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The Feature Google Killed The + Command For Is Now Dead (searchengineland.com)
167 points by fraqed on June 22, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

I've never been a google+ basher, but I really hated Google dropping the + search operator. It also showed me in a very personal way just how lazy users can be: Wrapping a word in double quotes is "just" 4 keystrokes instead of 1 for the + in front of it, but I effectively stopped using that feature after the change.

The shitty thing was that they dropped the + operator at the same time they significantly increased the "fuzziness" of their search algorithm.

For some searches it might have helped, but for extremely targeted or highly technical searches it was a disaster. Almost as horrible as the bad old days when search engines tended to use "or" for search queries instead of "and". Still it's very, very difficult to tell google that you actually for really really realsies want to search for all the terms you typed in.

Sometimes when I'm searching I get the feeling Google is dropping things I'm asking for in order to give me more results.

But there's no way they're dumb enough to think that's helpful, right? They do understand that people want less - but more relevant - results, instead of just having more useless ones?

Like just the other day I was searching for "ruby net::ldap <some error message>" and it decided to put, front and center, results from CPAN. Just about as irrelevant as a search result can get. The little grey highlights below the results had "ruby" listed with a strikethrough, to imply that if I had only searched without that word, I could have gotten these helpful results on my own.

I can only hope that this behavior was not a conscious decision by anyone at Google. I hope it's because they added some machine learning or something to their algorithms and this was just some emergent behavior they hadn't accounted for. Because if somebody working for a search engine company decides that irrelevant search results are a good thing, or that number of results are by any means a useful metric, I'm scared for the future of Google.

The question is: Did it ever happen to you when google actually had this exact combination in their index? For me, so far, getting these kinds of results is just synonymous to 'no match found', so I move on. In some edge cases it might be helpful to get these results, in most cases I just change my query. But if google were actually hiding good results from you this way, they'd be really bad at their job wouldn't they?

> Did it ever happen to you when google actually had this exact combination in their index?


Try searching for "ruby net::ldap search", without the quotes. For me, a CPAN page is the second result. (This is even logged out, in a chrome incognito window, so no cookies are sent to google.) That page doesn't have "ruby" or anything related to "ruby" on it, at all.

But even if I was searching for something esoteric like an error message, it's much more helpful to give me no results than it is to give me irrelevant ones. Irrelevant results just waste my time clicking/skimming through them, where an empty result set will signal to me very clearly that what I'm searching for doesn't make sense.

I see cpan in 4th postion, but I'm not sure I see the problem?

Net::LDAP is a perl module too, one of the things it does is search, so 3/4 of the words are not just matched literally, but are the right kind of net (not fishing or stockings), the right kind of ldap , the right kind of search.

You claim there is nothing related to ruby on that page, yet how many times must people have linked to both those languages from a webpage, perhaps alongside other related terms like python?

Its not perfect, and it's not magic, but is that really the level we expect from Google, so much so that we're in a huff if we have to scroll past one easily discounted search result?

I expect that if I use a search term, Google won't ignore it. I used the word ruby in there because I specifically care about ruby-related search results, not perl ones. When google ignores one of my search terms in the name of giving me more results, it gives me less relevant results.

They had to put a lot of effort into a search system that can ignore words that you're searching for. I'm wondering why that's necessary when I can clearly get better search results when all of my search terms are included.

FWIW, when I do the same in a chrome incognito window, all of the results are ruby (the language) related. But us seeing two different sets of results may make the problem worse, not better :)

I get GP's result when using DuckDuckGo with g! (which should be the same as incognito), so there is that. However I don't see what's the big deal with that CPAN result - it's not like the useful results are drowning in these links here and you can always use quoted if you don't want that. In fact I think it's sometimes useful information that there are very similarly named things than the one we've searched for.

The problem with judging this is confirmation bias, though. I only notice it when google has infuriatingly dropped the key term in my query, but I search for things at least ten or twenty more times each day. Google may be doing the same thing there and I just don't notice, and it's actually helpful.

I wonder if it would help if they added some heuristic where, especially if it looks like a technical topic, it would try to find the word that was most domain-defining (in your example: "ruby") and never drop that one. I wonder how difficult that would be to solve. Even with a lot of false positives, the worst that you'd get is the results quality of not dropping any of the terms.

They do try search combinations with some words omitted, and right at the bottom of each query they tell you which part of your phrase they have excluded.

I also get this behaviour all the time, and I have no idea how it could improve the quality of my search results.

Yes, if I search for "Windows 7 NAT", dropping the NAT keyword returns more results. But none of them will give me the information I'm looking for.

Exactly. Searches with less results are nearly always better than searches with more... I don't know why Google would think it's helpful to include more, but clearly less relevant results. (By definition, too. If a result is lacking one of your search terms, it's less relevant to what you searched for, strictly speaking.)

This is especially true when what I'm searching for yields almost no results. That's how I typically know that what I'm searching for was probably bogus to begin with. But when the first page is full of a bunch of fuzzed-out results that are only tangentially related to what I searched for, I now have to skim through a page full of results to realize that Google just gave up and decided to omit several of my terms.

Right, and it told me that the CPAN pages were with "ruby" omitted. But why would I want those search results? Those are obviously not what I searched for.

And they weren't at the bottom, they were actually the first result on the list.

That's because being a generalist consumer-facing product, Google is a recall-oriented rather than precision-oriented, which means that it is in their best interest to never have their users in front of a blank page, even if it means having less relevant results in the front page.

> They do understand that people want less - but more relevant - results, instead of just having more useless ones

I would argue that since they have access to their data and they do not do anything without having data supporting the change, they would know better what people want. You and I may very well just not be in their main demographics.

Under their search tools menu they have a "verbatim" option. There's probably a bookmarklet out there somewhere to make it a one click option.

My post wasn't really about technical support, it's about the merits of Google's decision to fuzz your search terms in the name of better results. I'm aware of verbatim search and the fact that I can quote words to make them required for the search results. I'm saying that it's a recent phenomenon for Google to intentionally ignore words in my query in order to include more results. I'm not really sure why anyone at Google would ever think that to be a good idea.

I can guess that it's because most of their queries are closer to natural language ones and not to a specific term search. If you think that way it's clear why more related results can be useful. Though on a specific term search it is a disaster.

I believe (but have no evidence) that Google does this to redirect users towards searches which are more likely to serve ads. The more results a search yields --> the more likely it is someone is paying to target it. This likely applies more to general users and not HN users (turns out queries for error messages are hard-to-monetize).

> turns out queries for error messages are hard-to-monetize

Really? You would think it would be the perfect opportunity for competitors to advertise. Here's the user frustrated with their existing vendor because their computer is emitting some kind of gibberish instead of doing what they paid for it to do, and here you are offering a different product that presumably makes the error go away.

In corporate software, perhaps. I'm not going to ditch python-ldap just because an ad on a search page had… I don't even know who would advertise on that kind of page. Software consulting maybe? Outsourcing?

Double really! error msg == probably developer or tech person with lots of disposable income. Editors, debuggers, conferences, books, geekchandise, etc.

This totally makes sense unless you actually think about it. Then it's just shit.

Agreed 100%. It's extremely frustrating to have your search engine second-guessing you and making assumptions about what you really want.

If the majority of people don't know how to use a search engine correctly, maybe we should focus on teaching them how to use one, instead of dumbing down the search engine so it gives only "OK" results for stupid queries and is nearly useless for people who know what they really want. I know at least the "introduction to the Internet" courses used to teach how to use search engines effectively, i.e. use precise search queries, +/-/boolean operators, etc; don't know if they do anymore.

I hope this isn't the case, but to me it almost feels like they're trying to deliberately make it more difficult to find exact information on what you're searching for, and that makes it harder for people to get the information they need to make informed decisions, so they can be more easily persuaded to think what companies like Google want them to. For a lot of people, Google is how they view the Internet - in some ways, Google is the Internet for them. Google has immense control over what and how people can find things on the Internet, and that is what I find most truly quite worrying.

DuckDuckGo fits very neatly in this niche, btw (although it has its own flaws of course).

The bigger problem was it showed very clearly googles lack of care for search power users.

The plus operator was just one problem. Soon after they started fuzzing words in doubleqoutes and at some point they even fuzzed verbatim searches. (Luckily it now works to some degree again.)

The bigger problem is that you, as a user, don't have any control over internet search. Not only are you dependent on Google (or another provider) for what search commands you can execute, you also don't have no control about how these commands work nor on what subset of the database. Especially advanced features, complex queries, or power tools for searching are unavailable to the common user.

I have no idea about the (development of the) quality of the search query + results. I have no idea how to measure that (over time).

I suppose I could write a personalized search engine that runs queries I care about regularly on different engines, aggregate the results, write some code to analyze, monitor, and visualize all that, and start running my own valuing algorithms to determine the quality and depth of Internet searches. Space and computation power are cheap nowadays, so for certain well-specified domains, this might be feasible?

What is lacking are easy ways to make vertical specific search engines. You are never going to make a better valuing algorithm than Google for general purpose search. A system designed by domain experts should be able to beat Google most of the time within their own tiny niche.

Yes. General search will give you general results. For day-to-day issues, like finding a nice restaurant in my neighborhood or some information of a device I own, it'll give everyone good results and that's fine. But once search become personal, i.e. about topics and issues you care about and (potentially) know a lot about, general search results aren't acceptable anymore as you know they're incomplete, not ranked accordingly to any meaningful measure given your understanding of the domain, and over-all the "generalness" of the results.

I've said this before, but google search is turning into the yellow pages.

What about p2p search engines? Are they any good?

Yacy is usable right now, and gets better the more people use it.


It's been a while and I don't feel like digging up the details, but double quoting is not equivalent to what the former plus operator accomplished.

Broadly stated, double quoting permits more fuzziness that the former plus operator did. And there are times -- particularly with all the cruft in search results -- when you -- I, at least -- really don't want that fuzziness.

Matt Cutts gave some numbers about how often the + operator was used - and even then it was mostly used incorrectly.

> > In the past, we provided users with the + operator to help you search for specific terms. However, we found that users typed the + operator in less than half a percent of all searches, and two thirds of the time, it was used incorrectly.


Check my math, but I think that means that + was used correctly in only 1 out of 600 searches.

People mention "power users". Google does not want power users. Google wants a mass market of people who see, and click, ads.

EDIT: i guess I need to say that I hated when Google changed the plus operator; and I find using Google now to be a frustrating and annoying experience. I'm shown results tha often are not relevant to my queries.

And Barrkel makes a good point about my confusing potentially misleading description of the times + is used correctly.

Less than one out of six hundred trips takes anyone to the hospital, but we wouldn't want a car that breaks down as soon as anyone is injured.

People don't often need a power search. But when you do, you really want it to work.

Google gets ad clicks by building a brand, they want us to associate them with "competent to handle all my search needs." This is why Ford and Dodge make stock cars, not because they want to sell them on a mass market, but because they want to convince people the brand is capable of excelling beyond their needs.

UPDATE: I think you're right about Google's rationale, I just think execs are missing some counterarguments.

>People don't often need a power search. But when you do, you really want it to work.

That was part of the draw of switching to Google way back when. If you had a more challenging search to pull off, you used Google, and eventually it became a habit to just visit Google in the first place.

Now I'm starting to try DDG when Google frustrates me. I also don't need 'Google Power' for a lot of my searches.

It's probably a good thing they're implementing these changes. It makes it easier for an underdog to come in and disrupt their core business, introducing some healthy competition.

> users typed the + operator in less than half a percent of all searches

Matt Cutts obviously isn't stupid, but that's a very stupid thing to say, or think, or act upon.

Many things are done rarely, that are extremely useful or important.

Hey, most search strings probably represent "less than half a percent" of all possible searches; so by that metric they could drop most of their index, and only answer the most frequent searches...

When you say "+ was used correctly in only 1 out of 600 searches", it seems to imply that it was used incorrectly in 599 out of 600 searches. Your phrasing makes too strong a claim as most people understand the language, IMO.

Let's not forget how large an audience any Google feature has, though. + being used correctly, even by 0.33% of users, is still probably a million people.

So, 1 out of every 200 searches contain a "+", possibly for refinement. In 1 out of every three of those searches, the "+" helps the user find what's wanted. No information on a) some users are better at using the "+" correctly than others, b) If removing the "+" means that now three out of three of those searches fail.

And no information if the correctly used pluses were inserted by humans, deliberately, and were useful.

Still, I am surprised that Google has made search so poor for so many people in some situations. Although I understand they've done some work on making programming code easier to search for?

Just 1 in 600... and that's how many tens of million of queries? Or hundreds?

Anyway, losing mindshare among power users is very dangerous in the IT business. Even when you really just care about the average Joe.

losing mindshare among power users is very dangerous in the IT business

Absolutely. And Google have been stumbling hard the past 2-3 years.

I wonder what tiny percentage of searches used a + to get to a google+ page and what percentage of those were using it incorrectly.

What do they even mean by "it was used incorrectly"? Did they somehow reach out to and ask the user if they found what they were looking for...?

google knows if you found what you're looking for because they observe your behaviour. If you keep going through to page 30, it means your search was unsuccessful. if you search again for a similar term ten seconds later, it means your search was unsuccessful. they don't need to ask.

but in this case, it probably just means that people were using it like "cookies+cream". they aren't using + as an operator, they're using it as a synonym for "and", and they are better served by google parsing their query as native language instead of parsing it as an expression in a rarely used query language.

They mean it was ran+domly inserted+in weird places. I think.

It probably means that people were searching for Ben + Jerry's or the like.

Did't it only worked if there was no space character before + character and the word?

"No results" is a feature, not a bug, I'd much rather have no results or very few than a whole pile of crap to wade through in case the real results are buried in there somewhere.

Double quotes should translate to 'match this or nothing', what's the point of quoting otherwise. And if the + command is now no longer used then maybe bring back the old usage, which worked just fine.

Change for the sake of change is ridiculous, changing a well known user-interface in order to push a non-core product is slightly mad.

It also shows how bad it is to have all these services belong to one single company, imagine google+ being launched as facebook+, do you think that google would have dropped their '+' operator for that?

The Verbatim search option often isn't verbatim enough. Also it can't be combined with a time limited search; selecting "last month" clears the verbatim option :(

So true. I run into this when needing to debug some weird stack trace error but have recently run into google fuzzing my "" exact searches. Now I know I'm not the only one

>For example, a search for the word mars generates about 207 million matches. That would find pages that have the exact word plus pages that might not have the word but are deemed related to it.

>Searching for mars surrounded by quotes — “mars” — generates exactly the same number, even though that number should drop.

As far as I know, that number is just an estimate, and is wildly inaccurate for the actual amount of results. It's the same reason you could have a search with 10 pages of results shown at first, but after you get to page 3, you only see 4 pages of results. It just estimates it until in needs a more accurate count.

I can't find the original source for this, though I didn't spend much time looking, but found this on stackoverflow[0]:

>From a Google developer (Matt Cutts, head of the web spam team):

>"We try to be very clear that our results estimates are just that--estimates. In theory we could spend cycles on that aspect of our system, but in practice we have a lot of other things to work on, and more accurate results estimates is lower on the list than lots of other things"

[0] http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4397292/how-does-google-c...


mars - 197m results

"mars" - 228m results

+mars - 19k results

+"mars" - 197m results

Assuming the estimated result count is at all meaningful, it looks like + still does have an effect: it turns ["x"] in to meaning the same thing as [x].

So, I was skeptical that only 19k webpages would contain the actual word mars (as per the +mars query), and curious why "verbatim" search wasn't included for comparison.

So I tried verbatim search for mars, to find the estimated results count disappears. However, skipping along the pages got me the counterintuitive result that verbatim search for mars finds only 188 results - I'm pretty sure that google has indexed more mars-mentioning pages than that!

Oh, not counting the "very similar" results:

> In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 188 already displayed.

Clicking this "include similar results" link gets me 45 results pages or about 450 results that mention mars found with a verbatim search.

I feel like I've gone back to 1994!

Google has never given you all 18 million or whatever results that it says it has for a term. If you look at just mars (no quotes), it says (for me, not signed in) there are 211,000,000 results, but the results only go to page 26 with the same kind of message:

"In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 260 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included."

even though obviously there are more results that aren't "very similar" to the 260 that have been displayed.

The assumption has always been that people don't keep clicking through tens of pages of results...they refine their search terms.

I suspect you're right in that it's never given you all the results. I'm pretty sure that it's given me many more than 300 or so results in the past, though, whereas that figure seems to be google's idea of the max any user could possibly want now before they refine their term.

I think mars is probably not the ideal term for testing this sort of thing - just too many hits. I tried mars "philip k dick" and found the same thing - 30 or so pages and then it refused to give me more results. Increasing the obscurity level somewhat, devil's vindata vanilla search vs. verbatim search did indeed show a reduced set of results for verbatim (the vanilla search results including hits on devil's vendetta)

Overall though, if you're looking for more fringe results for common search terms, millionshort.com might be worth a try, where you can remove hits from the top 10^n sites for your term it says.

It used to give you 1000 results (100 pages). Then it changed because 'nobody' goes to those last pages and it's very expensive to keep those big sets. Then it dropped to 300 or so. Then it became 'some random number between 20 and 300 depending on invisible factors'. Pretty rare to see a resultset with more than 200 pages. Even 'webcams' (of which there are 10's of millions of pages) gives only 323 results.

I seriously think that Google's end-goal is to show you only one sponsored result per search query whether it is relevant or not (there will be no real search results, it will be more like TV)

+mars is now a new token not this: + AND mars

and not: ALWAYS mars

search for: +mars -mars

You might expect to always get 0 pages, but that isn't the case. You get pages that never mention mars and pages that contain +mars.

I don't see why that feature needed to change the normal + feature anyway. Couldn't they differentiate between it being at the start and in the middle? It'd be obvious for power users from the recommendations. That said I can see the argument for just supporting single word quotes and to me that seems more intuitive.

But it would be at the start in many cases. How would it know if you want to go to the Google+ site of YouTube or just search all the pages that contain the exact phrase "YouTube"?

Is there a search engine that is as accurate as Google? Does Bing really stack up?

I didn't think I ever would, but I've actually been using duck duck go as my primary search engine. However, about 10-20% of searches I need to prepend "!g" to search google instead since DDG isn't fully there yet.

As far as I know, no, there isn't. I've tried going away from Google, but always failed.

The problem is that Google clearly care about search less and less each day. If the trend continues, we'll be able to change some day, but not because the other sites got better.

Tried it too. Wasn't that happy. I was also never a fan of different search options in my browser bar so the !bang feature wasn't really my thing either.

Now I'm contributing to OpenStreetMap, because I think at least that stands a chance against google maps and might even help some other search engines. DuckDuckGo is using it and maybe Bing will at one point, at least that would explain why they provide aerial images.

Bing has quietly improved a lot and is actually pretty good now, certainly better than its reputation lets on. It's the Zune of search engines.

The only blind study[1] I've heard of on the subject put Bing ahead of Google at almost 2-to-1 (yes, seriously).

>> Conducted by California-based Answers Research, the study queried an online sample of nearly 1,000 people at least 18 years old, all living in the US. None of the participants in the survey knew Microsoft was involved. Participants performed 10 searches of their own choosing, and were shown the results from both Bing and Google, side by side, with all the the branding removed. Additionally, notes Microsoft, “The test did not include ads or content in other parts of the page such as Bing’s Snapshot and Social Search panes and Google’s Knowledge Graph.” For each search, participants chose which side showed better results, or could call it a tie. Of the participants surveyed, 57.4 percent chose Bing more often, 30.2 percent chose Google more often, and 12.4 percent didn’t prefer one over the other.

It was this study that inspired Microsoft's Bing it On campaign in 2012. Unfortunately, the ad campaign mostly consisted of Microsoft recreating the independent study, but cheating to make sure Bing would win even bigger[2].

1) http://www.seochat.com/c/a/msn-optimization-help/microsoft-s...

2) http://www.435digital.com/blog/2012/10/09/bing-it-down-a-not...

For accuracy duckduckgo is leaps and bounds better than google search. But I think what most of the users want from a generic search engine is not accuracy but fuzziness, context and news awaresness.

For instance if I search ping pong in google right now, my first result is a currently airing japanese tv series about ping pong (and the show name is not even in the same alphabet I used to search). Duckduckgo returns the english wikipedia article.

Also, the title of this article is so messed up...


I get Wikipedia's Table Tennis entry first (I do use Wikipedia a lot). The first page includes 5 local/state related links, also has an "In-depth articles" section at the bottom with three items. The 2nd page is good as well, I personally can't complain, although I still rue the day they zapped the + operator.

One more personalisation data-point ... I get the Ping Pong Dim Sum restaurant chain as my top result when I google for ping pong! Not entirely unreasonable since I am in London where their restaurants are located and I do eat dim sum more often than I play table tennis ...

I've been using DDG for over a year solid, and for the past couple on and off.

I still run the occasionally !sp or !g bang search (StartPage is a proxied Google, the other hits Google directly). And in almost all cases there's little if any discernable difference.

The main exceptions are:

1. Date-bounded searches. DDG doesn't support this.

2. Special collections. Books and Scholar in particular.

Until recently, I'd have included images, but DDG's added that. Maps can be searched through OSM.

My primary concerns are privacy and search bubbling, but quality is up there as well.

Did Google really name a feature after a P2P protocol? Coupled with the + symbol I initially thought this was about a file sharing protocol that G killed

Response from 'thisisnotatest' from Google search team [1]:

"I hear you. How to indicate to the user that we don't think there are any good matches for their query is something we debate and experiment with in search quality at Google."

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7725958

Lol... I never knew the + stopped working... I've been using it all along. I guess I always assumed the search term I was prepending a + to was always in there, somewhere. No doubt I was getting less relevant results.

Without a doubt, the '+' operator is the most important one, followed only by being able to search for a phrase surrounded by quotations.

It's strange that you did not. WTF moment was the first thing I experienced when they did that and my search with + returned results that didn't contain the word. I was literally furious.

I may be wrong, but I seem to remember using +word since the AltaVista days. I still do it, even though it doesn't work. (grumble)

That and the results changing as I type drive me nuts. It is quite common for me to see something I want only to lose it on the next keystroke which was already queued.

Ha, so this explains it. I hadn't been paying much attention, other than noticing that prepending "+" to google search terms (something I did infrequently to begin with) had started to just return zero results most of the time.

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