Recruiting 101: Boolean Search String


We executive recruiters are part salespeople, part liaisons and consultants, and part online detectives.

In the first installment of my Recruiter 101 series – in which I hope to explain what we do as Executive Recruiters – I’d like to expand upon the latter function – i.e. detectives – and tell you about the way we search for candidates and clients in this, our digital age. Hopefully the information provided here will help you in your own research and lead generation efforts.

The Good Ol’ Days

I recently spoke to a colleague who’s been working in executive search since the early 70’s. I asked him how he used to go about researching for candidates.

This is what he told me:

Well, I’d call the the client and get as many details as I could about what they were looking for. Then I’d take a 15 minute walk to the Public Library, pull out some trade magazines and get as many names as possible in the field. I’d then go back to my office, call the names and either generate résumés or get referrals from the names, and that was pretty much all I needed.

Whoa! That’s it? I couldn’t believe my ears. If it was only still that simple, our jobs would be a lot easier.

The fact is that competition is much stiffer today. Candidates have become more and more specialized and the amount of firms vying for high quality leadership grows exponentially.

Also, the internet has kinda overstepped the Public Library as the great resource of information for recruiters. Minor detail.

So in this environment, where do we turn for our initial great leads in a search? Answer: logic.

Logical Search

The term “Boolean,” often encountered when doing searches on the Web (and sometimes spelled “boolean“), refers to a system of logical thought developed by the English mathematician and computer pioneer, George Boole (1815-64).

When we begin a search, we’re looking to find  qualified candidates as well as organizations which employ such candidates. After thoroughly reviewing our database, our next step is normally undertaking a series of Google searches. The searches might looking something like this (taken from today’s offerings to the search behemoth):

(“Principal Investigator” OR PI OR CO-PI) AND “Education Policy” AND (Ph.D. OR PhD OR Ed.D)

(Grant OR Proposal OR Funding) AND Federal AND evaluation AND (“Education Policy” OR K-12) NOT “course taught”

(M.D. OR MD OR Physician) AND (PhD OR Ph.D. OR MPH OR M.P.H) AND (“Principal Investigator” OR PI OR CO-PI) NOT (Oncology OR Oncologist)

Ok. You get the idea.

What I’m basically doing is taking criteria from a job description and placing the keywords in a particular logical sequence. This sequence will hopefully draw out accurate results, i.e. on-target candidates. Think 8th-grade algebra applied to Google search.

Boolean searching also resembles techniques used in programming of the same name. Strings of logical commands are entered into the console which direct the software to perform predictable and desired results. I find Boolean searches are eminently testable. If i’m not getting the results i’m looking for I just tweak my formula until the on-target candidates appear.  

This will not render an exhaustive list of candidates, but it’s a great place to start and get more ideas.

Closing on the Target

Other than Google, LinkedIn is the next best repository of information on Talent and Ideas. Thankfully, LinkedIn also enables advanced Boolean Searching. Those with Premium and Recruiter accounts are best positioned to use these sophisticated search methods effectively.

I usually jump back and forth between Google and LinkedIn. Sometimes I’ll get more from Google and sometimes more from LinkedIn, depending on the search.

What’s most important is that, as tedious as it is, I keep track of all the different Boolean search strings I use. This is because Executive Searches can extend for up to six weeks or more depending on the challenges of the specific recruitment. Over this period of time, I never want to backtrack, always move forward and cover more ground. Savvy online detectives always retrace their steps.

Boolean Kung Fu – Resources

Boolean is an acquired skill. For basic Boolean skills I would check out this video.

For more advanced Boolean tips, this is my favorite that really opened my mind to both the power and pitfalls of Boolean. It’s focused on LinkedIn but could equally apply to Google.

Boolean does not replace tried, tested and true methods of recruiters’ grunt work. Pouring over conference proceedings, publications and résumés will always remain an integral part an executive search, especially in Insight Executive Search’s specialty areas.

However, the Internet, Google and Boolean provide us with a great way to quickly and methodically generate candidates and get a feeling for the talent pool. So if you’re not using this in your current Lead Generation strategy, go ahead and give Boolean a shot. If you’re like me and love the outdoors, you can even take a walk over to the Public Library and try it there.