrase with the quotation marks, they don't always make a difference, at least for the first few results (where most people look) with this search.

2. Google provides Alexander Graham Bell as a top ranked result for the phrase search "Alexander Bell" even if you don't use "Graham" in your phrase search.

3. We also ran two searches: "Alexander G Bell" and Alexander G Bell.

The first three results for a specific phrase/quote search only returns pages that point to pages with "Alexander G Bell" not with pages that use the three terms as a phrase on the actual page. Here's an example.

The results are relevant but it's not precisely what the searcher is asking for with the quotation marks. A discussion of the importance of providing the searcher with a better results set by adding the extra terms into the results set might be worth the time BUT should there also be a way for the searcher who users quote marks to get precisely what they are asking for?

More After a Click

Result number one is the Wikipedia page for Mr. Bell.

4. The Wikipedia page is also the first result for Alexander G Bell (no quotes). The cache info from Google says that the "G" on the first entry, again from Wikipedia, are NOT found on the page, they only appear in links pointing to it.

5. In conclusion, even Google's advanced search interface uses quotation marks when you enter terms into the phrase search box. Additionally, if the searcher asks for an exact phrase search they might not get precisely what they're asking for.

Perhaps what might be most important point for info pros to take away from the documentation and examples here is as a reminder that we need to be clear with users that the way one search tool works might not be another search tool handles the same query. For example, using quotes on xxx database will do specifically that while Google provides something different.

If you're wondering, the first 10 results on Bing for "Alexander Bell" provide a mix of exact phrase results with other entries for "Alexander Graham Bell."

With these and a few related questions (thanks again GOS) we will be contacting Google tomorrow.

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