Create High-Powered Internet Searches with Wildcards

Any basic one- or two-word Internet search yields page after page of mostly useless search results. But with a few wildcard characters and search delimiters (which otherwise limit your search results), you can create a Web search that, from the start, excludes many irrelevant links.

All search engines worth using have some sort of wildcard characters to let you create a more powerful search, but not all of them use exactly the same characters. The characters outlined here all work in the big three search engines - Google, Yahoo!, and Bing - but some search engines allow other wildcard characters, too.

Finding an exact phrase

To search for a specific phrase, put your search terms in quotation marks. This is great for searching on video game titles or looking for songs that you only half-remember.

Say you can't remember who sang "Bus with No Driver"; searching on bus with no driver yields links to information about school bus driving. But if you search on "bus with no driver", you'll see, right there at the top, a link to Thelonius Monster's song.

Excluding words

If you want to exclude a search term, put a hyphen (-) to the left of it. (Some search engines also use NOT [in all-caps] to achieve the same thing.) You can apply this to single words or to other search delimiters.

Maybe you want to find out what Falstaff, from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, has to say about luck. Falstaff also appears in Henry IV, Parts I and II, but since you aren't interested in quotes from those two plays, a good search might be falstaff quotation luck shakespeare -henry.

Searching for one OR the other

Search engines generally look for Web pages that contain all of your search terms. If you want to search for pages that have either of two terms - say you can't remember the exact spelling of a complicated word, or you know a word is commonly misspelled - use the OR delimiter in your search (the character | also works in some cases).

If you need to research the first chairman of the Communist Party of China, you're faced with the fact that he is referred to as Mao Zedong in some places and Mao Tse-tung in others. No problem! Just include mao zedong OR tse-tung in your search.

Search a specific site

Put site: before the site's domain name to limit your search to that site. (Don't put a space after the colon.) This comes in handy when you aren't particularly impressed with a Web site's built-in search feature.

For example, if you want to know "the official word" on how President Grover Cleveland threw off the counting of presidents, you might try "grover cleveland" site:whitehouse.gov.

You can also use site: to search Web sites from specific countries. For example, site:.iq searches domains in Iraq.

Filling in blanks

The asterisk (*) character is a powerful wildcard character that stands in for an entire word (or words).

Soon after the movie A League of Their Own hit the big screen in 1992, people latched on to Tom Hanks's exclamation, "There's no crying in baseball!" replacing baseball with everything from strip poker to capitalism."There's no crying in *" -baseball will show you how people have changed this phrase online.

Putting it all together

As you've seen here, you can combine these wildcards to create high-powered searches that get you to what you want faster. Here are a few examples to get you thinking about how they can work:

  • "john dillinger" site:.gov: Find official government statements and documents about the infamous John Dillinger.
  • dracula OR "vlad the impaler" site:.ro -keanu: Find out what modern-day Transylvanians (who live in Romania) have to say about Dracula, a.k.a Vlad the Impaler, without any references to the Keanu Reeves movie.
  • "stephen king" stand -mini-series -site:amazon.com -site:ebay.com: Find reviews, explanations, and other information about Stephen King's novel The Stand without having to wade through info about the TV mini-series or items up for sale on eBay and Amazon.
  • apple announces new *: Keep up to date on the new hardware releases from Apple Computers.