SharePoint 2010 : Searching Through the API - Understanding the Query Expression Parsing Order

3/8/2013 3:16:08 AM

Before tackling the API, it's important to review the parsing order of the query expression. Parsing of the query is dependent on the ranking of logical operators. This means defining which operators take precedence over others. The concept is also known from traditional math, where, for example, multiplications take precedence over additions. It can also be said that multiplications have a higher order than additions. An example of this is the following:

a=3 +4*5 = 23

The result of a is calculated by adding 3 to the sum of 4 times 5. The result in this case is 23 because the multiplication gets executed first.

A normal way of representing the order of computation is to use parentheses. In the math example, the formula would then be written as follows:

a=3+(4*5) = 23

Using this form of representation makes it easier to understand how a query is executed in the search engine.

Operator Order

Table 1 shows the order of the query operators in SP 2010. This is relevant when constructing queries that contain multiple terms or property restrictions. As always it is possible to overrule this priority using parentheses to group certain sub-expressions.

Table 1. Logical operators in SharePoint 2010 search

Order Operator Description
1 AND The logical AND statement dictates that terms on both sides of this operator have to match the result for it to be returned. It can also be used to group two separate blocks of conditions using the (condition set 1) AND (condition set 2).

+ This is the default operator if no other is specified. A term preceded by this operator must match a result for it to be returned.
2 NOT This operator must succeed another term or condition group. The term or condition group following this operator must not be matched in the result if it is to be returned. This operator is similar to using the “-” operator.

- A term preceded by this operator must not match a result for the result to be returned.
3 OR The logical OR statement works similarly to the AND operator, except only one of the terms before or after the OR has to match the result for it to be returned. It can also be used to group two separate blocks of conditions using the (condition set 1) OR (condition set 2).

This is not a logical operator but rather a function operator. It should be followed by a comma-separated list of terms surrounded by parentheses. The WORDS operator acts as if there were an implicit OR statement between each item in the list, with the exception of how they rank.

When using the WORDS operator, the terms are treated as synonyms, not individual terms. Ranking of the terms is therefore equal to the total amount of occurrences of any term in the list. If the list contains two terms, and the first is found two times and the second is found three times, the synonym group would be ranked as if five occurrences of the same term were found.


Sometimes the relevancy of a search is dependent on not only the terms but also how they appear in the text relative to one another. The NEAR operator allows for queries where the terms have to be close to each other. For logical reasons, this works with free text expressions only. Therefore it cannot be used in a keyword query.

NEAR can be considered a more restrictive version of the AND operator.

5 * The wildcard operator or asterisk character (“*”) is used to enable prefix matching. It can process any part of the beginning of a word. Even only one letter followed by the wildcard operator works. It acts as [0…n] random characters, which means it can also be put after the entire term and still match that term.

For example, take the following user-submitted query:

sharepo* search or search near office

This would be evaluated as follows:

('sharepo*' AND 'search') OR '(search' near 'office)

In this example, it is assumed that keyword inclusion is set to All Keywords, which means that there is an implicit AND between keywords.

Using a Tree Structure to Understand the Query

A good way of understanding how a query behaves is to create a query tree, as shown in Figure 1. This way, it is easier to physically view the individual components of the query and evaluate the impact of the operator order. Especially if parentheses are added to the query to manipulate the ordering, this is a helpful way of analyzing the query. The following is an example of a query and the corresponding query tree.

sharepo* search or search near office

Figure 1. Creating a query tree structure for understanding the search

If this is to be submitted as a FullTextSqlQuery, the SQL would be as follows:

SELECT WorkId,Rank,Title,Author,ModifiedBy,Size,Path,Description,Created,Write,Filename,Image
FileExtension FROM SCOPE() WHERE (FREETEXT(defaultproperties,'software') AND CONTAINSImage
(' "sharepo*" AND search ') ) OR CONTAINS('search NEAR office') ORDER BY Rank DESC

Manipulate the Query with Parentheses

You can force a specific ranking of operators in the parsing of the query by combining different parts of a keyword query using parentheses. It is important that the parentheses are closed correctly in such a way that every single left side “(” has an equivalent right side “)”. Empty spaces next to the parenthesis do not influence the search result, as they are stripped out by the search expression parser.

Understanding how query parsing takes place and how the order can be modified is important when working with the search API. In the following sections, various ways of using the search API are presented. When creating full text queries or querying through the search web service, the query is passed as clear text. When creating SQL queries, the query is created from a number of aggregated statements. Although this is different from providing one complete query string, the same principle applies.

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