Using Search Engines to Fill in the Blank

Rather than agonizing over formulating the perfect query, take advantage of the power of search engines to easily "fill in the blank" for the answer to many types of questions.

All of the major search engines do reasonably well at phrase matching, where they attempt to find an exact match for all the words in your query in the order you enter them.

Most engines automatically attempt to do limited phrase matching on a multi-word query. However, unless you "force" a full phrase match, even documents with an exact match may not rise to the top of a result list if there are stronger matches based on the search engine's other relevance measures.

Forcing a phrase match is easy: Simply enclose your query phrase in double quotes (e.g. "this is a phrase"). Using double quotes to enclose words that should be treated as a phrase often improves results dramatically.

While using explicit phrases improve your general search results, you can go even further with this strategy and really play into a search engine's strengths, by looking beyond phrases that mean something to you, and have been written by other people. The way to do this is to turn the tables on the search engine.

Rather than taking the usual approach of "querying" (literally, asking) the search engine, try the opposite. To do this, enter an incomplete phrase into the search box, that if matched, will provide a specific answer.

Remember those "fill in the blank" quizzes you took in school? For example, "DNA stands for ______." If you filled in "deoxyribonucleic acid" your answer would be correct. Well, the web is so huge that the odds are quite good that someone, somewhere, has filled in the blank for "DNA stands for" and virtually any other question you might want answered.

Good web writers often explain things in ordinary language. For your part, the trick is to create a phrase that someone has likely written and published on the web. If you do that, and enclose the phrase in double quotes, it's a slam-dunk for most search engines to find a matching document that'll have exactly the answer you're looking for.

It's easy to do. Just change any question into an answer and leave the keyword you're searching for as the "blank" part of the query. Here are some examples:

* Change "Who is the current president of Kyrgyzstan?"
to "the current president of Kyrgyzstan"

* Change "Which dog species is the most intelligent"
to "the most intelligent dog species"

* Change "When did Magellan circumnavigate the globe?"
to "Magellan circumnavigated the globe"

Note that I've omitted a few "stop words" such as "who," "is," "the" and so on from the sample queries (and left the others in only for the sake of readability). In most cases, you can safely discard these words and still get good results, since many search engines ignore stop words even if they are included in forced phrase queries.

This technique works best for finding factual answers. Be careful, though. As you try these types of "fill in the blank" queries, you'll discover another facet of human language that can lead to incorrect, or even embarrassing results if the "answers" are taken literally. We call this "satire" or "irony," where seemingly straightforward language is used to mean exactly the opposite of its literal meaning.

Put another way, DNA stands for "Do Not Always" believe everything you read on the web unless you're confident the author is writing in a straightforward fashion, and the document appears on a reputable site. See the "Congress Leaving Washington" story below for an embarrassing account of a newspaper that fell for a satire story, assuming it was the truth.

What Are Stop Words?
Some search engines don't record extremely common words in order to save space or to speed up searches. These are known as "stop words."

Congress leaving Washington? China daily falls for Onion spoof
It was a great story: U.S. Congress wants new building, threatens to leave Washington. So one of Beijing's biggest tabloids published as news the fictional account from the Web site of the American satire newspaper The Onion — and got an embarrassing lesson in journalism.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.