What is a Boolean Black Belt Anyway?

I’ve been blogging nearly 3 years now, and I realized I’ve never come out and actually defined the term “Boolean Black Belt.”

The concept seems pretty self explanatory, but there has been at least 1 person who’s taken the opportunity to point out (and gain some traffic in the process – but it’s all good!) that it could be perceived as a bit of an oxymoron to be an “expert” in something as simple as 3 Boolean operators.

Interestingly, however, I’ve found that most sourcers and recruiters don’t even fully exploit the various powers of the OR and NOT operators – not even close.

So what is a “Boolean Black Belt” anyway?

Black Belt

I use the term “Black Belt” in reference to the widely known way of describing an expert in martial arts, where the black belt is commonly the highest belt color used and denotes a high degree of competence.

That’s the easy part; the “Boolean” part isn’t so simple to define.


I’d like to take the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about, and disambiguate my use of “Boolean” in “Boolean Black Belt,” and pretty much any article in which I refer to Boolean.

When I refer to “Boolean,” I am not refering only to the basic Boolean operators of AND, OR, and NOT. I’m actually referring to the entire process of:

  1. Analyzing, understanding, and interpreting job opening/position requirements
  2. Taking that understanding and intelligently selecting titles, skills, technologies, companies, responsibilities, terms, etc. to include (or purposefully exclude!) in a query employing appropriate Boolean operators and query modifiers
  3. Reviewing the results of the initial search to assess relevance as well as scanning the results for additional and alternate relevant search terms, phrases, and companies
  4. Based upon the observed relevance of and intel gained from the search results, modifying the search string appropriately and running it again
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until an acceptably large volume of highly relevant results is achieved

Instead of trying to put all of that into a domain name and a concise catch phrase, hopefully you can appreciate why I chose to summarize that entire process as “Boolean.”

Beyond Boolean Logic

Admittedly, the basic Boolean operators are easy to learn – after all, there’s only 3 of them!

However, anyone who’s adept at leveraging databases and information systems for talent identification knows that the “magic” does not lie in the operators themselves, but in all of the steps detailed above.

The “real” work of creating effective Boolean search strings lies in the interpretive analysis of the need, determining what terms to include and exclude from searches and in what specific combination, in the analysis of the relevance of the initial search results, and the adaptive process of learning from the results to further refine the Booleans to find a large quantity of highly relevant results – people who are highly likely to be (or know!) the right match for your hiring needs.

What I just described is actually the process of Information Retrieval (IR), but no matter how much I write on the subject, people still cling to “Boolean.”

Sourcing isn’t so Simple

While learning about the concepts of basic Boolean logic is easy, there is nothing inherently easy about creating Boolean search strings for talent identification.

To say that searching databases and information systems to identify talent is “easy” because it’s defined only by 3 simple Boolean operators is to admit that you have little to no understanding or appreciation of online, database, or social network sourcing.

That would be like saying that a challenging math-based brain teaser is simple because everyone understands addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication.

For example, this classic puzzle should be easy for anyone who understands basic math, right?

“My grandson is about as many days as my son is weeks, and my grandson is as many months as I am in years. My grandson, my son and I together are 100 years. Can you tell me my age in years?”

After all, it only requires 3 basic and simple mathematical operations: addition, multiplication, and division. If that one is too “easy” for you, give this brain teaser a try – it too only requires basic math to solve.

It should be obvious that the real challenge of math-based problems comes from being able to understand the puzzle in the first place, and then determining precisely what types of equations and operations are required to solve the problem.

The analysis and understanding is primary, the mathematical operators secondary, as they are useless without the proper understanding of the required and specific application of them.

It’s the same thing with Boolean search strings.

Extended Boolean

Beyond the 3 “standard” Boolean operators, there lies extended Boolean, which typically includes proximity operators and term weighting/boosting.

While not every search engine supports extended Boolean, those that do afford users the ability to dramatically increase the relevance of search results, effectively enabling user-defined semantic search.

Semantic Search

Semantic search can be defined as search techniques that leverage the actual meaning in words and phrases and can return results that more closely match the “meaning”  or intent of the search rather than simply returning results that match the words of the search.

The whole goal of searching databases, the Internet, social media, or other information systems is ostensibly to find people who have a high likelihood of being (or knowing!) a potential match for a hiring need that you have now, or will have in the future.

The more skill and ability you have in being able to craft and execute Boolean and extended Boolean search strings that find more of the right people more quickly, the more effective you can be as a Sourcer or Recruiter.

By “effective” I mean filling more positions with high quality talent while reducing time-to-fill.

More. Faster. Better.

Whenever I refer to “Boolean” in articles or even in the name of this blog, I’m actually referring to extended Boolean and user-defined semantic search as well as the basic Boolean operators.

Query Modifiers

Boolean search strings are often comprised of more than just search terms and Boolean operators.

There are also query modifiers, and depending on the search engine, they can include: *, ” “, inurl:, ~, ( ), w/, and many more.

Anyone hoping or claiming to have a high degree of competence with sourcing not only has to have a solid command of the basic Boolean operators, but also how to leverage the available and appropriate query modifiers.

Final Thoughts

I use the term “Boolean Black Belt” to describe someone with a high degree of competence in the entire process of interpreting and understanding a specific talent need, determining what terms to include and/or exclude from searches and in what specific combination, crafting search strings making effective and appropriate use of Boolean operators, query modifiers, search terms, and semantic search techniques, the analysis of the relevance of the initial search results, and the adaptive process of learning from the results to further refine the Booleans to find a large quantity of highly relevant results – people who are highly likely to be (or know!) the right match for their hiring need.

I believe that when most people in sourcing and recruiting roles refer to “Boolean,” they are not simply referring to AND, OR, and NOT.

To say that mastering the use of Boolean search strings for talent identification is limited to the understanding of the functions of 3 Boolean operators would be ridiculous and an obvious sign of ignorance.

Most people would agree that Barack Obama is an excellent orator, yet he does not use words most people do not understand. For the most part, he uses common words that everyone is familiar with. But his ability as an orator cannot be defined by or limited to the common words he uses – it lies in how he organizes his thoughts and how he arranges and delivers his sentences to convey his indended meaning.

Most sculptors, golfers, jiu jitsu practitioners, and orators use the same tools, clubs, moves, and words. However, mastery does not come from the specific tools, clubs, movements, or words – it’s in the appropriate and effective APPLICATION of them, typically in response to a challenge or to achieve a specific goal.

Knowing what golf clubs are and how to swing them does not make you a world-class golfer. Having a good vocabulary does not make you an excellent public speaker. Knowing how to punch and kick will not ensure you can win any martial arts/MMA competitions. Owning a hammer and chisel does not make you a world-renowned sculptor.

Similarly, having a command of 3 Boolean operators does not ensure that you can understand the positions you are sourcing or recruiting for and effectively leverage electronic sources of human capital data (databases, ATS/CRM’s, social media, the Internet, job boards, etc.) to find more of the best candidates available for your hiring needs more quickly.

Nor does it define a Boolean Black Belt, if such a thing can or should exist.