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Getting More Out of Google Part II – The Basics

September 10th, 2004 by jimm wetherbee in Reference

In the last issue of EKS Libris, we took a look at was Google is and what it is not. This time we will look at some basic issues of syntax that if attended to, will enhance your search results. In the case of Google (and any other search engine) “syntax” refers to the way a query or search argument is constructed. While the Google search engine does go a long way to make sense of the sort of language you and I use, it really is trying to fit our way of communicating with the way computers analyze data.

For instance, even though it doesn’t look like it, Google is still based on the same Boolean logic that has been a part of online databases for over thirty-five years. (For a discussion of Boolean logic, see: http://library.wingate.edu/reference/electips.html). Let us say you want information on the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. You could simply type in Ontological Argument for the Existence of God and you would wind up with over 60,000 hits. Fortunately, Google does a pretty good job of putting the most relevant pages on the top of the list. Google also throws out words (such as “the”) that almost never add anything to a search. What is going on in the background is that Google is translating the phrase Ontological Argument for the Existence of God as Ontological AND Argument AND Existence AND God ; that is Google is looking for all the pages in its database that has all the words you have entered (minus the throwaways) somewhere on that given page. This feature is called an “implied AND.”

This is all well and good, but perhaps you know you are not interested pages that discuss the ontological status of God and provide arguments. All the right words are in there, but the page isn’t what you want. What you really want to do is to treat Ontological Argument as a unit. What you can do then is place Ontological Argument in quotes. Words bound within quotes are treated as phrases. While you are at it, get rid of word Existence, since it doesn’t really add to the query. What you have now is “Ontological Argument” God (remember there is an implied AND between words and phrases).

There are other interesting things to do as well. Let us say you are supposed to focus on the arguments put forward by Charles Hartshorne and Norman Malcolm. There is such a thing as an OR function. If one were to enter Hartshorne OR Malcolm, one would get pages that included either Hartshorne or Malcolm or both words. Of course, there is one more thing you need. If you try “Ontological Argument” God Hartshorne OR Malcolm what you get is all the pages with ontological argument and God and Hartshorne on the one hand and also all the pages that have the word Malcolm it them. Fortunately, there is an easy way around this, parentheses. Parentheses in Google work just the way they do in mathematics: they tell the computer “do this first.” So to find articles on the Ontological Argument that have something to do with either Hartshorne or Malcolm, you would enter “Ontological Argument” God (Hartshorne OR Malcolm). If you want to be truly geeky, you can substitute the computer pipe symbol (|) for OR. Finally, if you want to exclude something, you can use – for NOT, so “Ontological Argument” God (Hartshorne OR Malcolm) – Plantinga, would give you the same results as before, but would exclude any pages dealing with Plantinga’s Ontological Arguments.

So, this time around we have seen how Google looks at search queries and the basic Boolean operators–implied AND, the OR, the -, the “” phrase indicators, and parentheses—which can be used to refine a search. Next time we will look at how Google breaks data down into fields and how you can take advantage of this.

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