We all use search forms every day. There’s usually an advanced search form of some sort that allows you to enter a boolean expression. You know Boolean expressions as “This OR That” – an inclusive search that increases results – or “This AND That” – an exclusive search that limits results.
When you need to filter your results, a powerful method is to make a list of companies, individuals, skills – whatever you are using to get more precise answers – and create a Boolean expression to get a better initial set of results from a search engine. Yet when someone gives you a list of 10, 20, 50, or 100 items the idea of making a delimited list of “Item1” OR “Item2” OR “Item3” is more difficult than you’d like to be.
Never fear: Google Sheets to the rescue! This is a perfect example of a task for a Lazy Programmer™ to solve, as it’s much easier to have a spreadsheet count values and rearrange text for you than it is for you to do the work by hand. Let’s take a look.
As an example, I created a utility spreadsheet that takes a range of values, counts those values, and outputs a result string that delivers a boolean expression to paste into your favorite advanced search page. Whether you’d like to create a list of criteria to find your next job, search Twitter more effectively, or simply create a customized search for Google, this expression builder can help.
This spreadsheet has two formulas that do the work for you. The first one joins a range of values into a concatenated string (turns list of Orange and Apple into ‘Orange’ OR ‘Apple’ OR ”):
There are five functions in this expression:
- JOIN combines an expression of values into a string connecting each item with the string ‘ OR ‘;
- INDIRECT tells the spreadsheet to wait until the range expression in the formula from A2 to the last unblank value in column A is completed and we know the number of the last row to select;
- TEXT converts a complex expression into a value – in this case a calculation of the number of rows in the column of this spreadsheet minus the number of blank rows in the column of this spreadsheet – so that INDIRECT will take result of this expression and substitute “5”, the last row above that has a value. This results in a range from A2:A5 to feed back to JOIN;
- ROWS counts the number of rows in a range – the standard number in a Google Spreadsheet is 1000 – and returns an integer to feed back to the expression inside of TEXT;
- COUNTBLANK returns the number of blank rows in a range, so that our calculation of rows minus the number of blank rows leaves us with the number of rows containing values (4) or the total number of rows including the header (5).
Now that we have our formula, it creates the string:
'Orange' OR 'Apple' OR 'Banana' OR 'Grapefruit' OR ''
From the rows of Orange, Apple, Banana, Grapefruit above. And there is one problem here: that we need to remove the trailing “OR ”” that resulted from the expression.
Our second formula, REGEXREPLACE, removes the last “OR ”” from the string. RegEx is sort of like Black Magic, so you will probably need to use a helper site like Rubular. This string looks for a specific string right before the end of the line (represented by $)
and replaces it with nothing.
This leaves you with the strong you want to paste into a search form:
'Orange' OR 'Apple' OR 'Banana' OR 'Grapefruit'
You’re all set! Now, use this utility with any number of rows in your list of items to create a Boolean expression made for you automagically.