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Q: Search engine wildcards ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Search engine wildcards
Category: Computers > Internet
Asked by: davidsar-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 10 Jul 2002 18:56 PDT
Expires: 09 Aug 2002 18:56 PDT
Question ID: 38353
Do any of the freely-available (and free of charge) web search engines
(Google, AltaVista, HotBot, etc) allow the use of wildcards?  By that,
I mean using a special character like * or ? to stand for any letter
or group of letters.  I've seen several articles that compare search
engines, and they mention the use of wildcards, but they don't seem to
actually work at the sites mentioned, nor do the sites themselves make
any mention of wildcards.

An acceptable answer would be a listing of a site (or sites) where you
know first-hand that wildcards actually work, or some credible source
that confirms that wildcards aren't in use anywhere.
Subject: Re: Search engine wildcards
Answered By: inquisitive-ga on 11 Jul 2002 10:50 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi davidsar-ga,

As someone who does SEO (search engine optimization) as part of my
job, I find your question an interesting one. Search engines are
continually changing their search strategies and options and it can be
a hard field to keep on top of.

One of the largest sites devoted to searching strategies is Search
Engine Watch led by search expert Danny Sullivan. In his article
titled "Search Engine Features for Searchers" (last updated October,
2001) he mentions the following use of wildcards:

*   supported by AltaVista, Inktomi (iWon), Northern Light, Yahoo
?   supported by AOL Search, Inktomi (iWon)  
%   supported by Northern Light 
none   AllTheWeb, Direct Hit, Excite, Google, HotBot, LookSmart,
Lycos, MSN

Danny also commented that "MSN's help says it offers wildcard, but it
failed to during testing."

In his article titled "Power Searching for Anyone" (last updated
October, 2001), Danny has a bit more to say about wildcards. One of
the most interesting comments regards 'stemming':

"Some of the search engines offering wildcard search also support what
is called "stemming." That means they will find terms like "singing"
even if you only enter "sing." This also means you may not need to use
a wildcard symbol."

According to Danny, stemming is supported in some manner by the
following search engines: AOL Search, Direct Hit, HotBot, and Inktomi
(HotBot, MSN). You can learn a few more statistics and how to access
stemming features at these engines on his Search Assistance page:

Here are some important comments and details about wildcard searching
at specific search engines:

According to AOL, the ? symbol serves as a wildcard and will replace
any single character. "Examples: AT? Matches all of the following,
ATT, ATM, ATS, AT1, etc."

Danny Sullivan further clarifies the wildcard match in AOL Search
"This only works to find matches in AOL Search's Open Directory
information. It does not work to bring back matches from
Inktomi-powered listings."

Altavista supports the use of the wildcard symbol * in the middle of a
word or at the end. The only restriction is that you must type at
least three letters before the *  For example, the search "colo*r
words" will bring up sites with "color words" and "colour words"

Northern Light supports two wildcard characters: * and %  From their
search techniques page:

"To search for variants of a word root, use a * symbol to replace a
series of letters." The * symbol can be used to replace multiple
Example: theolog* would also return "theology," "theological," and

"If you wish to replace a single letter in a word, use the % sign.
This is useful for words that have different regional spellings, or
which are commonly misspelled." The % symbol will only match a single
Example: gene%logy would return pages containing "genealogy" and
"geneology" (a common misspelling)

According the the search syntax page at Yahoo you can employ * for
wildcard searches. "Attaching a * to the right-hand side of a word
will return left side partial matches." As in the Northern Light
example above, "theolog*" will return "theology," "theological," etc.

From their advanced search help screen (reached by clicking on help
from the below referenced advanced search page): "Use wildcards. Type
an asterisk (*) at the end of a word or partial word. For example,
typing part* returns pages that include partner, particle,
participate, and so on."

I tested this feature and it does appear to work now (a search for
"genealog*" brought up pages containing "genealog" "genealogy"
"genealogia" etc.) but it does appear to change the order of the
search results around a bit.

One last important point to keep in mind. Inktomi powers some of the
search results at many of the major engines and they offer two
wildcard commands. The * symbol will match one or more characters at
the end of a word (ball* matches balls, ballgame, ballpark, etc.) and
the ? symbol can be used to match any single character. You can even
use this symbol more than once ("??ng" returns "sing" "sang" "bang"

According to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch, this feature can
be unreliable, depending upon which search engine is providing the
Inktomi results. The "commands only work reliably at iWon, at the time
of this writing. They fail to function properly at AOL Search, HotBot,
MSN Search or LookSmart to bring up matches from within the Inktomi
listings that they use. They also do not appear to bring up matches in
wildcard fashion from any of the other data sets these services use,
with the exception of AOL Search"

Search Strategy used:
personal knowledge and the advanced search pages of the search engines
in question. I also tested all wildcard matches and they appear to be
working as stated.

I hope this helps to answer your question!


Clarification of Answer by inquisitive-ga on 11 Jul 2002 10:54 PDT
Hello again davidsar,

I inadvertently left out the URL for Danny Sullivan's article "Search
Engine Features for Searchers" mentioned near the top of my answer so
I'd like to post it here:

davidsar-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
very nice work, inquisitive-ga (and you commenters as well).  It was
that "three character" rule at AltaVista that was throwing me off. 
Definitely got my five bucks worth.

Subject: Re: Search engine wildcards
From: jesseruderman-ga on 11 Jul 2002 09:28 PDT
Altavista supports * as "zero or more characters" (book*klet,
bookmark*let).  But it doesn't work as you might expect in all cases
(a*avista) -- I think it allows a space to count as one of the
characters.  It doesn't support ? for "any one character" (Goo?le,

Many other search engines (Google, Teoma, Alltheweb, Openfind) do not
support * for "zero or more characters".

Google supports * as "any one word" ("foo * baz").  If you use *
without quotes, it only grabs the words immediately on each side (foo
* baz zap is "foo * baz" zap).

Google supports | and capital-OR for disjunctions.  You can use this
for some of the same things you might use * for (bookmark |
bookmarks), to see which of two similar terms is more popular
(bookmarks | favorites), or to run queries which are ugly in
disjunctive normal form (mozilla|explorer bookmarks|favorites
convert|import|export, which in DNF is 12 separate queries such as
'mozilla favorites import'.)
Subject: Re: Search engine wildcards
From: jesseruderman-ga on 11 Jul 2002 09:38 PDT
It turns out that Altavista requires you to specify the first three
characters of the word
(  I wonder why
Altavista doesn't have a warning message similar to Google's "`an' is
a very common word and was not included in your search" when you
violate that rule.

Other features of Altavista's advanced search syntax are described at

Searches used: altavista wildcard (on both Google and Altavista).

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