With the great resignation, you'd think that would be the best source for candidates. However, sometimes the best candidates are the ones you've already stored away in your database! With all the creative ways recruiters can search for candidates, this is one of the more common ones during low-unemployment. However, if supplemented with active pipelines - it can easily add a few more candididates to your workflow. While job postings, cold calls and referrals are all effective strategies, you can be more proactive in your sourcing efforts with Boolean searches.

A Boolean search utilizes a set of terms called “Boolean operators” to either narrow or expand a resume database search. You can utilize Boolean searches on LinkedIn, Google, in most resume databases, and in some applicant tracking systems (ATS). By mastering Boolean searches, you’ll more easily source top-tier applicants, giving you a better opportunity to find the perfect candidate.

The Advantages of Conducting a Boolean Search

There are two types of candidates: passive and active. A passive candidate is currently not looking for a new position, but could potentially be interested in a career shift; whereas an active candidate is either unemployed or proactively looking for a job. In general, active candidates are sourced through job postings and online applications. However, while you may be sourcing active candidates in this manner, you’re not necessarily being proactive in finding them. Which is why this method of sourcing candidates is called “reactive sourcing”.

A Boolean search, on the other hand, is an example of what is called “proactive sourcing”, which means actively searching for the ideal candidate. A well executed Boolean search can produce a group of highly qualified, active candidates. When conducting a Boolean search, it helps to use the following criteria:

  • Skills: The essential qualifications and required abilities necessary for a candidate to be successful in a position. Boolean searches can make this process easier by centering around specific skills. In addition, you can create multiple search strings to produce results that should result in a list of qualified candidates.

  • Experience: The amount of time an employee has worked in a particular field or with a particular skill. It can be difficult to search for experience, but key words such as manager, lead, or senior can help determine how much experience a particular candidate has.

  • Location: Boolean operators can be used to search for a state, city, or even zip code.

How to Effectively use Each Boolean Operator

Below is a list of the Boolean operators and how they can impact a search.

  • AND or +

    Ex. Marketing AND Management / Marketing + Management

    Search will deliver a resume containing both Marketing and Management.

  • OR

    Ex. Server OR Waiter

    Search will deliver a resume containing either Server or Waiter.

  • NOT or -

    Ex. Engineer NOT Software / Engineer - Software

    Search will deliver a resume containing Engineer but will omit results with Software.

  • Quotation Marks “ ”

    Ex. “Technical Writer”

    Searches deliver resumes containing exactly Technical Writer, not Technical and Writer separately.

  • Parentheses ()

    Ex. (“Customer Support” OR “Customer Success”) AND Manager

    Search will deliver resumes containing either Customer Support or Customer Success that also contains Manager.

  • Asterisk *

    Ex. Recruit*

    Search will deliver results that start with the same letters as Recruit, such as Recruiting, Recruiter, Recruitment, etc.

  • Proximity ~

    Ex. "Senior Developer"~3

    Search will return resumes with any instances of the words Senior and Developer with three or fewer words between them. You can make this more or less strict by decreasing or increasing the number.

Order of Operations

Boolean searches require thought, strategy and a bit of experimentation. It’s good practice to start with a broad search and then narrow your scope little by little until you’ve whittled it down to a small list of highly-qualified candidates. In order to effectively achieve this result, you have to understand the order of operations for a Boolean search, which is:


  2. Parentheses

  3. NOT

  4. AND

  5. OR

It’s important to note that not using parentheticals is one of the biggest reasons attempted Boolean searches fall short, so use them when you can.

An Example of How to Conduct a Successful Boolean Search

Here is an example of how to effectively conduct a Boolean search for a marketing position with 5 years of experience for a job in Los Angeles.

The search will look within the parentheticals and see two different skills separated by “OR”, essentially producing two separate searches:

But, what if the candidate must-have some sort of leadership or management experience? We can add more to grow the string and narrow our search:

Resulting in four separate searches:

Sometimes, in order to find the perfect candidate, you have to omit certain terms. For example, we are decidedly not looking for an Account Manager position, but our current search string will deliver results for account managers. Therefore, we’ll want to add NOT to the string to narrow our search even more:

Which translates to:

With the addition of more Boolean operators, a search becomes more specific, producing candidates that fit the required criteria.

Avoid Misleading Boolean Search Results

When you conduct a Google search, you’re performing what’s known as a “fuzzy search”. A fuzzy search produces results that are near, but not exact, to your desired search. However, the moment you use Boolean operators, your search becomes hyper-specific. For that reason, it’s important to be as detailed as possible. This would involve including any necessary information (such as required skills, desired experience, or location) as well as having a clear idea of the ideal candidate before conducting the search. Again, an effective Boolean search takes patience, thought, and a bit of trial and error. Glenn Cathey, the Boolean Black Belt, consistently writes about how to improve sourcing with Boolean Searches—be sure to check out his blog.

How to Pair Boolean Searches with Your ATS

Many applicant tracking systems feature Boolean search functionality to assist in combing through your applicant database. What’s more, a top-tier ATS can even parse resume content to better identify qualified candidates. Without the use of Boolean operators, your ATS will not be as effective and you may want to consider switching. If you’re interested in choosing a new ATS, we’ve developed a guide with everything you need to know, which you can read here. If you already are a CATS user, here’s a bit more information about how searching works within your database.

Find the Ideal Candidate with Boolean Searches

Utilizing effective Boolean searches enables you to eliminate unhelpful results with hyper-specific search terms, and find a group of ideal candidates. In addition, it’s a more proactive means of sourcing, as you are actively searching for top-tier candidates rather than waiting for them to come to you. The more experience you have with conducting Boolean searches, the more effective they will be.