Say it “Ain’t” So: Google Kills the Plus Sign

Steve Wildstrom / October 24th, 2011

News comes via Search Engine Land that Google has up and killed the “+” operator in searches. From the beginning of search, or at least from the beginning of Google, putting a plus sign in front of a word in a search has meant that only result including that exact word should be returned.

But in an Oct. 22 post on the Google web search help forum, Google Kelley F. said:

We’ve made the ways you can tell Google exactly what you want more consistent by expanding the functionality of the quotation marks operator. In addition to using this operator to search for an exact phrase, you can now add quotation marks around a single word to tell Google to match that word precisely. So, if in the past you would have searched for [magazine +latina], you should now search for [magazine “latina”].

We’re constantly making changes to Google Search – adding new features, tweaking the look and feel, running experiments, – all to get you the information you need as quickly and as easily as possible. This recent change is another step toward simplifying the search experience to get you to the info you want.

I fail to see how this makes anything simpler or more consistent. For one thing, -, formerly the complement of +, remains the exclusion operator. A hyphen (not strictly speaking a minus sign) in front of a word means that any result containing that word should be excluded from the results. Plus and minus do seem to be a natural pair, and there’s no good reason for Google to break up the set.

One theory floating about is that Google killed the + operator to avoid confusion with the Google+ social network.  But user interface changes should only be made when they make things easier for users, and this one makes life a bit harder. And even with the change, there is no way to search for the + symbol. Searching for either + or “+” returns no results, while searching for “+1” returns more than 25 billion results including the numeral 1.

As Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan says, Google’s move “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 Now all those references across the web have become outdated, for no apparent reason other than maybe Google picked a name for its social network that wasn’t searchable.”

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
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