You Should Know

/ 3 years ago /

 Article by Alex Ekong

Boolean search terms are the cheat codes for Google you never knew you needed

I’m glad I graduated when I did. I was definitely at the point where if I had read just one more 30-page peer-reviewed journal with only a paragraph of relevant information in it, I would’ve hot-spooned out both my eyes and ate them. Dissertation season was a long and painful chore, and all because I had no idea what a Boolean search is.

Maths and science students probably know all about the idea of Boolean logic. This is the kind of thing that goes over arts students’ (like me) heads though. So let me fill you in. Using Boolean logic to search a database means using careful phrasing and keywords to produce the most relevant results. Basically, they’re the cheat codes to your Google search.

Where did Boolean search come from?

boolean search

Boolean logic was developed – shockingly – by George Boole, an English mathematician from the 19th century. It was designed right at the dawn of computing  to combine certain concepts and exclude certain concepts when searching databases.

This has gone on to become the very foundation of most online databases and search engines. So whether it’s Google, JSTOR or your library database, Mr. Boole and his fancy keywords – known as Boolean operators – can get you all the right info with none of the fuss.

Okay, wise guy, how do they work?

boolean search

Well, depending on which words you use, you can limit, widen, or more closely define your search. Naturally, this will help you immensely when you want specific information or raw data to fill that massive hole in your essay. They’re small and they’re simple, but these keywords will save you countless hours on the road to deadline day.


AND narrows a search by combining terms. Use it and Google will only return result which contain the search terms you specify. Trying to find the link between french politics and Jean-Luc Godard films? Try searching ‘politics AND Godard films‘. This tends to be the default behaviour for databases but there may come a time where it does something different and you’ll need to override it. Then you’ll thank me.

boolean search


Using OR broadens a search to include results that contain either of the terms you’re trying find. It’s essentially like conducting two searches at once, which is pretty darn efficient. That initial search for gold at the start of the essay process will be a breeze with this one.


NOT is the crucial one. Use it to get pinpoint accuracy on a search by excluding all the keywords you’re not interested. At long last, a way to search for information about Timmy Turner without results about the Desiigner song coming up. I feel like this is a problem that only affects me though.

boolean search


Other useful tricks

Here are a few other nifty search engine hacks that might help you get to your goals:

  • Put your search term in quote marks (“”) to get results which contain search term exactly as you typed it. For when a synonym simply won’t do.
  • Library database acting a fool? Type “book” in front of your search phrase to only get book-related results, e.g. “book History of hip-hop”
  • To search for things on one specific website using Google, you can use the keyword “site”, e.g. “site:”. You can also use “related” and a URL to get pages related to a particular site.
  • Use “filetype” to get – you guessed it – a specific file type, e.g. “filetype: pdf”

Armed with these tools and the powerful art of Boolean search, may you breeze through essay season on your way to a tantalising Summer 2017. And should you happen run into a descendent of George Boole on your travels, thank them for making the world a better place.

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