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Boolean operators are a set of commands used to narrow or expand a search and can be effective tools for optimizing your search process to find the most relevant pages online.
Boolean operators are a set of commands used with search engines, databases, and online catalogs. These commands combine or exclude keywords to expand or narrow a search. Either way, they help return search engine results pages (SERPs) that are more “in tune” with a searcher’s true intent. Eliminating unwanted hits, these commands save time and effort.
Understanding how boolean operators work is important for search engine optimization (SEO) specialists and non-specialists alike. Whether you’re performing research for a school paper or for a client, these commands can come in handy.
Otherwise thought of as shortcuts to better results, boolean operators are essentially just a way to tweak an algorithm. The word “boolean” itself denotes a system of algebraic notation. In other words, when you insert a boolean operator into a query, the search engine looks for certain logical relationships between your chosen keywords, depending on which operators are used. It is then able to return much more efficient results — if you know what you’re doing.
While Google has some of its own unique operators, many of the most common search operators are actually just Boolean. “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” are among the most commonly used Boolean operators supported by Google, though commands utilizing quotation marks, parentheses, truncation, and more, get their fair share of use as well.
Different search engines and databases may use variations of the following Boolean operators. While Google asks the searcher to type them in capital letters with quotation marks (to help distinguish operators from keywords), others may have a more nuanced form of punctuation. Either way, an operation’s exact input can usually be found on your search engine’s help screen.
Below are a few of the common boolean operators.
The boolean operator “AND” informs the search engine that all keywords must be found in each SERP. This allows you to search for two or more terms at the same time. By using this command, search engines should return fewer, but more relevant results.
If you wanted to research human resources, but more specifically their recruiting process, the following search may return the best results:
Human resources AND Recruiting
The boolean operator “OR” informs the search engine to return either (or both) keywords. This allows you to broaden a search. These are good for including synonyms of a word, phrase, or title.
If you wanted to buy new forks and spoons for your home, the following search may return the best results:
Silverware OR Utensils
The search will return articles about just silverware, just utensils, or both. Likewise, if you were looking for colleges, knowing you wanted to go to one in New England or in California, the following search may return the best results:
Best Colleges in New England OR California
The command “site:” limits results to a specific website. This command can be helpful when looking for a particular piece of content on a given website.
Simply type in “site:” followed by the website’s URL:
A search for the term “links” on this website, for instance, could be performed by typing:
If a site has a search glossary, you can add /search-glossary to narrow your search even more. The same goes for blogs and other website-specific features.
The boolean operator “NOT” allows you to search for one keyword while excluding another. Google and Yahoo use a minus sign (-) in place of the command NOT.
This command can be used to find a keyword that has two different meanings or associations. If you were searching for the company “Apple” rather than the fruit, the following search may return the best results:
Apple NOT Fruit
Quotation marks indicate that a search must be returned in that exact syntactical order, making these good for long-tail keyword research. Without quotation marks, words in a phrase are treated separately.
If you were looking for a blue dress with a flower print, the following search may return the best results:
“Blue dress with flowers”
Without quotation marks, the search engine may also return results for only dresses, only blue dresses, or even blue dresses with people holding flowers.
Parenthesis / (keyword OR keyword) keyword
Parenthesis tells a search engine what to prioritize. Any keywords included in parenthesis will be calculated first. These are generally used to bolster searches with the command OR.
If you were interested in learning about the politics in India, the following search may return the best results:
(Politics OR Government) India
Since the words “politics” and “government” are often used interchangeably, including the command OR makes logical sense. Adding parenthesis then organizes the search.
Truncation allows you to search the root form of a word, making it useful to find multiple endings of the same word. This command is usually executed with an asterisk.
The following command, for instance, could return results for bank, banks, banking, bankers, bankruptcy, and more:
Utilizing boolean operators and creating quality content is a two-way street. Boolean operators can only make a search more productive if the content truly reflects its intent. A page on “youth and politics,” for instance, may not show up if its title tag and headers do not match the body of the text. Likewise, using boolean operators allows you to find optimized content that is more suited to your search.
Below are a few examples of how boolean operators can be used in SEO: