Searching for phrases on Google

You probably know that if you want to find this blog using the Google search engine, it won’t help to search for web owls. That search currently returns nine million results, because it finds every page that contains the words “web” and “owls” on it, whether the words are adjacent or not.

You can search for a phrase by enclosing the words in doublequotes. A search for “web owls” returns 144 pages, each of which contains the word “web” followed immediately by the word “owls”.

Google offers an alternative syntax which works the same way, and is not so widely known, but is sometimes easier to type. Simply use a dot between each word: web.owls for example.

Why use this form? If you have searched without quotes and received an unmanageable-large number of results, it’s tedious to click-at-the-start, shift-doublequote, click-at-the-end, shift-doublequote. It’s easier to simply replace the space by a dot.

I also use the dot-form in another situation. Suppose I am trying to find a specific phrase, but don’t remember it properly. For example, suppose I have searched for “able I saw elba” and received no results. It takes a lot of fiddling around with doublequotes to search for various subphrases until I find that a search for able “I saw elba” returns the pages that contain “able was I, ere I saw Elba!”.

Instead, if my original search was for able.i.saw.elba then it is a simple matter to replace various dots by spaces until I search for able i.saw.elba and get the results I want.

Incidentally, there are other characters you can use instead of dots. Slashes, apostrophes and the equals sign work the same way (I’m only interested in punctuation that doesn’t use the shift key on my keyboard).

Other characters, such as hash and hyphen, work differently.

3 Responses to “Searching for phrases on Google”

  1. pafalafaga says:

    Hi Roger.

    I tend to use the dash/hyphen (same thing, right?) just the way you describe using the period/dot (also the same thing?).

    What have you found to be the differences between them?

    pafalafaga Dave

  2. Knowledge_Seeker says:

    Good info Eiffel.

    Another thing that some people may not know, is that when searching for an exact phrase, you don\’t need the ending quotation mark; just the first one. Typing \”I saw elba nets the same results as typing \”I saw elba\\\”. This of course only works for quoted phrases at the end of your search string. Otherwise everything after your opening quotation mark will be considered one long phrase.


    PS: You can ignore those slash marks. Someday I\’ll figure out this editing system. :-)

  3. eiffel says:

    Hi Dave,

    The dash/hyphen used to work the same as the period/dot, but recently the search results didn’t look quite right when I was using the dash/hyphen so I counted some results.

    Today a search for web owls (without punctuation) returns 9,810,000 results. A search for web-owls (using dash/hyphen) returns 914,000 results. A search for web.owls (using dot/period) returns only 149 results.

    I’m not sure what’s going on here.