Using Full-Word Wildcards

screenshot beginner.gifscreenshot tip13.gif

Google's full-word wildcard stands in for any keyword in a query.

Some search engines support a technique called "stemming." Stemming is adding a wildcard character - usually * (asterisk) but sometimes ? (question mark) - to part of your query, requesting the search engine return variants of that query using the wildcard as a placeholder for the rest of the word at hand. For example, moon* would find: moons, moonlight, moonshot, etc.

Google doesn't support stemming.

Instead, Google offers the full-word wildcard. While you can't have a wildcard stand in for part of a word, you can insert a wildcard (Google's wildcard character is *) into a phrase and have the wildcard act as a substitute for one full word. Searching for "three * mice", therefore, finds: three blind mice, three blue mice, three green mice, etc.

What good is the full-word wildcard? It's certainly not as useful as stemming, but then again, it's not as confusing to the beginner. One * is a stand-in for one word; two * signifies two words, and so on. The full-word wildcard comes in handy in the following situations:

  • Avoiding the 10 word limit [Tip #5] on Google queries. You'll most frequently run into these examples when you're trying to find song lyrics or a quote; plugging the phrase "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent" into Google will search only as far as the word "on," every word after that will be ignored by Google.
  • Checking the frequency of certain phrases and derivatives of phrases, like: intitle:"methinks the * doth protest too much" and intitle:"the * of Seville".
  • Filling in the blanks on a fitful memory. Perhaps you remember only a short string of song lyrics; search only using what you remember rather than randomly reconstructed full lines.

Let's take as an example the disco anthem "Good Times" by Chic. Consider the line: "You silly fool, you can't change your fate."

Perhaps you've heard that lyric, but you can't remember if the word "fool" is correct or if it's something else. If you're wrong (if the correct line is, for example, "You silly child, you can't change your fate"), your search will find no results and you'll come away with the sad conclusion that no one on the Internet has bothered to post lyrics to Chic songs.

The solution is to run the query with a wildcard in place of the unknown word, like so:

"You silly *, you can't change your fate"

You can use this technique for quotes, song lyrics, poetry, and more. You should be mindful, however, to include enough of the quote that you find unique results. Searching for "you * fool" will glean you far too many false hits.