Saturday, March 21, 2009

Googling for phrases: Trying to route around new inefficiencies

In the good old days, Google's search engine supported searching for exact phrases in two different ways:
You can search for phrases by adding quotation marks. Words enclosed in double quotes ("like this") appear together in all returned documents. Phrase searches using quotation marks are useful when searching for famous sayings or specific names.
Certain characters serve as phrase connectors. Phrase connectors work like quotes because they join your search words in the same way double quotes join your search words. For example, the search:
is treated as a phrase search even though the search words are not enclosed in double quotes. Google recognizes hyphens, slashes, periods, equal signs, and apostrophes as phrase connectors.

For a while now, the second approach has not been working.
Compare [green-ham-and-eggs] with ["green ham and eggs"]

Out of curiosity, I googled ["green-ham-and-eggs"] and got what appeared to be the same results as for ["green ham and eggs"].

The official position now seems to be:
The hyphen - is sometimes used as a signal that the two words around it are very strongly connected.

There might even be some utility to this interpretation, though for now it is depriving me of my favorite way of refining Google searches.

This blog posting sheds a tiny amount of light on why Google did this. At least, it teaches me how to save a keystroke: in searches, OR can be replaced with | (the pipe symbol or vertical bar).

I'm trying to figure out how to fix this on my own. The most obvious way of restoring this behavior would be to use an URL-rewriting proxy, like ick-proxy.

The knee-jerk reaction is generally to propose some kind of Greasemonkey script or Firefox add-on, but I would like a solution that is as browser-independent (and indeed, computer-independent) and configuration-free as possible.

Someone has also pointed out that the Microsoft search engine supports the dashes-as-phrase-connectors functionality, though I shudder at the idea of switching to Microsoft.

I will report back once I get around to setting up ick-proxy.

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