Google Search: The Asterisk Wildcard and Punctuation

Google_Search_Masters by by renatotarga via creative commons_BW_invert

Think you know all there is to know about Google search?

I was recently asked a question regarding the use of the asterisk when searching on Google, specifically in conjunction with certain punctuation.

This person was under the impression that if you used the equal sign on either side of an asterisk when searching Google, it would function as a multiple word wildcard operator. For example, searching for [linux=*=administrator] should return results of linux system administrator, linux systems administrator, linux network administrator, linux server administrator, etc.

The short answer is that Google ignores most punctuation, and that there is no need to combine the asterisk with any other punctuation or symbols for it to perform as a single or multiple word wildcard.

The long answer is much more interesting. I decided to perform some experiments with Google’s wildcard asterisk and I uncovered a few oddities and unsolved mysteries. I’m curious if you might be able to shed some light on them. But first, I will show you exactly how you can make good use of Google’s asterisk when searching for resumes on the Internet, as well as when X-Ray searching LinkedIn and Twitter. 

The Asterisk Operator on Google

Google treats the asterisk (*) as a placeholder for 1 or more words – it can also be referred to as a single or multiple word wildcard operator, because Google treats the asterisk as a placeholder for any unknown term(s) for which it tries to find the best match(es).  Essentially, Google “fills in the blanks” wherever there is an asterisk.

According to Google, here is an example of proper syntax when leveraging the asterisk: [ Obama voted * on the * bill ] – notice how there is a space on either side of each asterisk.

Searching for Candidates using Google’s Asterisk Operator 

Judicious use of the asterisk on Google when searching for candidates can yield great results and can increase relevance.

For example, if you are looking for someone who has experience administering linux, you could search for rigid phrases such as “administered linux,” or perhaps “linux systems administrator.” However, utilizing the asterisk on Google, you can add greater flexibility in your search and capture a wider variety and a larger number of results. 

(intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) “~administer * linux” -job -jobs

Notice the variety of the results of this search:

Linux_administration_search_example

The variety of relevant phrases that Google’s wildcard operator returns from just these 6 results is eye-opening. No sourcer or recruiter would sit down and be able to think of every conceivable phrase a candidate could say to represent their linux administration experience. With the proper use of Google’s asterisk search operator, there’s no need to, because the asterisk “fills in the blanks.”

When it comes to leveraging the asterisk in a Google search, don’t think in terms of single keywords – think about sentences and phrases that candidates might use to express their responsibilities.

Using Google’s Asterisk in a LinkedIn X-Ray Search

You can make use of Google’s wildcard operator to target current titles when performing an X-Ray search.

For example:  

site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) -intitle:directory (“current * project manager” OR “current * program manager”)

LinkedIn_X_Ray_Search_using_Googles_Asterisk_Wildcard

This is how the asterisk is put to work – it “bridges the gap” across the word “current” to the current title – in this case – “Program Manager.”

LinkedIn_X_Ray_Search_using_Googles_asterisk_wildcard2

Please note, however, that this technique is not flawless. In my testing, while this approach does find many profiles with the target current title, it does not actually find EVERY profile with the target current title. You can test this for yourself by running back-to-back external X-Ray and internal LinkedIn searches.

LinkedIn Phrase Searching

Of course you can also use the asterisk to search for flexible phrases just as we did with the Linux admin search above.

For example:

site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) -intitle:directory engineer “* cisco routers”

Instead of just searching for “cisco” and “router” or “routers” and simply matching keywords, we’re actually trying to target PHRASES that communicate responsibility. As sourcers and recruiters – you should not be looking just for keywords, you should really be looking for what people have DONE, not just mentions of search terms. Below you can see how using the asterisk has yielded results of people talking about configuring and implementing routers:

LinkedIn_X_Ray_Search_using_Google_asterisk_wildcard3

Google essentially “filled in the blank” of the asterisk preceding the two words of “cisco routers.” Clicking on a “cached” result shows exactly how our use of the asterisk pulled a phrase on this LinkedIn profile of someone who has been responsible for configuring Cisco routers.

LinkedIn_X_Ray__Search_Cisco 

Using Google’s Asterisk in a Twitter X-Ray Search

When X-Ray searching Twitter, you can use Google’s asterisk to search specifically for words mentioned in the “Bio” field. This is especially helpful because this is the place where you can more reliably find titles and professional skills.

Let’s try looking for people who mention the word “accountant” in their Twitter bio:

site:twitter.com “bio * accountant”

Click here for the 579 results.

Twitter_X_Ray_Search_using_google_wildcard_asterisk

Clicking into a result, we can see how this worked beautifully:

Twitter_X_Ray_Search_using_googles_asterisk_wildcard2

You can go a step further and try using two asterisks to reach further into the bio field:

site:twitter.com “bio * * accountant”

Click here for the 468 results.  Notice the lack of overlap in the results with the single asterisk search above.

Twitter_X_Ray_Search_using_2_asterisks

Remember that Google treats the asterisk as a single or multiple word wildcard. Exactly how many words? I am not sure, and Google’s documentation does not appear to say. Using 2 asterisks in the example above essentially extends the distance between the word “bio” and the word “accountant” – inserting more “blanks” for Google to fill in.

And you can keep adding more. For example, let’s try 3 asterisks:

site:twitter.com “bio * * * accountant”

Click here for the 350 results.

Twitter_X_Ray_Search_using_3_Asterisks

Punctuation in Google Search Strings

Now let’s get back to the initial question about combining the asterisk with punctuation.

Google’s basic help page USED to explain that “with some exceptions, punctuation is ignored (that is, you can’t search for @#$%^&*()=+[]\ and other special characters).” I say “USED” to because I can no longer find that specific statement on Google’s basic or advanced help pages, although it can be found quoted in the web search help forum.

Interestingly, if you search Google’s web search help for “punctuation,” the second result is this:

Google_Missing_Punctuation_Search_Help

There’s the phrase I’m looking for – however, when you click on the result, it takes you to this page, which doesn’t actually contain the phrase “with some exceptions, punctuation is ignored (that is, you can’t search for @#$%^&*()=+[]\ and other special characters).”

Weird. I wonder why it’s been removed. No doubt due to my Google-thinks-I’m-not-human search experiments. :-)

Google_thinks_I_am_inhuman

In any event, Google is supposed to ignore the equal sign, along with @#$%^&*()+[]\. Remember that list – I’m going to show you that Google doesn’t actually ignore all of those symbols/punctuation marks.

Experimenting with the Asterisk

While Google states that you can’t search FOR the equal sign, I decided to do a little testing to see exactly what Google makes of it if you do use it on either side of an asterisk in a query, just like the person who asked me the initial question apparently did (e.g. linux=*=administrator).

I also tried several different searches using some of the other supposedly ignored punctuation in combination with the asterisk, as well as one scenario where I didn’t use any spaces on either side of the asterisk – just to see what would happen. Yeah – this is what I do in my spare time. I’m that guy.

Search #1 =*=

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux=*=administrator (301 OR 703)  -job -jobs

1 result.

Asterisk_Search_1

Search #2 /*/

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux/*/administrator 301 -job -jobs

1 result- the same as the one from search #1

Asterisk_Search_1

Search #3 Single space on either side of the asterisk, using quotes

In addition, I added quotation marks around the “linux * administrator” phrase to more closely approximate searches #1 and #2 above, as there is technically no space on either side of the asterisk, keeping it a single phrase.

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) “linux * administrator” 301 -job -jobs

1 result again, same as before.

Asterisk_Search_1

So this shows that Google does in fact ignore the equal sign and the slash – it doesn’t have any effect on the asterisk/wild card operator over a space.

However – things get a little interesting when you try the question mark.

Search #4 ?*?

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux?*?administrator 301 -job -jobs

We get 357 results.

Asterisk_Search_2

Okay – we go from 1 result with the = and the /, as well as spaces enclosed by quotation marks, to 357 results simply by using a question mark? Something is going on with the question mark, but I am not sure exactly what. However -let’s remember that Google doesn’t explicitly mention the question mark in their list of ignored punctuation: @#$%^&*()=+[]\.

So the question mark really is a question mark. Yeah, I went there.

Do you have any insight as to why Google treats the question mark (?) any differently than an equal sign or a slash?

Search #5 A single space on either side of the asterisk, without quotes

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux * administrator 301 -job -jobs

357 results again.

Asterisk_Search_2

These results provide SOME insight, because they return the same number of results as search #4 that used the question marks. This leads me to believe that the question mark is actually ignored, because it returns the same number of results as the string that simply has spaces on either side of the asterisk.

However, if the question mark is ignored, then how can Google return fewer/different results in searches #1 and #2 that use the = and the /, which should also be ignored?

More questions than answers here. Have any insight?

Search #6 No space on either side of the asterisk

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux*administrator 301 -job -jobs

499 results this time. Interesting, yes?

Asterisk_Search_3

This reveals another mystery, because I can’t explain exactly why linux*administrator (no spaces) and linux * administrator (single space on either side of the asterisk) return different results, let alone why the search with no spaces returns broader results, which is a little counterintuitive considering all we did was eliminate the spaces around the asterisk. If anything, one might assume the results should tighten?

I attached a capture of 3 results from page 10 – notice how far apart the words administrator/administration and Linux are from each other. 

Asterisk_Search_4

Search #7 &*&

It gets even more interesting. As we’ve seen, Google claims to ignore most punctuation, including the ampersand. However, it certainly does not ignore the &, as evidenced by the fact that this search returns 0 results:

(inurl:resume | intitle:resume) linux&*&administrator 301 -job -jobs

Zero results.

Asterisk_Search_5

Conclusion

The single/multiple word wildcard operator on Google has many uses – it can help you target current titles with LinkedIn X-Ray searches, search for terms and titles in Twitter bios, and move beyond simply searching for keywords and step into the realm of searching for phrases that suggest actual responsibilities.

As for the combination of punctuation and the asterisk operator, it appears that the = sign (as well as a few other supposedly ignored symbols) actually seem to “bridge the gap” and effectively convert strings employing the asterisk (*) to something very similar to a phrase search using quotation marks (e.g., “linux * administrator”). While the asterisk can represent 1 or more words, when used in conjunction with a phrase search using quotation marks (or, as we have seen with = or / punctuation on either side of a single asterisk), Google returns results where the words on the left of the asterisk are always very close to those on the right of the asterisk – in most cases they are separated by only 1 word.

However, as we have seen – not all symbols are created equal. The linux?*?administrator is not processed the same way as linux=*=administrator. It appears that the ? does not “bridge the gap” of the words on either side of the asterisk as the = sign does, and the results are much looser – resembling the results of linux * administrator without quotations. Without the quotations, Google expands the proximity/distance between the words on the left and the right of the asterisk, in many cases well beyond 3 words.

Do you have any answers to the mysteries revealed in this post? If so – please let me know. Thanks!

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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.

  • http://www.cruitertalk.com Ryan Leary

    Awesome post. Very insightful and great content. Thanks!

  • http://www.w3recruitment.com gordon lokenberg

    Cool stuff again, tnx.

    Some things in using Boolean strings stay mysterious and that is why it is always fun to work with it and why it fits in Recruitment, where we also always think, that’s how it works… that is how we got the perfect candidate last time…

  • http://twitter.com/Twitter_Tips/ Dave

    You didn’t reuse the quotes around the search string when testing questions marks. Case 3 matches case 2 if you do

  • http://letznetwork.blogspot.com Joe Neitham

    Simply awesome and very natural. I did’nt expect anything different, when it come to research and sleuthing Glen you are the master!

  • Kelly

    Few questions/observations, given that I am, “that girl” who also runs these types of searches for out of a pure need to understand the nuances, and sometimes sheer entertainment!

    First, Why use the ~ with “~administer * linux”??? The tilde would typically find synonyms, but is trumped by the quotes. With and without it, you get the same results when used inside quotation marks. What are we trying to accomplish here? Is there something I’m missing???

    Second, let me say that I love the use of the * to find current job titles in LinkedIn and Twitter, and use it regularly. However, I have a different question about the search string… When I run site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) manager -intitle:directory…. I get 9.69 million. When I leave out the -intitle:directory piece I get 6.39 million. HUH???? By ELIMINATING pages that have the word directory in the title, I got MORE overall results. I would think that by eliminating any word, I would by definition, get less. Furthermore, site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager -intitle:directory (Search A = 9.96m) And site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager intitle:directory (Search B = 4.47m) And site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager (SEARCH C = 6.69m). Shouldn’t A+B=C??? Those without directory in the title + Those with directory in the title = Those with or without directory in the title? Can someone explain that one???

    For the punctuation searches, you need to have a larger sample in order to determine the impact of the results. Adding location in to the search limits it to a point where you can’t “see” what the punctuation is doing. I ran theses tests a few years ago, and just ran them again using your examples, though with a simplistic string to enough results to find the differences. Here’s what I got… IDENTICAL results for these.

    intitle:resume linux=*=administrator 94.8k results
    intitle:resume linux/*/administrator 94.8k results
    intitle:resume “linux * administrator” 94.8k results

    To test it, I threw a period in there too, since the period is by many people used to duplicate the effect of ” ” since it is a “one character wildcard” (the character usually being a space). Surprise surprise – the same darn results.
    intitle:resume linux.*.administrator 94.8k results

    Conclusion: The / and the = function as one character wildcards, much like the period does, all duplicating the effect of using quotation marks. Seems easy enough, but here’s where I get stumped…

    The ? and nothing, both yield LESS that then above searches by a TON.

    intitle:resume linux?*?administrator 31 RESULTS
    intitle:resume linux * administrator 31 RESULTS

    HUH???? I have no clue what the ? did. I don’t even have a theory for that one. Furthermore, it makes no sense, that “linux * administrator” gets 94.8k, but the same things out of quotes gets 31. It’s against all reason, and I’m stumped. Out of quotes, there is no need for proximity, AND Google will stem on them as well, so it should find administrate/administrator/administration/admin/etc. There should be TONS more results with the search out of quotes.

    Lastly, the use of the & in the search… Google does look for it… your search yielded zero results because it was too specific, but with a less restrictive search using only…. linux&*&administrator… you will find one result, with that EXACT sequence of characters in the text.

    Whew! Back to work now.

  • http://www.booleanblackbelt.com Boolean Black Belt

    Kelly,
    Wow – thank you for your fantastic comment and the time and thought you put into your response and analysis. It’s always great to find someone who is intrigued by the nuances of Boolean search/data mining and genuinely enjoys the analysis and investigative work invovled in figuring out how and why searches and search engines “tick.”

    Your response is a breath of fresh air and provides insight as to your level of understanding and expertise. The force is strong with you!

    As for your questions…

    Question
    First, Why use the ~ with “~administer * linux”??? The tilde would typically find synonyms, but is trumped by the quotes. With and without it, you get the same results when used inside quotation marks. What are we trying to accomplish here? Is there something I’m missing???

    Answer
    You’re on the money – the ~ is actually superfluous and does not affect the total number of results for the “~administer * linux”. However, adding a tilde to a similar search actually DOES affect the results totals. Why, I’m not exactly sure yet, because the first several pages don’t appear to be drastically different.

    For example – this search produces 512K results:
    (intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) “~develop * applications” -job -jobs

    And this search produces 151K results:
    (intitle:resume OR inurl:resume) “develop * applications” -job -jobs

    However, even when using the ~ in the above search, Google does not appear to actually do anything with the tilde. Perhaps as you suggest, the quotation marks trump the tilde – but that would be somewhat unique to Google. While not an exact comparison, many resume search engines and ATS’s will allow you to run something similar to this: “database admin*”, and they will actually process the asterisk wildcard, returning “database administrator” and “database administration” – even though technically you’re asking for an exact phrase. With Google, there really is no reason (other than its programming) why it could not process “~administer * linux” and return results with phrases beginning with the word administration instead of just administer.

    Question
    When I run site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) manager -intitle:directory…. I get 9.69 million. When I leave out the -intitle:directory piece I get 6.39 million. HUH???? By ELIMINATING pages that have the word directory in the title, I got MORE overall results. I would think that by eliminating any word, I would by definition, get less. Furthermore, site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager -intitle:directory (Search A = 9.96m) And site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager intitle:directory (Search B = 4.47m) And site:linkedin.com (inurl:pub OR inurl:in) manager (SEARCH C = 6.69m). Shouldn’t A+B=C??? Those without directory in the title + Those with directory in the title = Those with or without directory in the title? Can someone explain that one???

    Answer
    With very large results, Google is merely estimating, and you couldn’t actually verify any results past 1000 anyway. Although I see your point and understand the confusion – you’re right, the numbers don’t even remotely “add up” anyway, even if they are estimates.

    Making the search more precise to limit the results to a smaller number, we can experiment to see if the same strangeness applies to smaller result sets.

    All appears to be as it should be here – when we remove directory from the title, we get less results, as we would expect.

    This search returns 21 results:
    site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) +manager “atlanta area” oracle bpel

    While this search returns 10 results:
    site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) +manager “atlanta area” oracle bpel -intitle:directory

    However, specifically targeting results WITH directory in the title, we should get the difference between the 2 searches above (11) – but we only get 5.
    site:linkedin.com (inurl:in OR inurl:pub) +manager “atlanta area” oracle bpel intitle:directory

    So we definitely still get some weirdness as the numbers don’t add up.

    You raised an excellent point with the sample size with regard to testing the various punctuation marks, so I decided to replicate your searches, yet still limit them so that their results would be less than 1000, but still several 100. When you get results in the 10’s of 1000’s and higher, Google’s just making a rough estimate, which isn’t conducive to analyzing results, IMO.

    As you found, the = / . and the phrase inside of quotes all pulled the same number of results:
    intitle:resume linux=*=administrator +kernel +korn 540 Results
    intitle:resume linux/*/administrator +kernel +korn 540 Results
    intitle:resume “linux * administrator” +kernel +korn 540 Results
    intitle:resume linux.*.administrator +kernel +korn 540 Results

    However, quite the opposite of your findings, when I used the ? and spaces without quotes, I actually got MORE results:
    intitle:resume linux?*?administrator +kernel +korn 1560 Results
    intitle:resume linux * administrator +kernel +korn 1560 Results

    And when I didn’t use a space at all – I got even MORE results (which is odd!):
    intitle:resume linux*administrator +kernel +korn 1640 Results

    I didn’t get any results with the &:
    intitle:resume linux&*&administrator +kernel +korn 0 Results

    You mentioned that you think Google does look for the &, and that my search yielded zero results because it was too specific, but with a less restrictive search using only…. linux&*&administrator… you found one result, with that EXACT sequence of characters in the text. That’s my article. :-)

    You CAN get results if you put a space on either side of the ampersands, but that doesn’t shed any light on the fact that the only result that I get for linux&*&administrator is actually my site. It can be confusing, because Google will ask if you meant linux &*& administrator (with the spaces) – but the only real result is my website.

    Thank you for reading my site and for commenting and sharing your insights. I look forward to seeing more from you!

  • Gary Cozin

    Could the fact that Google doesn’t process or recognize special characters factor into the results??????

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  • http://www.booleanblackbelt.com Boolean Black Belt

    Gary,
    That’s the odd thing. Some of the punctuation that Google claims to ignore actually alters search results – which technically they shouldn’t. That’s why I find it so interesting!

  • http://www.booleanblackbelt.com Boolean Black Belt

    Joe – thanks for reading and for your kind comments!

  • http://www.booleanblackbelt.com Boolean Black Belt

    Ryan – I appreciate your readership; thanks for commenting!

  • Ed N.

    I suspect that Google uses the Linux wildcards. I’m not “that girl” but I might play with if if I get bored.

    http://www.codecoffee.com/tipsforlinux/articles/26-1.html

  • David H

    Thanks for these interesting insights. I have a (possibly) dumb question, but it is causing me major problems right now.

    Essentially I need to search for pages that contain an asterisk (“*”) joined to a word (in particular the phrase “miRNA*”) where the asterisk DOES NOT represent a wild card, but literally the asterisk character.

    Does anyone know how to do this?

    many many thanks in advance

  • http://tothepointresearch.com Tasha Bergson-Michelson

    Well, being another one of “those girls” (nice to meet you, Kelly!), I’d like to share some thoughts on all the exciting and interesting comments above:

    I had wondered about the =*= when I first saw it in Shally Steckerl’s wonderful Google cheat sheet, too. Looking into it, there is a Google help document, with a copyright date of 2002 that states:
    “Google recognizes hyphens, slashes, periods, equal signs, and apostrophes as phrase connectors.”
    (one copy of it is posted at: http://www.usdoj.gov/google_user_help.html, and also many other places, but apparently no longer on Google)

    For some time, I have been using hyphens to substitute for quotation marks in certain situations, e.g.: [minivan 35..-mpg]. Here, I am able to use a number-range search and still “glue” another search term to it, to assure that the number range search result relates to the concept I desire. I can also do this search as [minivan 35..=mph] or [minivan "35.. mph"]. Though, I do see that it is bringing back some varying results–which I’ll have to play with some more. (Sorry, I am a research trainer rather than a recruiter, so my searches may be a bit off-point for this audience.)

    So, since you can use the punctuation listed above to “glue” terms together into a phrase, it solves the ~ problem that Glen and Kelly were discussing:

    “~administer * linux” negates the related term search usually stimulated by the tilde, but

    ~administer=*=linux
    gives you the wildcard and also retains the related term search. One of you who knows more about recruiting will have to tell me if this is a good result, but it looks like it works to my eye.

    What is brilliant about using =*= in training other searchers is that it makes spaces visible, and helps people remember to have them there, when other forms of notating spaces can be confusing.

    Glen, thanks for the awesome post!

  • Danish Haidri

    Great insight! How do we insert location into the boolean search string?

  • mark

    http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=134479
    This is a place they have that statement. Good
    post though! =D

  • Tasha

    BTW, and update: all those punctuation marks no longer work to “glue” words together like quotation marks do. So now my search always looks like this: [minivan "35.. mph"].

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  • Aus_Roh

    Isn’t the question mark being treated by Google as if some type of question is being asked rather than some type of wildcard is being used?

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