Mary Ellen Bates of Bates Information Services just published a great tip on proximity searching in Google. On Lexis and Westlaw, if you want search terms to appear near each other in your results, you can enter a "terms and connectors" search that looks like this: landlord w/10 negligen! This search will locate documents that contain the word "landlord" within 10 words of some form of the word "negligence."
Here's how to do a similar search on Google, according to Mary Ellen Bates:
The syntax is search-word AROUND(x) search-word - replacing "x" with the maximum number of words you want between the two search terms or phrases. (Be sure you type AROUND in all caps; otherwise, Google treats it as just another search term.)
How does this work in real life? I was recently working on a project analyzing the impact on the workplace of the arrival of digital natives (those who have grown up with digital technology). A search for "digital natives" workplace turned up useful information, but I had to wade through a fair amount of irrelevant material in which the phrase digital natives and the word workplace both appeared, but not in the appropriate context. When I changed my search to "digital natives" AROUND(6) workplace the results were more focused on what I had in mind. The difference wasn't dramatic but the results were definitely better.
For straightforward, just-get-me-the-answer searches, the AROUND feature probably will not improve your search results noticaably. The query ipad review returns roughly the same number of useful results as the query ipad AROUND(4) review, for example. Since Google factors in the proximity of search terms in calculating the relevance of each page, most of the top results will naturally have your search terms relatively close to each other. The value of AROUND emerges when you are looking for the intersection of two concepts that do not frequently appear near each other.
Thanks to Mary Ellen Bates for the tip!