Learning Search

Google Adds Two New Syntax for Date Search

I have been obsessed with searching Google by date for a loooong time. In 2003, shortly after Google released its API documentation, I figured out how to create a date search form and called it GooFresh. It’s long gone, of course, but its page was archived by the Wayback Machine. (I also made one for AltaVista but I think when I tried to call it AltaFresh I got in trouble. Ah, for the old days of the Internet…)

Google has retained date search all along, making it easier to use with the addition of date ranges (and custom date ranges) under its Tools option. Now, however, Google has launched (via a Twitter thread) two syntax that will allow you to do date searches without filling out a form: before: and after:. There are a few ways you can use this so let’s break it down from simple to complicated.

Basics

These two syntax do just what it says on the tin: narrow your search results to those items published before or after a certain date. (Be warned, though –  Google’s date search has always been a little squirrely, and with the rise of dynamic content it hasn’t gotten better. The search results won’t be perfect.)

You can specify a full date but let’s start with just a year. The most dramatic way to illustrate how this works is by using slang. Let’s say “on fleek,” which was popular around 2014.

“On fleek” before:2014

Google search results for "On fleek" before:2014

At first glance this looks like the date search doesn’t work. But “fleeky” apparently predates the expression “On fleek,” with “fleeky” having an entry going back to 2007! (I don’t know why I’m so shocked that slang words have traceable etymology too.) Also take a look at the results count; there are about 40,200 results. Compare that to “On fleek” after:2014

Google search results for "On fleek" after:2014

Over 3.5 MILLION results. Google’s new date syntax did some serious spadework in narrowing down our search results.

The two examples above are from a basic Web search. It looks like this new syntax works for Google News, Video, and Books based on my testing. Results for Google Image search are mixed — it definitely changed the search results, but the results did not become mostly free of fleek slang until I got more aggressive with the date range (limiting the image search results to before 2010.) I did not realize how many books had the word “fleek” in the title until I did a Google Books search for after:2014 intitle:fleek .

These new syntax do not seem to work in Google Scholar based on my tests. It still has a form available for date-based searching.

Let’s get a little more specific with full dates.

Specifying Full Dates With Date Search Syntax

According to the announcement thread for these syntax, you can specify full dates using either / or -.

Fleek before:2009/04/11

Fleek after:2015-04-11

Note the order of the date here. When I initially tested these I ordered the date month/day/year like this:

Fleek before:04/11/2009

Google search results for Fleek before:04/11/2009

Yes, it will narrow down your search results, but mostly because it’s surfacing very specific dates in the pages of the search results. Make sure you’re formatting the date correctly when you use these syntax!

Now, the big question: can you use these syntax at the same time? Of course you can!

Using the Two Syntax Together

You can use both syntax together with simple dates or complicated.

Fleek before:2018 after:2015

This is a great option for when you need to narrow down your search results but you don’t want to winnow them too closely. I also like the idea of using these syntax to gather information about a particular event. For example, the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

The 2004 World Series took place between October 23 and October 27, 2004. Say I’m doing research on it, and I want to just look at that news coverage. I can do this:

“Red Sox” before:2004/10/28 after:2004/10/22

(I’m adding in a day of “padding” to make sure I get everything I can.)

Google search results for "Red Sox" before:2004/10/28 after:2004/10/22

How great is this? Less than 3000 search results laser-focused on a week or so in 2004. I did learn when I ran this search that I should always start with a general Web search when using this syntax. On this search result page you can see three news sources — Boston Globe, New York Times, and the Guardian. Now here’s what the same search found when run on Google News:

Google News search results for "Red Sox" before:2004/10/28 after:2004/10/22

Just two results. I’m not sure what’s going on here; it might be that Google News doesn’t have complete date indexing. It doesn’t matter, though, as you’ll find plenty of news stories under a general Web search.

When I was running this search I wondered if doing date ranges for events pre-Internet would also work. And it does!

Do you remember “Baby Jessica” — full name Jessica McClure Morales — who fell down a well at the age of 18 months? This was in October 1987 and it took at least a couple of days to rescue her. I put together this search:

“Baby jessica” before:1987/10/17 after:1987/10/13

"Baby jessica" before:1987/10/17 after:1987/10/13

And it worked, mostly! I was immediately able to see a story from UPI on the rescue, as well as a Getty Images shot of the recovery. The Daily Plug article was contemporary, but it also had historical images of the rescue so it was worth a look as well. (And a Google News search with this same query found exactly nothing, so again, do a general Google search first.)

When I tried to combine this new syntax with some old Google syntax, I had mixed results. I decided to try to find information on fracking before 2000 on edu sites, so I did this:

Fracking before:2000 site:edu

Google search for Fracking before:2000 site:edu

If you’ll look at the first couple of search results, you’ll see that the date is noted for the article – in both cases it’s 2014. But the before: syntax is still surfacing these results. I suspect it has to do with citations inside the article confusing Google.

Google has just announced these new syntax and I want some time to play with them. But at first glance I think they’ll be a useful addition to my search toolbox, and handier than having to fill out a form every time. (Might be useful in a bookmarklet too… hmmm….)

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