How to Use Proximity Search to Find Online Evidence

How to Use Proximity Search to Find Online Evidence

Quickly and easily narrow your search results for a more efficient, effective online investigation

Search engines are getting better and better at helping us find what we need, even if we don't search for the exact keywords. However, they don't get it right every time.

Simply searching a string of words without any extra commands tells Google that those words can appear in any order, anywhere on the webpage. When you're searching for a specific business's and/or person's name, in a certain place, though, you're looking for results where those words are clumped together.

When you use proximity search, you're telling Google to exclude results that aren't relevant to your investigation, making your search faster and more effective.

Use these tools for a more efficient, effective online investigation

When you're searching for information on a subject, you might not know where to start. This free cheat sheet lists helpful online resources you can use to find better intel in less time.

Get the Cheat Sheet

Method #1: "Around"

The "around" Google command "returns results where the two terms/phrases are within (X) words of each other," according to the search engine experts at Moz. In other words, you tell the search engine how far apart the different aspects of your query can be from each other (in number of words) on a webpage.

A query using "around" might look like this:

"Sally Smith" AROUND(5) Sacramento

This tells Google that you want to find results for someone named Sally Smith, with the word "Sacramento" up to five words away from her name on the page.

RELATED: 3 Essential Social Media Search Tips for Investigators

Method #2: Asterisk (*)

If you don't want to specify the distance between the parts of your query on a page, use the asterisk (*) command.

For the same search, using asterisk would look like this:

"Sally Smith" * Sacramento

This is a good option to use if you're unsure about details of your investigation or as a first attempt at searching for digital evidence on a subject.

Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, CII and founder of the Hetherington Group, explains, "what the asterisk does is it says whatever's on this side of the little star needs to be [close to] whatever's on this side of the star. And it could be flip-flopped." So, Sacramento could appear before Sally Smith on the page, and you'd still see that result.

RELATED: 3 Google Search Skills Every Investigator Needs

Why Should I Use Proximity Search?

Proximity search helps you find evidence for all "cases you have where you have to put two things together, a person's name, and another person's name, a business and an address, a product and a shipper, a manufacturer and a supplier," Hetherington says.

Imagine you're investigating someone named John Smith in Chicago. You could search

John Smith Chicago

but the results would probably be in the millions. Google would give you every webpage where "John", "Smith", and "Chicago" appear. This means that the page could reference a Judy Smith in Chicago, or a John Smith from Miami as well as a separate mention of Chicago.

John might also go by a variation on his name, such as John James Smith or John Smith, Jr. Using proximity search helps you find results on your subject by filling in these missing name elements for you without having to perform a separate query for every name variation.

By using one of the proximity search methods, you can be sure that your search only brings up results relevant to your query. If your subject has a common name, every result won't actually be a match to them, but you'll have weeded out the results that don't fit your investigation at all.

Simply put, proximity search narrows your search results way down.

Want to learn more helpful tips and tricks to use in your next online evidence search? Watch Hetherington's full webinar for free here.