Google Drops Plus Sign from Search Operators

You may or may not mourn its passing, but Google’s quiet dropping of the plus sign as an operator on its search engine last week got a number of journalists and power search users up in arms. Why is Google doing this, and why do these people care so much?

Up until last week, searchers could use the plus sign on Google to tell the search engine that particular terms must be on the page for which they’re searching. For example, if I wanted to search for craft magazines that mention crochet, I could put [magazine +crochet], without the brackets, into the search box. I can’t use that strategy anymore.

Since this is still a useful function, Google co-opted quotation marks to take it over. You may recall that quotation marks in Google indicate that an exact phrase must be present; you can now use them for a single word. So my search would now be in the form of [magazine “crochet”], without the brackets. This is “exactly” “what” “I” “need” after all, isn’t it?

I don’t use the plus sign frequently in my searches, but it’s always been good to know it was there. I feel a little robbed now that it’s gone. The plus sign has always been for single words, while the quotation marks were meant for exact full phrases. Even if Google still distinguishes between single words and full phrases within quotation marks – and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t – the functions are different enough that dropping the plus sign goes against a lot of users’ habits. Google made the move under the guise of “streamlining the ways  you can tell Google to search for the exact keywords you type,” but Danny Sullivan and others think there’s more going on.

Before I get to what might be behind the change on Google’s part, let’s take a look at a little plus sign history, and why its quiet elimination in Google upset a number of people. Andy Baio, writing for Wired, covers the history really well. Back before Google, if you put several words into a search engine, it would give you links to pages that contained ANY of those words. That’s known in Boolean terms as an “OR” search. So if you put in the words “cherry pie recipe,” a pre-Google search engine would return pages that contain all three of those words – but also pages that contain only “cherry,” “pie” and “recipe.” That delivers a lot of noise; many searchers found this approach unhelpful at best, and frustrating at worst.

Google’s algorithms from the very beginning, on the other hand, were set up to perform “AND” searches. When it returned results, they contained every word you put into the text box. So a search for “cherry pie recipe,” by default, would return pages that contained ALL of the words – “cherry” and “pie” and “recipe.”  That’s a lot more useful; it’s one reason why Google grew to dominate search. And nerds and technical types loved Google first for this, because, as Baio explained, “this new feature was a godsend for savvy users. Because every term appeared in results, you could continue to refine your queries by simply adding new words to the search bar until you found what you were looking for.”

Unfortunately, this approach didn’t scale quite as well as one might hope. It confused non-technical users. So instead, Google took to reading minds; by 2009, it was even ignoring certain terms that users typed in if doing so seemed to make more sense. Actually, early attempts at Google mind-reading date to 2003, with the introduction of spelling suggestions. In this situation, however, Google’s more technical users – journalists, software engineers, and anyone searching for more obscure terms – found themselves ill-served by the search engine they’d grown to love. The saving grace for us was the good old plus sign; it’s the way we could tell Google that, gosh darn it, yes, we really DO mean to search for that exact word, so step on it.

So you can imagine how many journalists spilled angry pixels over this change. Peter Rojas, co-founder of Engadget and Gizmodo, called the change “incredibly annoying;”  Mat Honan, senior reporter for Gizmodo, tweeted that he used the plus sign constantly as “It’s such a long-standing convention;” and even Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, says he’s keeping his “fingers crossed for coming up with a better approach to this.”

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land added a postscript to an article by Barry Schwartz on the change that was several times as long as the article itself. He notes that having to do a search with quotes around single words that must be in the search results instead of plus signs in front of them “is more complicated. It also goes against 15 years of how search engines have operated, where quotes are used to find exact phrases. Now all those references across the web have become outdated…”

So why, exactly, is Google eliminating a search convention that actually predates its own existence? True, it technically kept the capability, but the plus sign has always stood for an AND search; just ask any programmer. Both Baio and Sullivan think they have the answer. It has to do with limiting confusion about the search engine’s social network, Google+. To Baio, “it seems obvious that they’re paving the way for Google+ profile searches. When Google+ launched…they coined their own format for mentioning people – adding a plus to the beginning of a name…The fate of the ‘+’ symbol was clear: protect a 12-year-old convention loved by power users, or bring Google+ profile searching to the mainstream? It was doomed from the start.”

Sullivan, meanwhile, has been waxing eloquent about this issue on both Search Engine Land and Google+ itself. On the latter, he compares Google’s move to a major calculator company deciding that its machines would now use the “ symbol instead of the + sign for addition. On the former, summing up the problem, he says that “The plus symbol was used by web search engines before Google started. It’s been widely taught, and it seems to have been tossed out and replaced by quotes because of a problem Google created for itself, by picking stupid names for its social network.”

The key point, though, is that the plus sign is loved by a relatively small sub-community of users. Yes, they were the ones who discovered Google first, and spread the word to the rest of the world. But that “rest of the world,” including all of those non-technical users, now makes up the majority of Google users. So it’s no surprise that Google chose to cater to them. If you’re not in this majority, well, Baio mentions a number of third-party hacks you can use to put the quotation marks in for you before doing the search. And of course, there’s always Blekko and DuckDuckGo.

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