Going wild in Google with wildcards

The Boolean search symbol * is used in many database searches to represent any characters or set of characters. It can be used in Google searches to represent any word or set of words.

You can use this feature for collocation searches. This is very similar to the Collocation Tester exercise (see chapter 2 of Blended Learning).

Here’s a couple of examples for finding common business English collocations. Enter the following in the Google search box. They are contained inside double quotation marks to force Google to search for the exact phrase plus whatever words appear in the place of the * symbol.

“a * meeting”

The results of this search include:

  • a regular meeting
  • a special meeting
  • a brainstorming meeting
  • a consultative meeting

“we need to * an agreement”

The results include:

  • we need to reach an agreement
  • we need to negotiate an agreement
  • we need to come to an agreement
  • we need to find an agreement

This type of search can be used in vocabulary lessons. The learners could first predict the collocations they would expect to find before going to Google. They could say something about how common a collocation is based on how often it appears in the search results, for example, reach an agreement occurs more often than obtain an agreement. You can provide the search phrase or learners could create their own. This could result in competition between groups to see which phrase would produce the largest number of collocations for a given word.

Google trends – instant trends graphs

I was “flicking” through today’s Guardian Unlimited website and saw this article about Google Trends.

In brief, Google Trends allows you to enter a subject in much the same way you would with the Google search engine. However, instead of getting a list of websites, you are presented with a graph showing how often this subject has been searched for. You can refine this graph for particular geographical regions and for specific time periods. For example, this is the graph for the term ‘blended learning‘ for 2007. You can also enter several topics to produce a graph with several lines. This example here shows that, despite the terrible weather experienced by parts of the UK during the summer of 2007, many people persisted in making plans for camping holidays.

Describing trends is a common business English function. It occured to me that Google Trends could be a useful tool for creating instant graphs for that stage in the lesson when your learners have chance to demonstrate the trends language they have acquired. I have yet to try it out. If anyone has beaten me to it or is now planning to try it, I’d be interested to hear how it went.