Building Google Queries

Google query building is a process.There’s really no such thing as an incorrect search. It’s entirely possible to create an ineffective search, but with the explosive growth of the Internet and the size of Google’s cache, a query that’s inefficient today may just provide good results tomorrow—or next month or next year.The idea behind effective Google searching is to get a firm grasp on the basic syntax and then to get a good grasp of effective narrowing techniques. Learning the Google query syntax is the easy part. Learning to effectively narrow searches can take quite a bit of time and requires a bit of practice. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for it, and it will become second nature to find the needle in the haystack.

The Golden Rules of Google Searching

Before we discuss Google searching, we should understand some of the basic ground rules:

■ Google queries are not case sensitive. Google doesn’t care if you type your query in lowercase letters (hackers), uppercase (HACKERS), camel case (hAcKeR), or psycho-case (haCKeR)—the word is always regarded the same way.This is especially important when you’re searching things like source code listings, when the case of the term carries a great deal of meaning for the programmer.The one notable exception is the word or. When used as the Boolean operator, or must be written in uppercase, as OR.

■ Google wildcards. Google’s concept of wildcards is not the same as a programmer’s concept of wildcards. Most consider wildcards to be either a symbolic representation of any single letter (UNIX fans may think of the question mark) or any series of letters represented by an asterisk.This type of technique is called stemming. Google’s wildcard, the asterisk (*), represents nothing more than a single word in a search phrase. Using an asterisk at the beginning or end of a word will not provide you any more hits than using the word by itself.

■ Google reserves the right to ignore you. Google ignores certain common words, characters, and single digits in a search.These are sometimes called stop words. According to Google’s basic search document ( help/basics.html), these words include where and how.

■ 32-word limit Google limits searches to 32 words, which is up from the previous limit of ten words.This includes search terms as well as advanced operators, which we’ll discuss in a moment. While this is sufficient for most users, there are ways to get beyond that limit. One way is to replace some terms with the wildcard character (*). Google does not count the wildcard character as a search term, allowing you to extend your searches quite a bit. Consider a query for the wording of the beginning of the U.S. Constitution:

we the people of the united states in order to form a more perfect union establish justice

This search term is seventeen words long. If we replace some of the words with the asterisk (the wildcard character) and submit it as

“we * people * * united states * order * form * more perfect * establish *”

including the quotes, Google sees this as a nine-word query (with eight uncounted wildcard characters). We could extend our search even farther, by two more real words and just about any number of wildcards.