Can't do it, can we? Well, now we can. This is a function that's been around for... (this pause in important, just to drag home the enormity of what I'm about to say) five or six YEARS according to one blog. It's an undocumented feature apparently. We've had a work around (that we clearly haven't actually needed) by using the asterisk symbol such as three * mice for a single word between two others, or three ** mice for up to two words between two others and so on. However, we can use the proximity search operator AROUND(x) to work more effectively. You have to put around in capitals to ensure that Google knows you want to do a proximity search, then add in the brackets with a number in there. Why Google has decided to use 'around' as a proximity term is a bit odd - most sensible resources would use something like NEAR instead, but that's Google for you.
Let's see how it works:
National Orchestra gives us almost 8 million results. To be clear - Google is finding any page that includes both national and orchestra anywhere on the page, and ranking by many methods including proximity.
If we now do a search so that we've got one word between:
All makes perfect sense to me. Can you sense a 'but' coming up here though? I'm sure you can. However, let's end this section by saying that it's great we've got proximity search with Google, though why they've never actually bothered to TELL us, or why they're using such an odd term for it is strange.
Let's try and compare the use of this with a few other functions. "national orchestra" is telling Google that we want the two words next to each other in a phrase.
But no. A completely different figure, much reduced. If anything I would have expected it perhaps to have been the other way, if Google had run my search as either orchestra or national as the first word (given that in the phrase search I'm telling Google I want national first). Let's torture Google a little bit more:
Now - since I'm telling Google that I don't want any spaces between the two words (first part of the search) and to exclude anything that DOES have spaces between them (second part of the search) I should get 0 results. But I don't. I checked a few pages for 'national orchestra and couldn't find any - there was always a word in between so either AROUND(0) doesn't work, or -phrase takes precedence.
How about the old asterisk work around. A search for national * orchestra should give us the same result at national AROUND(1) orchestra shouldn't it? It doesn't of course - 103,000,000 hits as against 562,000 hits - a difference of about 102,500,000 (not forgetting the Google catch all escape clause of 'about so many results).
Asking for a word between national orchestra and excluding any site that contains a word between national orchestra should give us nothing. But we have over 1 million. "Ah" but I hear you cry (and as an aside, the fact that you've kept up this far is quite phenominal!) "perhaps the * symbol just means one or many words between national and orchestra?" Good idea, but no. A search for national * orchestra gives us 103,000,000 results, but national ** orchestra gives us 111,000,000 results. Any more than that - national ****** orchestra still just gives us 111,000,000 hits.
Summary: We have proximity search in Google. I think it works - it kinda seems to work, and I think it's better than what went before it, but as with most Google functionality when you're dealing with big numbers it seems to break down quite quickly. But that it's been around for years? And they never told us - if that's actually the case, has just dumbfounded me. I'll do some digging and asking around, see if the other search engine folks know any more than I do.