Google Offers Proximity Search

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Many paid legal research products such as LexisNexis and Westlaw offer the ability to search for keywords within a certain number of words from one another (a number that you define). For example, some pay databases allow you to search w/ (within any number of words that you indicate, such as w/2), /s (in the same sentence), and /p (in the same paragraph). Google does offer an analogous, but nearly unknown, proximity connector - AROUND(n).

The Google proximity connector AROUND(n) must be placed in upper case as illustrated in this explanation. By replacing the “n” with a number, you determine how many words you want your keywords to be from each other. For example, when we searched for carole AROUND(2) levitt, we retrieved 281,000 results where carole was within 2 words of levitt. The results consisted of results like this:

  • Carole A. Levitt
  • Carole Ann Levitt
  • Carole Levitt
  • Nancy Jo Levitt
  • Carol Suzanne Levitt (notice the name carol was retrieved)
  • Alain Levitt, Carol Lim
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt inexplicably performing Carole King's classic “You Make ...
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To conduct an even more targeted search, try enclosing your proximity search within quotation marks. Our search for “carole AROUND(2) levitt” retrieved 22,600 results. This search only retrieved results where the exact name carole preceded the exact name levitt (with up to two words in between carole and levitt). It disregarded any documents that included various spellings of carole and levitt while the earlier search, without quotation marks, retrieved results with spelling variations for carole and levitt.

Many researchers searching for documents that include a specified proper name conduct a phrase search. But conducting a proximity search for a proper name, using AROUND(n), is a better search than a phrase search. For example, a phrase search for "carole levitt" retrieved 19,800 result and only retrieved results that referred to Carole Levitt in that exact order and with no intervening words. What is missing from this search are the results that an AROUND(2) proximity search retrieved above, such as: Levitt, Carole; Carole A. Levitt; Carole Ann Levitt; Levitt, Carole A., or Levitt, Carole Ann.

In our live MCLE seminars, we have long addressed the need for a reliable proximity connector when using free search engines like Google and Yahoo!. Google and Yahoo! use the asterisk (in very different ways) as a NEAR or "within one word" connector (respectively), but seemingly, nothing more precise was available. Web developer Kevin Shay created the more-precise proximity-searching GAPS interface; but it ceased working last year when Google retired the programming tools on which the GAPS site was based.  

According to Dan Russell, Google's Uber Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness, the AROUND feature has been around, "for... oh... the past 5 or 6 years. Turns out that nobody ever bothered to write much about it." Russell took the wraps off the feature in a recent blog post. Perhaps the reason the "nobody ever bothered to write about it" is because there is NO documentation of the AROUND function in Google's "Web Search Help" section. There is a mention of the AROUND proximity search function in the Web Search "Help Forums," but it didn't appear up until January 14, 2011.

The Help Forum response suggests an alternate syntax for the proximity search (carole+2 levitt). Note however, that the syntax mentioned in that "help" response yields very different (and less precise) results than the carole AROUND(2) levitt search syntax.

Kudos to the ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center for bringing this feature to our attention.

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