Data & Automation

Tips and tricks for using Boolean search in recruitment

May 9, 2019

Tips and tricks for using Boolean search in recruitment

11 min read

The tediousness of sifting through resumes and websites, trying to find a hidden gem of a candidate, is a scenario that every recruiter can empathize with. And, in recent years, recruitment technologies that harness artificial intelligence have been added to the mix, at times creating an extra layer of unneeded complexity and time. While advanced technologies can often seem like the solution to your information saturation problem, there’s a tried and tested method that you may be overlooking. If I have your attention, then let’s talk about Boolean search in recruitment.

Yes, Boolean search. That thing your high school librarian taught you when you were trying to find books for your homework assignment. What you might not know about Boolean search is that it’s still very much in use today across virtually all digital search interfaces.

Boolean search is such a pervasive tool that you may not even realize that you use it on a daily basis. For example, if you put quotes around a search term in Google, you’re using Boolean search. Google, in fact, wouldn’t even be here without Boolean search – a large portion of its search functionality relies on these principles.

In this article, we’re going to answer:

The core principles of using Boolean search in recruitment, as well as some Google search strings you can use to make those most out of the world’s most powerful search engine when sourcing candidates.   

But before we do that, let’s dig a bit deeper into what Boolean search is.

What is Boolean search?

In a nutshell, Boolean search is a structured search process that uses keywords, or operators, to limit, broaden or define the desired search results. The goal is to start with a broad concept (i.e. recruitment) and refine your search query and the corresponding results to only the information that is relevant to your needs (i.e. recruitment managers).

Boolean search was invented by English mathematician George Boole in 1847. He laid out the concept and underlying principles in his seminal work entitled The Mathematical Analysis of Logic. Since this groundbreaking piece, Boolean has been the tool of choice for virtually all libraries, virtual databases, and search engines.

For our purposes, Boolean search in recruitment relates to using these techniques to search and filter through resumes, search engines, targeted websites, or ATS systems to find and shortlist candidates that fit your search parameters.

Boolean search operators can be broken into two levels of complexity: basic functions and advanced functions. We’ll dig deeper into each shortly. By using and combining these operators, you can refine or broaden your search results to your needs.

Why use Boolean search in recruitment?

Using Boolean search in recruitment lets you leverage large databases like CRMs, LinkedIn, Indeed, Google, or your own ATS, to perform searches that find relevant candidates quickly. It’s a massive time saver, and it’s a powerful tool for finding exactly the candidate profiles you’re looking for.

When sourcing candidates, you will always have a list of required skills and qualifications that constitute an “ideal” candidate. Often, though, these candidates can be incredibly difficult to find, especially if they’re not actively looking for new work. Recruiters can use Boolean search to refine search results in their platform of choice to narrow in on only the candidates who fit their criteria.

The benefits of Boolean search for recruiters are numerous:

  • Saves time and effort spent manually sifting through stacks of information.
  • Optimizes the effectiveness of in-house HR technologies.
  • Extends the reach and possibilities of free search platforms and websites.
  • Helps find otherwise hidden talent.
  • Gives the ability to craft powerful, but customizable search strings to meet every job requirement and open position.
  • Provides more targeted and relevant search results and candidate pools.

As you probably know, the first step in hiring the perfect fit for a given position is targeting and sourcing the right candidates. You need to know what your own requirements are, and what attributes a candidate must have to fill that gap. Lastly, you need to go out and find candidates who meet those requirements.

Boolean search is a perfect tool for the job, and all you need is the knowledge of how to use it.

Now that we’ve talked about what the technique is, let’s start building out your Boolean search string cheat sheet, starting with the operators.

10 important Boolean search string operators

As mentioned, Boolean operators can be broken into basic and advanced functionalities. Let’s start with the basics.

Basic Boolean operators

The easiest Boolean search operators to get a handle on are:

1.    AND

2.    OR

3.    NOT

4.    BRACKETS ()

5.    QUOTATIONS “”

6.    ASTERISK *

Let’s take a look at all five, and some examples of how you can use them in recruitment.

1. AND

The AND operator is used when you want to include two or more search criteria. It’s generally used to narrow search results by adding an extra variable that must be present in the search result.

For example, if you’re looking for somebody who works in marketing, who also has manager-level experience, then you may type the following string into your search engine or ATS.

marketing AND manager

Naturally, the next step here is the OR operator.

2. OR

Using OR in your search string indicates that you want to see multiple entries or variables in your results. This operator acts to expand your search results to include a wider range of information.

OR can be used when different words or job titles say the same thing, and can be used alongside AND to refine your results.

For example, you can use this string to example your marketing manager search.

marketing AND manager OR leader

Again, this logic leads to the next operator: NOT.

3. NOT

As you probably guessed, NOT is used when you want to exclude specific terms or requirements.

For example, if you’re looking for a mid-level manager, you’ll want to exclude executive titles that might be caught up in the above search strings. You can do so like this:

marketing AND manager OR leader NOT executive

NOT also works if you use a minus symbol, followed by your term with no space, like this:  

marketing AND manager OR leader -executive

4. BRACKETS ()

If your math brain is going off and asking: “wait a minute: how is the search engine supposed to know which operator takes priority” then you’re ready to hear about BRACKETS. Brackets in Boolean search work in a similar way as the BODMAS principle in math, which dictates which parts of an equation are calculated in what order.

BRACKET operators are used to specify which parts of the search take priority over other elements. They specify which sections you want to emphasize, compare, or exclude.

So, if you’re looking for someone who is a marketing manager OR leader, but not an executive, your string would look something like this:

marketing AND (manager OR leader) -executive

As your strings get more complex, brackets will become your best friend that keeps thing organized and logical.

5. QUOTATIONS “”

The next basic Boolean operator – and one you likely use often – is QUOTATIONS. This operator is used to search for an exact phrase that you’re looking for. This is a good option if you know exactly what search result you’re hoping to find, and want to exclude anything that doesn’t include that term.

Adding quotes around a single word, or multiple words will treat that string as one search term. For example, if you only want to see people who have Marketing Manager on their resume, and don’t care about any synonyms, then your string would look like this.

“marketing manager”

The opposite of QUOTATIONS, which keeps your result sharply focussed, is ASTERISK, which aims to expand your search.

6. ASTERISK *

ASTERISK is used to widen your search to include variations on your keywords or phrases. Think of this operator as a tool for finding a pool of candidates who use a variety of different words to describe similar tasks or skills.

By placing an ASTERISK next to the root of the word you’re searching for, the search results will be expanded to include any possible word containing that beginning.

For example, the search string:

admin*

… would bring up results for administrator, administration, administer, etc.

ASTERISK is a great operator to add onto a search string to find complementary skills. For example, a marketing manager with administration skills:

“marketing manager” AND admin*

These 6 basic operators are a powerful introduction to Boolean search in recruitment and can be used for the majority of your candidate sourcing needs. But when dealing with larger and more complex databases or search engines you may find that these basic operators don’t quite cut it.

The following advanced operators can be added to your Boolean and Google search strings to get even more refined results for your candidate sourcing.

Advanced Boolean operators

The four advanced operators we’ll add to this Boolean search string cheat sheet include:

7.    TILDE ~

8.    NEAR

9.    FILETYPE

10.   URL: & SITE:

Again, let’s take a look at each operator and some examples of how to use them.

6. TILDE ~

The TILDE symbol is useful for expanding or reducing your search results, depending on how you use it. That’s because it includes synonyms of the keyword that you’re tagging with the TILDE symbol.

For the advanced Boolean operators, we’ll expand our Marketing Manager search strings to include specific types of documents you may be looking for on Google that belong to a candidate.

To find a resume, CV, curriculum vitae, etc. for a Marketing Manager, you might type the following string:

~CV “marketing manager”

This will include all search results for marketing managers’ resume-type documents.

Because synonyms of CV might include, for example, job descriptions – which, as a recruiter, you don’t need to see – you can combine TILDE with your NOT operator as well.

~CV “marketing manager” –job-description

This Google search string will give you results showing only actual CVs (and their synonyms) for marketing managers. You can keep layering NOT operators to further reduce unwanted results.

7. NEAR

NEAR lets you search for specific words or phrases that appear close to each other in a document, on a web page, or wherever you’re searching.

This is a proximity search operator that will automatically search for results that include key phrases located 1-10 words apart in the text.

For example, if you want to look for the CV (and synonyms) of Marketing Managers who have paid advertising credentials, your search string might look like this:

~CV “marketing manager” AND (paid NEAR ad*)

In this string, I’m indicating that a requirement is that the CV should list paid advertising in some form within the document.

I also included BRACKETS to isolate the NEAR operator, an AND function to indicate that this marketing manager must also have these skills, and an ASTERISK beside ad to ensure that I include all possible variations of the terms.

8. FILETYPE

A great tool for finding elusive CV documents on the web is the FILETYPE Boolean operator. Often, when you search for candidates on Google or on a social media platform, you’ll be directed to a web page containing incomplete information. Being able to quickly find a full CV document on the web – if it exists – is a great way to quickly see a complete overview of the candidate.

To do this, you can specify the type of file using the FILETYPE operator. For example, to find PDF documents for marketing managers’ CVs, you could search:

~CV “marketing manager” Filetype: pdf

Use this Boolean operator within your ATS to quickly find complete resume documents that match your requirements.

9. URL: & SITE:

The last Boolean search operator we’ll cover is the URL: and SITE: functionality. These operators let you search for skills and experience within a specific website or URL. This is an incredibly powerful way to quickly scan niche websites where your target candidates typically congregate.

The key to success with this operator is to know your candidate intimately. You should understand which sites they go to, the terminology they use, and the skills and experience they’re likely to have. Armed with this knowledge, you can search specifically for people you know will have the requirements you’re looking for.

Let’s say you’re looking for a software developer on LinkedIn who has experience in FinTech. Your string could look something like:

site:linkedin.com ~CV “software developer” AND “fintech”

It’s important to note when using Boolean search for recruitment that the more operators and layers you add to your strings, the narrower your results will become. This can, and likely will, exclude candidates that may be qualified for your position.

It’s important to regularly tweak and test your Boolean search string to ensure that they’re giving you the most useful results possible. Keep a number of ready-made strings handy to save time, but also be aware that a qualified candidate may slip through the cracks.

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Brendan is an experienced writer and content marketing professional with experience working for various HR tech and SaaS companies in Canada. He has an extensive background in web content marketing and journalism.
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