Search operators are special characters and words that are input into Google’s search box to narrow down the results it returns. Search operators can even be combined to create yet more refinement to your searches.
There are numerous search operators available and you can find a pretty comprehensive list of them in the Google Guide support pages here and here, but we thought it high times that we spill the beans and talked about the best ones. (You can also use the Advanced Search page to create these searches).
Quotation Marks ""
Understanding how quotation marks work with Google search is undoubtedly the most powerful search feature you can know. By putting quotation marks around a phrase or term, you are effectively forcing Google to only return results for pages containing that exact phrase or term. So for example:
gives you ~240,000 pages as it is returning any page that is relevant to any of the individual words on their own or combinations of them (so trek in England, Star Trek, Thai massage etc). Whereas:
returns just 63 results (today) as it is only returning pages that contain that exact phrase. This highlights the degree to which you can narrow your search using quotation marks.
The - Operator
The – (minus) operator is another extremely powerful search technique as it allows you to discount terms. We could easily write a whole article on the various ways the – operator can be combined with other operators but here is one example:
will only return pages matching the term “jungle trek” that don’t contain the word Thailand anywhere in them.
The .. Operator
This operator returns results between two sets of given values. These could be dates or numerical values like currency or distance. So you might want to search for twentieth century conflicts in Europe, in which case you might type:
The * Operator
Also known as the wildcard operator, the * can be used when you want Google to fill in the blanks within a phrase. The phrase must be contained in quotation marks for the * operator to work properly:
returns a whole variety of results in which the two asterisks are substituted with real words. This is extremely useful if you’re performing long tailed or complex searches and are missing some of the information or want Google to give you a series of suggestions.
The | Operator
Also expressed with the Boolean term OR, | will return one given term or another given term, but not both terms. So:
will return results that reference either SEO or marketing but not both (theoretically not both anyway, although this isn’t always the case).
Essential Search Operators
By typing site: at any point in your search query you can limit the results to one particular site. Very useful if the site in question has a poor internal search facility (or perhaps no search facility at all). This operator is usually used in conjunction with something else.
So for example if you wanted to search The Guardian’s website for any articles related to climate change you would type:
This is also a very useful search operator if you are performing an onsite optimisation analysis of your website and you want to see how Google is indexing the pages in your site. Therefore:
will list all the pages from Bespoke Digital currently in Google’s index. By using a more specific URL you can search a specific section of a site. So:
will search all the UK politics pages on the BBC news website containing reference to the late politician Tony Benn.
intitle: allows you to specify terms that only appear in the title of a webpage or document. So if you are looking for articles or web pages about fission you might type:
You could use quotation marks to create a more specific search by forcing the words in the title to appear exactly the way you typed them. So:
will return different results to
An extremely powerful search operator, the inurl: operator allows you to specify words or terms that appear in a specific URL. So to search for guest posting opportunities on a website about video marketing you might try:
to return sites that contain the phrase “video marketing” with the phrase “guest blogging” in the URL (but not necessarily both).
Like inurl: and intitle: before it, intext:allows you to specify words and phrases that appear in the text of a document or webpage. Often overlooked, the intext: operator is an extremely powerful way of forcing inclusion of a word or term in your search results. Google often allows words to drop out of search if they do not appear frequently enough so this can be very useful. To give an example:
will return webpages that contain the term Blade Runner, but only if they reference Phillip K Dick (the author of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, the novel upon which the film was based).
This is a notoriously unreliable search. Because Google doesn’t want you to be able to see all of the links to any given site, it will only give you a snapshot of your links using this search operator. The reasons for this are basically to do with restricting the practice of competitive link building. In other words:
returns only 4,800 results. Definitely not representative of the millions of links to the BBC website.
Similar in concept to link: the inanchor: operator will only return pages with the specified anchor text in their links. So:
will return websites featuring the term “birds of prey” with the anchor text of “eagle” in their links.
A final mention has to go to the filetype: operator with which you can specify filetype suffix with your search. Very handy if you’re looking for PDFs or any other specific file type. So:
will return only PDF files with the words bosch dishwasher instruction manual in them.
Further Refinement and Other Useful Tips
The real skill to harnessing the incredible power of Google is in understanding how to combine search operators to produce highly refined search queries that return a very specific set of results.
There are countless ways to combine search operators and coming up with your own combinations will come more naturally as you begin to understand how Google returns search results for individual operators. Possibly one of the most powerful techniques though, involves utilising the – operator to cancel out certain terms. So:
will return all the internal links in the bespoke digital website. This is quite handy if you want to examine internal links within certain subdomains of your site.
The site and intext searches also form a powerful combination when combined with a minus operator. So:
will return all the pages on Bespoke Digital website with the exact term “social media” somewhere in the text.
Time Based Search
Another hugely underused feature in Google is time based search. Although not actually a search operator, no guide to Google search should be complete without a mention of this feature. By clicking on the Search Tools below the Google search bar after searching you can restrict results by pages created in the last year, month, week, 24 hours or even hour. This is extremely useful if you are looking for current articles on a much talked about subject.
For an even more targeted search you can use a URL hack to force Google to return results for pages cached minutes or even seconds ago. By typing &tbs=qdr: to the end of your search you can specify time. So:
- &tbs=qdr:h3 returns pages cached 3 hours ago
- &tbs=qdr:n3 returns pages cached 3 minutes ago
- &tbs=qdr:s3 returns pages cached 3 seconds ago
(Thanks to Life Hacker for this brilliant URL hack.)
Google effectively takes a snapshot of every page it crawls and indexes which it then caches. It’s these cached web pages that the search engine uses when assessing your search query.
The ability to view these cached web pages is extremely useful if the site in question goes down or the webmaster removed the page for whatever reason. Simply click on the green arrow next to the URL in the search engine results page to see a version of the web page as it was last cached by Google. Alternatively you can type cache:domain.com into Google directly. If a website’s servers are being particularly slow then this can be useful way of seeing a webpage as Google’s servers are typically a lot faster than most web servers. Just be aware that the website will not show any new content that has yet to be cached.
Another way of seeing older cached versions of sites is to visit the Way Back Machine website, although not all sites will show up here.
The ~ Operator
The ~ or Tilde Operator, used to return synonyms of the word it came directly before, as well as instances of the word itself. Google’s decision to drop the operator in 2013 was confirmed by Dan Russell who said:
“Yes, it’s been deprecated. Why? Because too few people were using it to make it worth the time, money, and energy to maintain.”
The + Operator
Google decided to kill the much used + operator back in October 2011, a move that provoked much protestation from power users, who often search for obscure terms and phrases.
The reasons are almost certainly related to the release of the search engine’s social network Google+ to avoid confusion. The quotation mark functionality was expanded to force Google to include individual words that are surrounded by quotation marks. Often these words are words that Google might normally ignore like “The” or “I”. For more information on how this works in practice, visit the Google Guide page or for a more detailed analysis of issues behind the move, read this excellent article on Wired.com.