Using Google more efficiently part III: exact and wildcard searches

Posted by Greten on 03 May 2013 under Tools

This entry is the third part of a serial post about using Google more efficiently for your research. Click here to get an overall preview about the topic of discussion although you may continue reading this article. You will still understand it without reading the introduction part.

In my last entry, I discussed how to use the equivalents of AND, OR and NOT operators to tell Google which keywords are essential, optional and to-be-not-included respectively. For this entry, we will tackle how to conduct search using exact key phrases.

Exact search

If you enter individual keywords without any operator, Google will show all web pages containing all those keywords and in most cases, will put the exact keywords in exact arrangement near the top. However, if you want the pages containing the exact phrase to appear in the search results and nothing else, all you need to do is to enclose the phrase in double quotes.

For example, you want to search about Newton's Law of Inertia. You want to look for web pages that contains the exact phrase "Law of Inertia" and exclude those that contain "Law" and "Inertia" but are in separate instance or in different arrangement. Thus, you need to encode the following; quotes included but capitalizations are not necessary:

"Law of Inertia"

asterisk and double quotes with Google search results at the backgroundThere are different situations in which this can be very useful.

  1. looking for author or origin of a famous quote, e.g., "knowledge is power"
  2. concepts usually expressed in compound words, e.g., "subatomic particle"
  3. scientific name of an animal, plant or any other living thing, e.g., "Bubalus mindorensis"
  4. forcing Google to acknowledge your spelling in case it insists something else, e.g., "bacterium" (Google insists on "bacteria", which is its plural form)

Wild card search

The wild card search or "fill-in-the blank" search is very useful in conjunction to exact search. It is useful if you have a somehow clear idea of what you are looking for, but forgot certain words and hoping to use the search engine to find those words.

For example, you know that the scientific name of the domesticated cat is Felis catus. However, you seem to recall that the domesticated cat was once regarded not as a species, but a subspecies of another species that includes cats that are not usually taken as pets. You know that its genus is also felis. If domesticated cat is a subspecies, then it should have a trinomen in the form of Felis ___ catus. What's this blank then? What's the species name? To find out, you can encode something like this in Google search box:

"Felis * catus"

As an exact search, Google will show only results in which "Felis" is the first word of the phrase and "catus" is the last, and now show those in which "catus" comes first. However, due to the presence of wildcard, the asterisk sign (*), Google will show those web pages have some words or phrases between Felis and catus. You will notice that most of the results show either Felis sylvestris catus or Felis domesticus catus. You can then access some of the web pages in the results to determine which species name you are looking for.

Note that the wildcard may also include more than one word and may also include punctuation marks. Again using the "Felis * catus" search, there's one result saying "Genus: Felis Species: Felis catus". This looks like a table or summary data (actually, it is when you visited the page). The "Genus:" part is not in bold indicating that it is not one of the keywords that Google consider. However, the part "Species: Felis" is in bold, indicating that it is what Google consider as replacement for the wildcard.

Working with Boolean operators

The exact search and wildcard search can work very well with Boolean operator, with each phrase enclosed in double quotes acting as if they are single word. I will no longer try to give all the possible combinations as there would be too many, just few examples and you should be able to derive a pattern on how they work.

In the examples below, the ones in square brackets are the ones that you need to type in the search box to see the results.

  • include all pages that contain both phrases, e.g., ["addition of fractions" "subtraction of fractions"]
  • include all pages that contain either phrases, e.g., ["Law of Inertia" OR "Law of Acceleration" OR "Law of Interaction"]
  • include all pages that contain both phrases, one phrase has wildcard, e.g., ["felis * catus" "panthera leo"]
  • exclude all pages that contain a phrase, e.g., [knowledge -"familiarity with someone"]

That's all for now about using Google to search for exact words and exact phrases with or without wildcard. In my next entry, I will tackle how to limit your search results to specific websites or specific top-level domains.

Last updated on 09 Dec 2018.

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