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Dealing with Stopwords

You may come across the term stopwords at search engine sites, often in the help information or search tips. Stopwords are words that search engines ignore because they are too common, or because they are reserved for some special purpose.

The list varies from one search engine to the next, but it typically includes words like a, an, any, the, to, with, from, for, of, that, who, and the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT, and NEAR. We're not aware of any major search engine that publishes its complete list. But Google does the next best thing— it tells you if it has ignored one or more of the words in your query ( Figure 3.11 ).

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Figure 3.11 The Google search engine tells you exactly what words have been ignored from your query: in this case, the, a, and by.

Should you need to use a stopword as part of a search, you can sometimes signal the search engine not to ignore it by setting it off in double quotation marks: Portland NEAR "OR".

Some (though not all) search engines also pay attention to stopwords that are included as part of a phrase: "The Man Who Came to Dinner" or "to be or not to be" ( Figure 3.12 ). Most of the search engines do a pretty good job of recognizing and acting on stopwords that are included in phrases.

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Figure 3.12 A Lycos search for "to be or not to be" finds Hamlet's soliloquy, even though the phrase is composed entirely of common stopwords. The secret is to enclose the words in quotation marks.

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