Death of the (+) in web search

Death of the (+) in web search

Many years ago, search engines supported using a (+) symbol next to terms that you definitely want to be on the resulting pages. This is similar to how using the (-) symbol before a term omits pages that contain that term.

I’ll use a search string I was using recently to illustrate:

  • Does diatomaceous earth kill aspergillus (normal search)
  • Does diatomaceous earth kill +aspergillus (the word “aspergillosis” is required in search results)
  • Does diatomaceous earth kill aspergillus -bacteria (same search but exclude pages with the word “bacteria” on them)

In June of 2011, Google launched Google Plus. In October, they removed the (+) symbol as a search modifier so that it could be used for Google Plus.

However, I recently discovered that it’s been replaced by using double quotes! When you quote a word or phrase, it not only searches for that word or phrase, but it mandates that it exists in search results.

So, let’s compare two searches. For this search, I only care about pages that contain both “diatomaceous earth” and “aspergillus” – let’s see how Google does if I take the easy route.

Does diatomaceous earth kill aspergillus

#1 contains both terms
#2 does not contain “diatomaceous earth”
#3 does not contain “aspergillus”
#4, #5, #6, and #7 contains both terms
#8 and #9 does not contain “diatomaceous earth”
#10 contains both terms

So, 40% of the results are a total waste of time. You click on them, start reading and then realize that the page is totally irrelevant. How’s that for a Top 10 result?

Now, let’s use some double quotes.

Does “diatomaceous earth” kill “aspergillus”

Over 250 results, all of which contain both terms! Basically, it returns every page on the internet that contains both terms. I won’t get into why Google would return the second result that doesn’t contain two full words in my search term, but they must have their reasons. Cough, ads, cough.

Anyways, double quotes have massively increased the quality of my search results and saved me untold time, especially when searching for things that combine common words with much less common words. Note that DuckDuckGo uses the (+) symbol, but it only means that you want to emphasize, not require, that term. Weirdly, (-) means exclude that term completely.