Why learn how to master Boolean search strings?

Posted by | November 07, 2008 | Boolean | 3 Comments
Image by shawnblog

Image by shawnblog

Why bother to learn the arcane art and science of Boolean search logic?

It really bothers me when I read or hear about the idea that sourcers and recruiters don’t need to worry about learning how to craft and execute Boolean queries for talent identification and acquisition. This opinion usually has something to do with the idea that creating effective Boolean search strings is a time-consuming and difficult-to-learn process, and ultimately ends up in lowly “buzzword matching.”

It’s one thing to hear this kind of thought coming from a software vendor that’s selling a product, claiming that their “fuzzy logic” or “artificial intelligence” application can match candidates to job openings as well as a senior sourcer or recruiter can, without the need to learn how to create and run advanced Boolean queries. I get it – they’re selling something…the idea that their software can reduce or eliminate the need to train yourself or your sourcing/recruiting team on how to create effective Boolean search strings. I can’t blame the software vendors – they’re trying to make money.

It’s another to hear this kind of thought coming from a staffing professional – that’s just scary. It tells me very clearly that the person expressing this opinion doesn’t have a strong understanding of, or a high level of expertise with, the inherent power and control advanced Boolean search tactics and strategies can afford a sourcer or recruiter when it comes to talent identification and acquisition. If you don’t know how to use it or only have a basic level of understanding of it, how are you qualified to have an opinion on it, least of all a potentially negative and damaging opinion? Yes, I do know what they say about opinions. I’ll keep it clean here.

Discounting the power and value of learning how to effectively wield Boolean search strings is no different than saying that there’s little value in learning how to effectively perform cold calling/phone sourcing. With either method of sourcing, primary or secondary, it is more the person applying the concepts, tactics, strategies, and techniques than the Boolean operators or the phone sourcing scripts themselves. Make no mistake – it’s the human element that gets the results.

Okay, so Boolean Logic isn’t as sexy as Social Media and certainly isn’t the staffing buzzword du jour. However, does anyone think for a second that the world is going to go backwards to storing everything on paper? HELLO?!? With more and more information being stored electronically (pretty much everything, really) – online somewhere (Social Networks, blogs, job boards, etc.) or buried in a corporate database/ATS, it’s worthless unless you can retrieve it. You can’t retrieve information electronically without using some kind of query logic. So how does it make sense to think that it’s not critically important that sourcers and recruiters learn how to manipulate information retrieval logic?

Part of the reason why some people have a negative sentiment towards Boolean searching is a simple lack of knowledge/exposure, because many online sources of information/data have poor search interfaces, affording the user only basic search options and typically no full Boolean support. Poor/limited search interfaces and options will yield poor/limited search results. You may not think of the results as poor – but that’s mostly due to the fact that you have no basis of comparison, as well as something I like to call the Sourcer’s Fallacy – the perception that if you didn’t find it, it’s not there to be found. That’s the funny thing about information retrieval – you’re never aware of what you can not, or did not find. It’s all too easy to assume that the results you DID get are representative of all of the matches available. We all know what can be said about assumptions…that’s right, that they leave room for error (hey – I took the high road).

Most social media sources/networks have limited search options, and many ATS’s fail to support full Boolean queries. Internet search engines are no less guilty – while most support simple AND/OR/NOT queries, most do not support extended Boolean functionality such as configurable proximity searching or variable term weighting – where the real power lies – which can enable a user to go WAY past “buzzword matching” and achieve semantic search. Also – there’s a lot of junk on the Internet – most of your effort is spent trying to eliminate the junk and zero-in on exactly what you’re looking for.

Aside from resumes on the Internet, most other sources of talent/human capital-related data are shallow sources of information. Social media/networks, blogs and such simply don’t have a whole lot of information about people. Less information = diminished ability to run effective text-based queries. If it’s not there, you can’t search for it and find it. And often what IS there doesn’t give you much to go on. Talk about a time drain… I’m not saying you can’t find people on the Internet – of course you can. Finding people on the Internet is easy. Finding people on the Internet who are actually qualified for and interested in your openings and will do the commute is not.

The major job boards do support full Boolean logic, and there’s even one job board that recognizes the NEAR operator. However, just because a staffing professional has access to an information source that allows full Boolean queries, it does not mean the user actually knows how to manipulate the search interface for maximum ROI. I’ve trained hundreds of recruiters – including experienced corporate recruiters from well-respected companies, as well as experienced agency and executive recruiters – the vast majority of whom had had access to at least one major job board and also had access to an internal candidate database/ATS. Most of these staffing professionals did not come on board with even have a basic level of mastery of Boolean logic. Who is (not) training these poor folks?

Have you every seen or overheard a friend or coworker get frustrated when trying to use their (insert tech gadget or software application here)? Ever hear someone in that kind of situation say, “this thing is broken,” “this thing isn’t working,” or “this thing is a piece of (insert expletive)?” Ever help that person out and find out it wasn’t the thing but the user? Ever be the person who assumes “this thing isn’t working?” I know I have.

It almost seems to be embedded in human nature to externalize cause or blame (“it can’t be me – it must be this thing”). It’s my opinion that this effect is at work when people underestimate the importance and the value of learning how to manipulate talent/human capital data sources. Many people try and use the online job boards and their internal resume database/ATS and get less quantity and/or lower quality results than they were expecting and assume it’s the job board or the ATS, when in fact it could be the their ability to actually USE the system. An enlightened sourcer or recruiter should always be aware that just because you did not find it, it does not necessarily mean it’s not there – you just may not have created a search capable of retrieving what you’re looking for.

The bottom line is that if you are a recruiting or staffing professional – you simply cannot afford to NOT learn how to manipulate electronic information sources to retrieve talent/human capital data, and the most advanced, configurable, and precise method of electronic information retrieval employs Boolean logic. Always remember – basic and imprecise queries yield basic and imprecise results.

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About Glen Cathey

Glen Cathey is a sourcing and recruiting thought leader with over 16 years of experience working in large staffing agency and global RPO environments (>1,000 recruiters and nearly 100,000 hires annually). Starting out his career as a top producing recruiter, he quickly advanced into senior management roles and now currently serves as the SVP of Strategic Talent Acquisition and Innovation for Kforce, working out of their renowned National Recruiting Center with over 300 recruiters. Often requested to speak on sourcing and recruiting best practices, trends and strategies, Glen has traveled internationally to present at many talent acquisition conferences (5X LinkedIn Talent Connect - U.S. '10, '11, '12, Toronto '12, London '12, 2X Australasian Talent Conference - Sydney & Melbourne '11, '12, 6X SourceCon, 2X TruLondon, 2X HCI) and is regularly requested to present to companies (e.g., PwC, Deloitte, Intel, Booz Allen Hamilton, Citigroup, etc.). This blog is his personal passion and does not represent the views or opinions of anyone other than himself.

  • SourcerKelly

    Bravo!

  • Boolean Black Belt

    Thanks Kelly! Please help me spread the word!

  • Vinod Raj

    This Really an straight hit for recruiters. I’m not a master in Boolean search, I’m yet learning and seeing results. This helped me close deals in last few months. I should probably talk to my management to get our guys trained by you.