Don’t Be Afraid: Boolean for Beginners

17 February 2021 10:30

Boolean searching need not be intimidating

One of the best features of Nexis Newsdesk™ is its Simple Search feature, providing you quick intelligence on companies, people and other topics that you need to monitor. But sometimes, you need to go deeper, to get more specific results.

That’s when Boolean Search comes in handy. It can seem intimidating at first, beginning with its strange-sounding name, but fear not! The basics of Boolean search are actually easy to grasp and use—adding some power to your media intelligence capabilities.

About That Weird Name…

Boolean search, a term used for searching databases of all types, is named after George Boole, a 19th century English mathematician and all-around smart guy—so smart, in fact, he wrote a book called “The Laws of Thought.” Now that’s some heady stuff.He also created a type of logic in which all the variables are either “yes” or “no, or “true” or “false.” This laid the foundations for what would be the logic underpinning the computer revolution and the information age. Thanks, George!

One Way to Think About Boolean Searching

Now, forget all the math and logic stuff for a bit and, instead, think of Boolean searching  as a way to cut out all that you don’t want in a search—in order to get exactly what you do want.

Imagine that you’re standing before a giant field of wildflowers of virtually every imaginable type and color combination. Now imagine that there was a way to identify, say, only those flowers that are red and yellow. Or those that have four or five petals but not three or six. Or those flowers that are taller than ten inches, have three stems and are blue or yellow but not both.

This is the sort specificity Boolean will lend your Newsdesk searching.

The Five Keys to the Boolean Kingdom

Basic Boolean searching is based on five terms and symbols. That’s it, just five. When one or more of these are added to your search string, you’re tapping into the brilliance of Mr. Boole to make your search more precise.What’s more, within any one search string, you can use these five elements as much as you want! Doing so will add ever more layers of specificity and, therefore, precision.

Here are the five:

AND: When you include one or more “AND’s” in your Newsdesk Boolean search string, you will receive fewer results. This may at first sound counter intuitive because we typically think of “and” as adding to, not taking away (e.g, “I like cream and sugar in my coffee.”) But, when we use “AND” in your search, you’re asking the Newsdesk database to return only those results that include both terms. For instance, you may want content that mentions your CEO and a specific competitor’s CEO, but without wanting any results that mention one CEO but not the other.

AND operator Venn Diagram

OR: Using “or” in your search string broadens your search to include more results. Again, this may initially feel counter intuitive, as we are accustomed to thinking of “or” as a means of reduction (e.g., “I will travel to Spain or China.”) But in Boolean, “or” is the way to ask the database to return results that include either “x” or “y.” So in the example above, using “OR” instead of “AND” will return content that mentions both CEOs or just one of them.

OR Venn Diagram

NOT: When you insert a “NOT” into your search string, you’re telling Newsdesk to ignore those results including one or more terms. Sticking with our example, you may want content that mentions your CEO but that doesn’t mention the other.

NOT venn diagram

QUOTATION MARKS “”: This one is straightforward. When you put quotation marks around two or more words, you tell the database to only return results that include those words together. So, if you were searching for a CEO named John Jones, putting quotation marks around his name, “John Jones”, will only return results that have his first and last name together, versus results with only John or only Jones but not both together.

PARENTHESIS (): Think of parenthesis as a way to cluster similar pieces of information. For more detailed search strings, you’ll need to use brackets to help the database understand precisely what you want. For example, imagine you prepare a Boolean search like this:


In this case, this string could be interpreted in two different ways. First, it could mean that you want content that mentions CEO 1 and either CEO 2 or CEO 3. It could also be interpreted as meaning you want results that include both CEO 1 and CEO 2 or CEO 1 and CEO 3.

  • If you want the first sort of result, you would write your search string like this: CEO 1 AND (CEO 2 OR CEO 3)
  • If you want the second interpretation, you would write it like this: CEO 1 AND(CEO 2 OR CEO 3)

So, as you can see, there’s no need to fear Boolean searching. Once your master these first five, we have created a quick reference guide for all the popular Boolean search commands you can use in Newsdesk here. When it comes to media intelligence, Boolean is not a foe but a friend and a trusty one at that.

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