Google removes plus (+) operator

The “+” operator used to mean “required” to Google, I think. But it also meant “and exactly that word is required, not an alternate form.” I think? Maybe it always was just a synonym for double quotes, and never meant ‘required’? Or maybe double quotes mean ‘required’ too?

At any rate, the plus operator is gone now.

I’m not entirely sure that the quotes will actually insist on the quoted word being present in the page?  Can anyone find a counter-example?

I had actually noticed a while ago that the google advanced search page had stopped providing any fields that resulted in “+”, and was suggesting double quotes for “exactly this form of word” (not variants), rather than “phrase”.   Exactly what given operators (and bare searches) do has continually evolved over time, and isn’t always documented or reflected in the “search tips” page or “advanced search” screen.

But let’s take a look in the Internet Archive to see if we can document the evolution.  Sadly, we can’t look at what a live google search at various historic points did. Nor can we look at what an ‘advanced search’ page actually did — the advanced search page has used different implementations at different times to convert your entry into a google search (un-mediated form submit to google search; javascript;  an intermediate redirection), but most of them aren’t amenable to interpretation from what’s in the Archive.

But we can look at the ‘search tips’ page, and the ‘advanced search’ screen itself when needed.  Let’s take a look at a snapshot from October (or as close as we can get) from each year from 2004 to now.

Google search tips over the years

In 2004, “+” is recommended to force inclusion of “common words” that would otherwise be excluded. But “another method for doing this is conducting a phrase search, which simply means putting quotation marks around 2 or more words. ”  Note, “2 or more words”.

In 2005, “+” is still recommended to force inclusion of ‘common’ words and phrase search is for the moment not mentioned at all in the narrative. But the screen shot of the multi-box advanced search page shows an ‘exact phrase’ box.

In 2006,  and 2007, largely the same.

In 2008, the entry box that used to say “exact phrase” now says “exact wording or phrase”, hinting that perhaps around here was the change where double quotes could be used on a single term to avoid alternate forms, as well as a multi-word phrase.  The “+” search guidance still talks about how “Google ignores common words and characters”, and the “+” can be used to search on em anyhow.

In 2009,  the search hints page has moved to a new URL, with new layout.   The “+” is now described differently: No more mention of Google normally ignoring common words (around then is perhaps when they started indexing even common words?), the “+” is now described as excluding variant forms:  “sometimes Google helps out a little too much and gives you a synonym when you don’t really want it. By attaching a + immediately before a word….you are telling Google to match that word precisely as you typed it.”   The phrase search is again described narratively “the exact words in that exact order without any change”, hinting at both the phrase and “non-variant form” functions.  In 2009, we don’t have a screenshot of the advanced search page itself, so let’s check out the cached version:  yep, still got ‘exact word or phrase’ text box, which presumably results in double quotes.

2010, almost exactly the same, although the URL of the page is at help/refinesearch.html now. (Google’s 3xx redirects at the time the Archive crawled, and the Archive’s smarts in following them at crawl time and retrieval time, keeps us on track). And yeah, 2010 advanced search page still has ‘exact word or phrase’ box.

And it seems to stay that way until June 2011, the last crawl Archive seems to have at present.

Until present day, when the page is also much the same except no longer instructs on “+”, and has a search tip in upper right telling you to use double quotes instead.

So you wanna make a word mandatory, do you?

Interesting.  Many of us know that “+” used to result in “insist on this word or phrase being in the page”, since Google has (at most times, including up to present) sometimes showed you pages (even high up in your results) without including every term you entered. But the Google ‘search hints’ has actually never described it that way — it’s described it as either forcing search for common words otherwise not searched (no longer applicable, as Google currently indexes all words and even some punctuation), or as turning off synonyms (which a double-quoted single term has probably also done for some time).

It’s unclear to me if any functionality still exists to “insist”/require a word — I’m not sure I trust that double quotes do it.

(In other news, Wow, is the Internet Archive awesome, and their UX refresh a year or so ago so helpful for doing this kind of research). 


5 thoughts on “Google removes plus (+) operator”

  1. Right, so you only put the terms you want to be required in the double quotes, not every term.

    I still miss the + operator too though.

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