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Internet: What In The World Is Boolean Phrase Search?


The words “Boolean Phrase Search” seem to always be at the corner of the mind, waiting to raise the question: “I’m sorry, what was that word, Boolean? Is that some kind of index of soups?”

Yes, Boolean, and no, you’re probably thinking of bouillon. It’s close, but, well, it’s a different thing.

What in the world is Boolean Phrase Searching? It’s a way of searching a digital database using certain words – operators – to tell the search engine specifically what you want. This type of searching is most commonly used for surfing the net, searching libraries, and for rifling through other similar repositories of information that use a digital catalogue.

Why would you want to use it? Well, it allows you to get exactly the results you want by broadening or narrowing your search to include or exclude particular phrases or words. You may have already picked up some Boolean searching on your own, just from tinkering around the Internet. It is, basically, the method of searching that lets you combine words and phrases using the operators AND, OR, and NOT to define, broaden, or limit your search (sound familiar at all?). These are called, perhaps predictably, Boolean operators.

How did it get that silly name? Great question. Derived from the last name of 19th century English mathematician George Boole, Boolean searching is based on his method of symbolic logic.

But how does one best use Boolean searching? How does it work? Let’s look at some examples.

Let’s say you’re looking forward to a weekend getaway in Montauk with your darling life partner, and you want to stay somewhere luxe. You could use the “and” operator to search:

Montauk AND hotel AND “too expensive”

To find reviews where someone thought their hotel was too expensive. That’s the kind of place you’re looking for! (Aside: if you’re using Google, it defaults to using the AND operator between words, but it’s still good to know.)

The quotation marks are used to indicate a phrase as opposed to a single word, so this would specifically find the whole phrase “too expensive”, as opposed to just “too” or “expensive”.

You can also use parentheses if you’re looking for multiple options, for example:

Montauk AND (hotel OR bed and breakfast OR B&B) AND “too expensive”

Remember how you use parentheses in math to set aside groups of numbers? Basically, this works like that, but with words. Classic George Boole!

In this example of the use of parentheses, you can also see the use of the OR operator. OR allows you to get search results that include any of the items in the OR search list. That is, this search would turn up both overpriced hotels and, separately, overpriced bed and breakfasts in Montauk, rather than searching for some sort of monstrous hotel-B&B hybrid.

Finally, there’s the NOT operator.

Let’s say you burned some bridges last time you were in Montauk. You could search:

Montauk AND (hotel OR bed and breakfast OR B&B) AND “too expensive” NOT (“Jerry’s Hotel” OR “House Of Fragile Cups”)

That would keep you from getting results that might remind you of the incident, and prevent your honey from trying to book with Jerry again. Ugh, Jerry.

And that’s Boolean phrase searching in a nutshell! Hope you’ve learned a little something that might be useful to you next time you’re in a library or just asking Jeeves for help. Happy information hunting, one and all.

Here’s an example of that, in case you need to jog your memory:

(6 x 2) + 2 = 14
6 x (2 + 2) = 24

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