A Recruiter’s Guide to Boolean Searching (and the World’s Largest Free CV Database)

Carmen Hudson recently highlighted SearchOnTheGo as an iPhone application with real value for recruiters. While it is a handy tool for completing CV searches on Google, the essence of the program is that it creates ‘complex’ searches through a point-and-click interface. This is a great simplifier for many, but Boolean search writing is a skill that top recruiters need to know directly in order to get meaningful candidate search results from a wide range of software.

Beyond Google, many other systems we use on a daily basis accept Boolean searches. This includes LinkedIn, Monster, and quite probably your internal ATS. SearchOnTheGo won’t help you with these platforms, so if you want to get the most from them you need to know the basics of Boolean searching directly. Therefore, in less than 1,000 words, let’s see if I can explain how to do it!

Fully constructed Boolean search strings can look both confusing and complex, but don’t worry, because they aren’t! The first important thing to appreciate is that there are only five elements of syntax to understand. These are:

AND

OR

NOT

()

“”

By applying these appropriately, along with the keywords you wish to consider, you can create a huge range of search operations. There is no limit to how often you can use any of these elements in a search, so you can create very specific search strings, which will save you a lot of time in filtering the results.

AND

AND is the simplest function to apply. Any search terms that follow an AND command must appear in the result. For example:

engineer AND “senior developer”

will give results that include both the word engineer and the phrase “senior developer”. All search results will include both, and any CVs that have either engineer or “senior developer” (but not both) will not appear.

OR

OR provides options into a search. Usage of the OR command allows you to create a list of possibilities for which only one match is important. For example, the following search phrase would give you results that contain one or more of the stated words:

hospitality OR catering OR hotelier

NOT

NOT is the command of exclusion. If there are closely related terms that mean very different things, then usage of the NOT command is extremely valuable. An example could be as follows:

architect NOT “software architect”

This would give you results that contain the word architect, but leaving out any that use the phrase “software architects”. Very useful if you are operating in the construction industry.

The one major limitation with the NOT command is that it isn’t recognized by Google.

“” – Quotation Marks

You will have noticed that I have used the “” expression above in some examples already, wrapped around particular keywords. These quotation marks are used to capture a phrase that is to be kept intact, in the precise word order stated. Not using “” around a phrase will mean that each word is treated separately, usually with an assumed AND in between each one. For example:

pork sandwich

would give results that contain ‘pork‘ and ‘sandwich‘, but not necessarily in the same sentence or paragraph!

“pork sandwich”

would give results that only contain the phrase ‘pork sandwich

() – Brackets

Using brackets is essential for complex search strings, and it can be their application that causes the most confusion. Essentially, a clause within brackets is given priority over other elements around it. The most common place that brackets are applied by recruiters is in the use of OR strings. Perhaps a good example would be company names. You have a list of target companies from where you wish to find your talent, and a candidate can have worked at any one (or ideally several) of them. You might initially construct a command like this:

IBM OR Oracle OR “Red Hat” OR Microsoft

These are all large companies though, so any search like this is likely to generate a large number of results. If you wanted to find just individuals who have reached Manager or Director level, then you might use the following command:

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“Manager” OR “Director”

To combine both commands into one search, we use brackets to tell the search engine that these are separate conditions. In order to tell the search engine that we want to see results containing either Manager or Director and also one of IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, or Microsoft, we group them like this:

(“Manager” OR “Director”) AND (IBM OR Oracle OR “Red Hat” OR Microsoft)

It makes no difference which order the two bracketed sections go; the same results will result either way.

Wrap-up, and big5hire.com

So, that’s a whistle-stop guide to the very basics of Boolean searching. I have only scratched the surface on its usage, and there are many more techniques that can be used by smart recruiters. For that, I can strongly recommend the blog of Glenn Cathey, the self-proclaimed Boolean Black Belt.

To put boolean into practice, play around with http://www.big5hire.com/. Big5Hire is probably the single largest CV database resource in the world, and it’s completely free! It aggregates the profiles from several major social networks, as well as CVs accessible through Google. The best value from it only tends to come from applying particularly complex or specific search strings, but that’s simply because there are so many profiles on there.

Timothy Marston
Tim Marston is the Senior EMEA Recruiter for Red Hat, Inc., an NYSE-listed software company. He is responsible for Red Hat's recruitment activities across the EMEA region, and is particularly passionate about selection process. Prior to this, he spent several years as a recruitment consultant, establishing the first dedicated recruitment service for agile software development teams.