Principles for Better Searches: Match an Exact Phrase

Previously in the Better Searches series, we looked at three principles that can drastically improve your search results. If you would like to review or read more about those principles, click here. In this blog, we will look at the two main ways to force a search engine or database to match an exact phrase.

What does "match an exact phrase" mean?

Using a basic search -- where the researcher types in a few terms and then hits the enter key -- the engine produces a list of results using some combination of those keywords. To do so, the engine also makes assumptions to produce results that are hopefully relevant, and depending on those assumptions, the results may include a combination of those keywords that is different from the order that was originally entered by the researcher. For instance, if the researcher searches: Keyword1 Keyword2 Keyword3 Keyword4, the results might well include the following instead:

As this graphic hopefully demonstrates, each keyword is more or less floating around as a separate block that can be combined in different ways to supply the researcher with results. As the red X over Keyword3 implies, sometimes keywords are even dropped altogether if they do not fit into the engine's assumptions about which keywords will produce the the most relevant results. In other words, although the keywords were entered in a sequence by the researcher, the results may not reflect that sequence or even all of the keywords!

However, when a search engine matches an exact phrase, it takes a sequence of terms and looks across the information available to that engine for instances in which that precise combination pops up. In a sense, it takes that collection of building blocks and forms them into one solid group of terms that must appear in the results.

When would this be useful?

Let’s imagine an example in which someone is in the process of looking for a collection of stories, but for one reason or another, the basic search is not finding anything useful. They can’t remember the author or the title of the book, but they do remember the color of the cover as well as the name of a particular folktale: “The Incredible Nose.”

Starting out, a simple Google book search with the following terms – the incredible nose – produces many results. But after looking through pages of results provided by Google books, it is looking more and more unlikely that the right one will appear. We could add more keywords, like "West African myths" and "folktale," but there is a simple principle which – if applied to the exact same keywords – will bring the book to the researcher on the very first page of the results. That "exact phrase" principle is illustrated below.

Keyword1 Keyword2 Keyword3 etc.

Adding quotation marks around your keywords forces the search engine to find results that match an exact phrase.

Without the "Exact Phrase" Principle: the incredible nose

Results: ~400-500

Relevance: Low

With the "Exact Phrase" Principle: “the incredible nose”

Results: ~90

Relevance: High

Note: Not all search engines and databases act the same way, so if one does not seem to match a phrase when the search terms are surrounded by quotation marks, try using the advanced search options. More often than not if a search engine does not make use of quotation marks in its search box, it may be able to apply the same principle in a different way. For instance, look for something like “match this phrase exactly” under the advanced search options.


Applying this principle can be very effective in instances like this, because while the first search contains all the right keywords, the exact order is required to find it quickly. As demonstrated here, the first search yields 400 to 500 results to sift through, but applying the exact phrase principle reduces it to 90. Most importantly, the book in question was listed on the first page. The difference can be quite impressive, but be careful! While this principle can be incredibly effective in narrowing the field of results, it relies on the accuracy (and correct spelling) of the search terms. Of course, the silver lining here is that if results are coming up empty while using this principle, it could be a good sign to double check or re-evaluate those terms.

If you have any questions, call your local branch and ask for a reference librarian. Stay tuned for future blogs on how to improve your searches!