If you’re a regular user of Google, I’m sure you’re familiar with the plus operator. It’s used as a tool by power users to narrow down results to ensure words will be in the search results.

If not, you’re probably familiar with Google rewriting your query to try and help your results; most commonly this is seen with misspelling; but often a word or two may be dropped from your query to assist with search terms you may have meant.

As Eric Schmidt once said, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”. They also know you can’t come up with the best search terms for the results you want.

Sometimes things go wrong – often, the wrong word is dropped. Previously, adding the + operator; e.g. [winlirc +audiocapture] would solve this, now it requires quote marks – e.g. [winlirc "audiocapture"] to give useful results.

If you make a search on Google using the + operator to ensure a word is used, you’ll now receive the following message;

Showing results for google +replaced plus with quotes
The + operator has been replaced.
To search for an exact word or phrase, use double quotation marks: google “replaced” plus with quotes

Here’s a screenshot:

Screenshot of Google error - replaced the plus operator with quote marks

Google have replaced the plus operator with quote marks

So what’s going on? Google are changing some of the operators; they’ve updated their documentation on their help page. The negation operator, ‘-‘, still works as expected; as does the double-quote marks for both phrases, but now also for words too.

We’ve certainly noticed that over the last few weeks, for longer search queries some words are dropped that are seen as, in Googles own words; ‘evidence might come from language analysis that Google has done or many other sources’. However, in our experience, the search results have been mainly to give popular results, rather than more specific results that the search terms imply.

As an aside – as always, the underscore is treated as a special case – and is another reason why it should be avoided in URL structures, always use hyphens instead!

So what does the ‘+’ operator do now? For now, it seems very little.

Why has it been replaced? Nobody seems to know, although both the plus and quote operators were probably very similar in code.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s a minor gripe, but it now takes at least four key presses (and navigating both sides of the word or phrase); instead of just two. Google also seems to being less ‘choosey’ on keywords entered by the user; instead intending to match more popular results.

Of course, real expert users can continue to use the nfpr=1 querystring to disable most of Google’s corrections.

Since Google haven’t made an announcement, if anyone else has any more information about this change, please let us know in the comments.