At one time, most search engines supported the use of a special character called a wildcard. Usually represented by an asterisk (*), wildcards could be used to substitute for different character combinations, allowing you to catch words with variable endings, or to fill in when spelling is uncertain.
In search engines that support wildcard use, typing nutrit*, for example, returns pages containing not only nutrition, but nutritional, nutritionist, nutritious, etc. (This still works in eBay — try typing collect*, for collectible, collectable, collectibles, collectables, collection, etc.)
Google is one of the few search engines to still support wildcard use, though it does so in a unique way. In Google, the asterisk (*) functions as a whole word wildcard, replacing one or more entire words within your query. This makes it a powerful tool for constructing fill-in-the-blank queries. Such queries are handy in a variety of scenarios. Here are some examples:
- Use them to compensate for a faulty memory or to complete missing bits of poems, song lyrics, or literary passages. Suppose, for example, you've forgotten parts of the third line of the nursery rhyme Mary Mary Quite Contrary. In Google, type "with * bells and * shells and pretty * all in a row". The search engine will fill in the missing words. Silly example, but the principle applies universally.
- Use the same approach to find people, especially when you don't know someone's middle name or how he may be referenced on his web site. "george * bush", for example, produces a different result than "george bush".
- Try them in situations where you are looking for parallel sets of pages or where you wish to extract documents containing a variety of descriptors. "Excel * course", for example, will retrieve Excel 2000 course, Excel 2002 course, Excel training course, Excel 2002 training course, and so on. Even better, "excel * level * course" will retrieve both Excel 2002 Level 3 course and Excel 2003 Level 2 course.
- Can't quite think of the right word? Use a whole word wildcard to check popular idiom. I use them for this purpose frequently. Recently, for example, I needed a term referring to people in the marketing industry, but couldn't think of the exact word I wanted. A quick Google query on the phrase "that marketing * call" produced the words types, folks, mavens, people, gurus, experts, consultants, specialists — even drones and bozos.
Take some time to experiment with this humble character. Be sure to express your query as a phrase (i.e. enclose it in double quotation marks) and to construct it in such a way as to prompt Google to fill in the blank.
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