Locate the Right Talent with Basic Boolean Search Tips

By Roy Maurer Jun 14, 2016
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Sourcers and recruiters can net the most meaningful candidate search results across the Internet, and even within their own applicant tracking systems, by learning to write basic Boolean search strings.

Using Boolean search logic for talent acquisition—that is, searching for people who have particular keywords within their resumes and professional profiles—is a core skill set for candidate search.

Though the technique has been around for decades, new tips and tricks are evolving as job sites and social media platforms change.

Boolean Operator 101

Boolean operators (the words AND, OR and NOT—typically written in capital letters) are primarily used for structured database queries, such as when searching resume storage sites like Monster and ZoomInfo, and professional profile sites like LinkedIn.

“Sourcers and recruiters can ask to find a job title, to include the word ‘senior’ and also include the phrase ‘software developer’ in quotations, and not include the words ‘manager’ or ‘recruiter.’ ” This awkward “almost English” is Boolean logic, said Irina Shamaeva, chief sourcer at Brain Gain Recruiting, an executive search firm based in the San Francisco area, owner of the popular sourcing blog Boolean Strings and founder of the global People Sourcing Certification Program, a training and certification resource for talent sleuths.

“The basic concept of AND, OR and NOT is pretty clear,” Shamaeva said. But sourcers run into problems when their search string’s syntax is incorrect or when it doesn’t apply to the rules of the particular database, she added.

  • AND searches mean that a candidate’s documents must include all of the terms listed in order for the candidate to be included in the search results. These kinds of searches should be used for targeting specific skills, technologies and titles that are essential to the job. For example, typing in design AND html would bring up everyone who had both the words “design” and “html” in their resumes or on their profile page.
  • OR searches are used to broaden a search; these kinds of searches look for any one of the terms that are entered. An example would be asking for engineer OR engineering, which would result in people with either “engineer” or “engineering” listed somewhere in their resume or on their profile.
  • NOT (also, AND NOT) searches exclude specific terms from the results. For example, asking for pharmacist AND NOT manager would bring up results for people who had “pharmacist” in their resume, and automatically exclude those resumes or profiles that also included the word “manager.”

After running an initial search, sourcers can add on additional keywords with AND to get more-targeted results, remove keywords using NOT to exclude results that aren’t desired, or vary the search results by using OR.

Quotation marks are used to search for exact phrases of more than one word, for example, “head of people”; search results for head of people without quotation marks will include irrelevant matches based on the words “head” and “people.”

Once you understand the basics, it’s important to learn the quirks of whatever database you are using. For example, “with ZoomInfo you don’t have to capitalize the Boolean operators, but in LinkedIn you do or it won’t understand you,” Shamaeva said. She added that some systems understand abbreviations and some will show results for similar terms; for instance, a search for “chief financial officer” would also turn up resumes and profiles that lacked that phrase but that included the term “CFO” instead. But on LinkedIn, a search for “chief financial officer” and one for CFO will pull up different results. Recruiters can compensate for this by using the Boolean OR, typing in “chief financial officer” OR CFO.

“Computers can have smart rules built in, but if you don’t use the correct syntax, they stop understanding what you have to say,” Shamaeva said. “Capitalizing the right word or putting in the right spacing is extremely important.”

Translating Queries into Boolean

Boolean translation is required when, for example, a hiring manager asks for an entry-level candidate from an Ivy League school with cloud computing experience. An example for this search could include keywords that refer to the desired skill, AND, and then an OR string with the names of the Ivy League schools: “cloud computing” AND Brown OR Columbia OR Cornell OR Dartmouth OR Harvard OR “University of Pennsylvania” OR Princeton OR Yale.

Alternatively, a search for this kind of candidate could consist of an OR string with the names of top cloud technology providers and the operator NOT to exclude the various managerial levels. This way, all the candidates who are found will have worked with at least one of the cloud technology providers that you type in, and they will not have been a manager and will not have been a supervisor (if those are the managerial levels you elect to type in).

“Then you take the results and review them, make adjustments, and proceed with matches,” Shamaeva said. Reviewing results may lead to the need to add or delete terms from the string or to create a whole new search in an alternate direction.

It’s important to understand if the order of the results has any meaning, she said. “Some systems offer control over the order of results. They can be ordered by date found or most relevant. In social media searches, the results may be configured [based] on your own profile and connections,” which could lead to an order that lacks any meaning. “You’ll need to tighten your Boolean search to defeat personalization in those cases.”

Basic Boolean Internet Search

Boolean operators are not as important when searching on search engines like Google, but syntax rules are just as important. Recruiters who use search engines still use keywords and phrases within quotation marks, but the operator AND is implied and not necessary, while NOT is conveyed instead by a minus sign. And Google, for instance, has operators of its own, allowing recruiters to narrow results down to a single site (site:), find keywords in the title (intitle:) or URL (inurl:) of a page, and search for results within certain file types (filetype:).  

Google has also developed a method of search string interpretation which automatically looks for word variations and synonyms and uses a page-ranking algorithm to determine a page’s relevance or importance. Important pages receive a higher rank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.

Use Natural Phrases

Nationally recognized sourcing expert Shally Steckerl, president of The Sourcing Institute, based in Norcross, Ga., believes that sourcers need to stop using Boolean techniques solely for resume keywords and start thinking about what candidates do and talk about, and also incorporate those elements into the search. In other words, zero in on their context online.

Steckerl, author of the industry bible The Talent Sourcing & Recruitment Handbook (Weddle’s, 2013), says that natural phrase searches are sourcing’s best kept secret. “It works everywhere,” he said. “How we speak has gone online. We can use casual speech patterns to identify candidates.”

He said that candidates can be found online in blog posts, social media profile updates, conference attendee lists, press releases, media mentions, company documents and various other pages.

“Go to Google and type in “our team” or “meet our staff” or “I am a developer” and you’ll find pages like blogs, profiles or company pages,” he said. Sourcers can then narrow their search by keying in site:github.com “wrote code” “machine learning”—these last two phrases are examples of abilities that a recruiter might be looking for in a candidate, and “site:github.com” refers to the particular website to be searched for these phrases.

Another example of effective natural phrase use is to identify a site of a particular company or association such as site:Amazon.com and type in “he is” or “she is” and “sales manager.”

This technique works for searching LinkedIn profiles without having a paid LinkedIn Recruiter account, Steckerl said. After getting back an initial list of profiles, recruiters can then add job titles, company names, school names, and/or country and metro area to narrow the search results.

Boolean Tips and Tricks

Steckerl provided these additional Boolean search tips and tricks for enterprising recruiters:

  • On Twitter, use “I work for” followed by the name of the company or “at [name of company]” such as “at Deloitte” to find employees who work there.
  • On Google, type “top engineers to follow” and Twitter lists will show up.
  • On Bing, type “contains:” to find pages hosting documents like word docs, PDFs and PowerPoint slide decks. “Those PDFs might be resumes. PowerPoints might have signatures and contact information,” he said.

A critical tip: Don’t try to create the perfect search string from the get-go, Shamaeva said. “Search is a process,” she explained. “You are trying to talk to the system, trying to find a common language. You manipulate the search until you have the results you want. Trying to include everything possible upfront is way too hard and unnecessary.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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