Did Google change its search conventions in recent months?
January 26, 2013 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Another frustrated poster asked here about changes to Google search terms but it just adds to my confusion as it's precisely the recommended quotation marks that no longer work. I'm trying to find the obit. of my husband's favorite teacher, for example. I search for "Betty Goodrich" with the school and city in their own quotes and get a hundred hits for every other woman's name before Goodrich in every area but the one we're seeking. Used to be you could count on boolean search terms. What gives?
posted by R2WeTwo to Technology (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Quotation marks still work for bound phrases. You can guarantee this by using the advanced search page. However using Boolean like AND and OR will give you different results and I'm not sure if you're having a problem with those as well? Just a few more questions

- Have you tried variants of her first name?
- Have you set your location to where the obituary should be?
- Have you added words like "obituary"
- Are you sure the obituary is actually online (that is, are you looking for a known item or something you are wondering if it exists) and is still online?
- Did you do your search on the google news site as well as regular old google?
posted by jessamyn at 9:20 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Question marks have most definitely NOT been working for me for some time, jessamyn, and with a quick search I found quite a few references to this unpopular change. Here is one. I taught IT for many years and know these searches like the back of my hand. You can do a simple search right now to confirm it yourself.
posted by R2WeTwo at 10:40 PM on January 26, 2013

After getting the initial search results, click on the Search Tools box that appears, click where it says "All Results," and then select "Verbatim" and see if that gives you the type of results or behavior you're looking for. Verbatim searches will ensure that all search terms entered will appear in all results. (Google now may rank results with certain measures of relevance, but which don't contain all of your search terms, higher than results that necessarily include all of your search terms by default. I hate it too.)
posted by eschatfische at 11:02 PM on January 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

I can't reproduce this, quotation marks still work as expected for me.

Given that this is a bug or feature change only visible to a subset of users, maybe changing your language/location/other settings or switching to another Google account would work.
posted by ripley_ at 11:10 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you using a close quote mark? Google used to let you just do an initial quote mark and would treat the text from that point to the end of the query as quoted. Now it requires double quotes before and after.
posted by zippy at 11:19 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you tried other search engines like DuckDuckGo?

Any time I feel like Google has pulled the rug out from under what I would expect to work, I go to DuckDuckGo and usually get what I need. For example, I have noticed that even when I'm not signed in or in incognito, Google will push local results on me. And I have had less and less luck with tricks that used to work for years for me with Google.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 12:28 AM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Quotation marks are working for me (e.g. "apricot cheese badger" gives ‘No results found for "apricot cheese badger". Results for apricot cheese badger (without quotes):...’; "apricot cheese cat" gives exactly one result, which contains that phrase). Not logged in to any google service, going through google.com which redirects me to google.it because I'm in Italy. But then, the workings of Google are increasingly mysterious, influenced by myriad undocumented factors, and subject to daily change. It's entirely possible that Google has decided to work differently for you than for me, based on what it thinks you want.
posted by pont at 1:22 AM on January 27, 2013

Works for me...
posted by valkyryn at 3:01 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As far as I can tell, what you're probably seeing is just Google being a little too smart for its own damned good. This is great for the vast majority of people doing the vast majority of searches, but it's not so good for people who use overly precise, bounded Boolean searches.

Google's operating premise is to return lots of hits. Good hits, but lots of them. So if you search for an exact phrase, it'll search for that exact phrase, but it'll also search for slightly modified phrases at the same time. So on the link I provided above, there are a ton of hits for obituaries about "Betty Goodrich," but the search algorithm is smart enough to tell that "Betty" is frequently short for "Elizabeth," and that women frequently change their last name when they get married, so it returns hits that reflect both of those things.

Further, if one of those other phrases is a lot more common than the one you searched for, it'll frequently search for that one, assuming you made a typo or something. But it will usually tell you that it's done this and give you the option to search for what you actually entered.

I think you may need to hit that link jessamyn provided. Google does parse Boolean operators--and several other, quite useful operators--but they may not be what you're expecting.
posted by valkyryn at 3:12 AM on January 27, 2013

I actually find that quotation marks are even more necessary these days than they were in the past and end up needing to put them around individual search terms because otherwise Google will "helpfully" display results from a completely different search than the one I actually made, like by "correcting" the spelling of an acronym into an unrelated word or the Betty→Elizabeth sort of thing that valkyryn mentions.
posted by XMLicious at 5:10 AM on January 27, 2013

Refine your search with -areaidontwant. Good way to start culling.
posted by bfranklin at 8:26 AM on January 27, 2013

I taught IT for many years and know these searches like the back of my hand. You can do a simple search right now to confirm it yourself.

With respect, I did this before answering your question and I can't reproduce the issue you are having. If you want to include the exact search you are using and why the results that you are getting are not what you were expecting and/or are indicative that quotation marks put around a bound phrase will not search for the exact words in order I am sure folks would be more than happy to help you figure out exactly how to track down what is going on here.

When reading the forum link you posted (from 2010), the OP is saying they are getting odd results but no one else can confirm them unless they leave off the ending double quote which appears to be what used to work for the OP there and no longer works. Here is their question over at Yahoo answers with no substantive replies. I found that by searching for their phrase "boolean commas" which is not a phrase it appears that anyone else on the internet has used, and Google searched for it as a bound phrase.

The only time I know when a quoted string won't find the exact phrase is if the exact phrase literally doesn't exist in Google's index as with the apricot/cheese/badger search above and then they will give you the weird words-anywhere results. So, I think a few things might be going on here

- the quotation marks you are using are somehow quotes that Google doesn't recognize as quotes (copy/pasted odd font, combined single quotes, something, here is an example)
- Google is doing something weird with their synonym finder. They have a verbatim search which you can set to assure that it looks for your words and no other similar words [so it will look for "cat food" but not try to be helpful and look for "cats food" or something]
- You are using some rolled-out beta version of Google that has some sort of change in the way phrase searching is done. If this was happening, I'd expect there to be more of an outcry since, as you say, it's a big annoying change.

So if you'd like to maybe screenshot a "this is what I typed and this is what I get"image (using something less sensitive if you don't want to include your location" we can take a look at it and figure out what might be happening.
posted by jessamyn at 8:59 AM on January 27, 2013

This isn't specific advice on the Google situation, but you might try looking at the search results for Betty Goodrich on Find A Grave.
posted by limeonaire at 10:32 AM on January 27, 2013

Also, the vast majority -- well, at least a plurality -- of online obituaries in the US are found on legacy.com, which has an internal search function.

I'm really confused by your description of your results -- it almost sounds like you're getting the inversion of the results you wanted, which implies using a "not" operator (hyphen) before part of the query. Have you tried a different browser? Have you tried logging out of Google, maybe into another Google account if available? Have you cleared your cache and/or cookies?
posted by dhartung at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2013

Quotes work for me too. I strongly suspect you are inadvertently doing something wrong.

> Are you using a close quote mark? Google used to let you just do an initial quote mark and would treat the text from that point to the end of the query as quoted. Now it requires double quotes before and after.

That, for example. I remember being confused for a while after they started requiring close quotes.
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on January 27, 2013

I am using the closed quote, always have. A search for this reveals many people with my exact complaint and just as many for whom it works fine. At one time Google even said that it was failing on Internet Explorer. Google's own claim closely matches valkryn's answer.
posted by R2WeTwo at 9:29 AM on January 29, 2013

But nobody else in this thread can reproduce your results... Can you not provide a screenshot as jessamyn requested?
posted by turkeyphant at 3:32 AM on February 27, 2013

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