The death of the ‘+’ operator on search engines

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There was a minor kerfuffle on the geekier side of the web about Google getting rid of the use of + to mean AND in search engine terminology.

What does all this mean?

Let’s say that you were searching with two search terms: ‘chalk’ and ‘cheese’:

  • If you put in chalk cheese into the search box you would get results that would cover: content that featured either or both search terms
  • If you put in chalk + cheese you would get only pages that included both terms. You could then build on the search to narrow content down further using more + terms

This is a bit of an arcane art now with the general public used mostly by professional searchers such as media-types, librarians, researchers and geeks who are used to a more refined interrogation of the web. It is treating an internet search engine in a similar way to a proprietary database like Factiva or LexisNexus.

Enter the mainstream

I would also that people who know precisely what they are looking for aren’t necessarily the same kind of people who are likely to click on page links. Early adopters or power users probably aren’t that useful for Google once they have helped get the masses on board.
google instant
Google has been reframing search for the mainstream user by using predictive search terms based on historic data and the users search history.

A second aspect to consider is that of changing user experience. When Google was on the way to search domination mobile device usually meant a laptop that could be picked up and carried from one desk to another. The metaphor for computing was a sedentary activity; computing happened in the office, the study or the den.

Post-desktop usage cases

Move forward to 2011 and computing has changed: it is much more contextual:

  • Device: personal computer (Mac / PC), smartphone, tablet, ebook reader
  • Location: geo-location through IP address, wi-fi mapping, carrier cell tower triangulation (Skyhook Wireless)
  • Specific location coordinates: GPS, NFC scanner
  • Input methods: keyboard, touch, QRcode

So we are likely to expect some changes based on the very different user context and expectations. One thing doesn’t change is that customers are more likely to move on from a web page the slower you are in giving them something. This is more crucial in a largely mature search market  where growth will come from increased revenue per customer rather than increasing customer numbers overall – that ship has sailed.
Search modifier
Thinking about the iPhone and the iPad specifically it takes three clicks to get a + search modifier in the search box, compared to one click on the personal computer. On a mobile phone it is usually got by holding down the 0 key for a prolonged period of time. All of which eats into the acceptable time that a customer thinks about spending on a search box.

So a continued product focus in the face of a changing environment and a changing audience meant that the + search modifier made a lot less sense than it did ten years ago. Before I get hate-bombed, I am not saying that the + operator going away is a good thing – if you’re like me it’s a pain in the ass; but I can understand some of the likely reasons why it went.