A Recruiter’s Guide to Boolean Searching (and the World’s Largest Free CV Database)

Carmen Hudson recently highlighted SearchOnTheGo as an iPhone application with real value for recruiters. While it is a handy tool for completing CV searches on Google, the essence of the program is that it creates ‘complex’ searches through a point-and-click interface. This is a great simplifier for many, but Boolean search writing is a skill that top recruiters need to know directly in order to get meaningful candidate search results from a wide range of software.

Beyond Google, many other systems we use on a daily basis accept Boolean searches. This includes LinkedIn, Monster, and quite probably your internal ATS. SearchOnTheGo won’t help you with these platforms, so if you want to get the most from them you need to know the basics of Boolean searching directly. Therefore, in less than 1,000 words, let’s see if I can explain how to do it!

Fully constructed Boolean search strings can look both confusing and complex, but don’t worry, because they aren’t! The first important thing to appreciate is that there are only five elements of syntax to understand. These are:






By applying these appropriately, along with the keywords you wish to consider, you can create a huge range of search operations. There is no limit to how often you can use any of these elements in a search, so you can create very specific search strings, which will save you a lot of time in filtering the results.


AND is the simplest function to apply. Any search terms that follow an AND command must appear in the result. For example:

engineer AND “senior developer”

will give results that include both the word engineer and the phrase “senior developer”. All search results will include both, and any CVs that have either engineer or “senior developer” (but not both) will not appear.


OR provides options into a search. Usage of the OR command allows you to create a list of possibilities for which only one match is important. For example, the following search phrase would give you results that contain one or more of the stated words:

hospitality OR catering OR hotelier


NOT is the command of exclusion. If there are closely related terms that mean very different things, then usage of the NOT command is extremely valuable. An example could be as follows:

architect NOT “software architect”

This would give you results that contain the word architect, but leaving out any that use the phrase “software architects”. Very useful if you are operating in the construction industry.

The one major limitation with the NOT command is that it isn’t recognized by Google.

“” – Quotation Marks

You will have noticed that I have used the “” expression above in some examples already, wrapped around particular keywords. These quotation marks are used to capture a phrase that is to be kept intact, in the precise word order stated. Not using “” around a phrase will mean that each word is treated separately, usually with an assumed AND in between each one. For example:

pork sandwich

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would give results that contain ‘pork‘ and ‘sandwich‘, but not necessarily in the same sentence or paragraph!

“pork sandwich”

would give results that only contain the phrase ‘pork sandwich

() – Brackets

Using brackets is essential for complex search strings, and it can be their application that causes the most confusion. Essentially, a clause within brackets is given priority over other elements around it. The most common place that brackets are applied by recruiters is in the use of OR strings. Perhaps a good example would be company names. You have a list of target companies from where you wish to find your talent, and a candidate can have worked at any one (or ideally several) of them. You might initially construct a command like this:

IBM OR Oracle OR “Red Hat” OR Microsoft

These are all large companies though, so any search like this is likely to generate a large number of results. If you wanted to find just individuals who have reached Manager or Director level, then you might use the following command:

“Manager” OR “Director”

To combine both commands into one search, we use brackets to tell the search engine that these are separate conditions. In order to tell the search engine that we want to see results containing either Manager or Director and also one of IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, or Microsoft, we group them like this:

(“Manager” OR “Director”) AND (IBM OR Oracle OR “Red Hat” OR Microsoft)

It makes no difference which order the two bracketed sections go; the same results will result either way.

Wrap-up, and big5hire.com

So, that’s a whistle-stop guide to the very basics of Boolean searching. I have only scratched the surface on its usage, and there are many more techniques that can be used by smart recruiters. For that, I can strongly recommend the blog of Glenn Cathey, the self-proclaimed Boolean Black Belt.

To put boolean into practice, play around with http://www.big5hire.com/. Big5Hire is probably the single largest CV database resource in the world, and it’s completely free! It aggregates the profiles from several major social networks, as well as CVs accessible through Google. The best value from it only tends to come from applying particularly complex or specific search strings, but that’s simply because there are so many profiles on there.

Tim Marston is the Senior EMEA Recruiter for Red Hat, Inc., an NYSE-listed software company. He is responsible for Red Hat's recruitment activities across the EMEA region, and is particularly passionate about selection process. Prior to this, he spent several years as a recruitment consultant, establishing the first dedicated recruitment service for agile software development teams.


23 Comments on “A Recruiter’s Guide to Boolean Searching (and the World’s Largest Free CV Database)

  1. Our ATS has an awesome drag and drop boolean search creator for searching your internal resume bank, plus we create links to all major search engines and social networking sites using the same boolean search.

    In addition to the search composition, we also generate a query cloud for you based on your search terms to help identify other required or optional terms that you might not have otherwise thought of.

    It is really easy to use, and the results are amazing.

    One thing that BrightMove does, that not all other search engines do, is weighting of the optional terms. All things being equal, and optional term is just that. However, we place more importance on the first optional term than the last optional term.

    For example.

    (Java AND “Software Design”) AND (“Oracle 10g” OR “Oracle 9i”)

    In this example, 2 candidates with Java and “Software Design” could be returned. But the one with “Oracle 10g” would score better and be returned higher becuase “Oracle 10g” is before “Oracle 9i”, even though they are optional.

    This give you the power to not limit your search too much, while bubbling the best resumes to the top of your results.

    Great Article! I would love for recruiters to know there is a great boolean tool out there for internal and external searching. We have been told it is the best on the market.

  2. Timothy, I find it interesting that you consider basic operators and paranthesis/quotations “complex”. Regardless, I find SearchontheGo extrememly useful in quickly identifying qualified folks for my reqs. When I use it as part of my meetings with hiring managers they are impressed by the speed and simplicity as well as the fact that they are working with a recruiter who is using cutting edge tools to serve their needs. It is one of many tools in my toolbox but one that I regulary find myself going back to.

  3. I couldn’t resist posting a comment on the subject! 🙂 It’s great that more and more recruiters look into learning the basics of Boolean search.
    Tim, we’d be happy to “see” you at the Boolean Strings Network at http://booleanstrings.ning.com/

    I second the recommendation of the now famous Boolean Black Belt blog. Glen Cathey is great! He gives precise, detailed, easy-to-read advice and covers a lot of ground in his posts.

    A few things in response to the article.

    Boolean logic is implemented by pretty much all online sources. The search *syntax*, however, differs between them. Tim, you are right that Google wouldn’t recognize the NOT operator. Google does recognize the NOT logic though; one just needs to use “-” (minus) instead of NOT. Knowing about the syntax differences between various sites makes a BIG difference for a sourcer. For those who are in doubt about syntax, using the *advanced search dialog* helps. As an example, if you play with the advanced dialog on Google you will notice a few things: AND is implied; parenthesis are not needed in most cases; NOT must be written as the minus; quotation marks are not required around single words.

    Custom search engines like the big5hire that search resumes on the web, are, of course, nice tools. There is a good number of other “preset” web searches similar to big5hire, that are either free or paid. If you know the search syntax you can find lots of resumes on Google itself, or can even build a custom engine of your own. Saying that the web is the largest CV database may be a bit misleading for a beginner though. No web search will return over 1,000 results at a time; this is true of custom search engines as well. In this sense, strangely, your resume database (if it’s large) may return more results than a search on the web in “one shot”. To dig out more resumes out of web searching you will need to manipulate your strings, for example, add or remove keywords, based on the results. Parsing large numbers of resumes found on the web is another critical skill. There are tools to help with that.

    From what I have seen, the hardest part of sourcing on the web is, for most, the specific search operators and special characters that are used along with the Boolean logic. To search productively, one needs to learn to use a few of them, perhaps 3 or 4 “of each” on Google. The Boolean logic covered in the article is the basis of any search, of course.

  4. I just tried a few searches on Big5hire and I did not get a single resume. I did get linkedin profiles on the social media search but the google search brings up job listings etc. Am I missing something?

  5. Charles,

    big5hire’s Google search is not the greatest. If you need another way to do that I do like referyes.com/sourcer however the number of searches you can do there is limited, while big5hire is unlimited.

    Things to try
    1. use the NOT operator, since big5hire is a custom google search you can write this like this: Python Unix -jobs -submit
    This did not work for me as my search got the same results on big5hire as on Google, a mess of tutorials.

    2. However click on “Resumes in PDF” or “Resumes in Doc” and it brings up pages and pages of resumes.

    3. Put (resume |CV) in front of every big5hire search you do. Or (intitle:resume | inurl:resume). This approach has pros and cons.

    Limitations: a. not a one stop shop, it will not catch the html resumes which using Google will
    b. The craigslist search relies on Google to find(spider) the resume on craigslist before you can find it, which does not happen instantly. If you prefer a local candidate using the craigslist’s search is going to be more complete.

  6. When i use this (“sql”) AND (“developer” OR “programer”) . I get almost 40k resumes with .net developer and all others too. How can i be more specific ??????

    1. That you should tell what all you require ?
      for example you can specify location , experience other languages etc to filter it more.

    2. Be more precise what is your requirement. No of years of experience, location, male or female, nationality. Furthermore you can filter with notice period, age of the candidate.

  7. string would be (FRONTED AND “J2ME DEVELOPER”)
    However the first search string is one of the best. Hope its helpful.

  8. Good article. One interesting tool to run boolean queries across multiple sites is http://foxhi.re (a free chrome extension). You enter your skills, roles and locations and it runs your boolean query on Linkedin, GitHub, Indeed Resume and Google.

  9. Want to know the best string in order to to look for java candidate, experienced in java, j2ee, jsp, spring, hibernate.Position is in Dallas, TX. I need local Java candidates who are looking for a job.
    Please suggest me with the best string.

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