top of page

SQL Like Operator: A Complete Guide

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

In relational databases, SQL, or Structured Query Language, serves as the bedrock for managing, querying, and manipulating data. Among the multitude of SQL operators and functions, the SQL LIKE operator stands as a versatile and invaluable tool, particularly when dealing with text data. This operator empowers database professionals to seek, filter, and extract data that adheres to specific patterns or substrings within a larger body of text.


Whether you're searching for keywords within textual descriptions, validating email addresses, or simply seeking partial matches within a vast dataset, the SQL LIKE operator is your gateway to unlocking the potential of SQL for text-based operations.


In this comprehensive guide, we will embark on a journey to master the SQL LIKE operator. Throughout the course of this article, we will delve into its syntax, explore its benefits, provide practical examples of its usage, decode the significance of wildcard characters, and weigh its advantages and disadvantages.


Table of Contents:

Syntax

Benefits of SQL Like Operator

Partial Match

Full Match

Specific Patterns of Characters

Percent Sign (%)

Underscore Sign (_)


What is SQL LIKE Operator?

The SQL LIKE operator is used to search for a specified pattern in a column. It is used in conjunction with the WHERE clause of the SELECT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements to filter the rows based on the given pattern.


Read -


The SQL LIKE operator can be used to find partial matches, full matches, and specific patterns of characters.


The SQL LIKE operator is case-insensitive by default. This means that the following two SELECT statements will return the same result:

SELECT * FROM customers WHERE last_name LIKE '%SMITH%'; 
SELECT * FROM customers WHERE last_name LIKE '%smith%';

Syntax

The SQL LIKE operator is used as follows:

<column_name> LIKE '<pattern>'

The <pattern> can be a combination of regular characters and wildcard characters. The wildcard characters are as follows:

  • The percent sign (%) represents zero, one, or multiple characters.

  • The underscore sign (_) represents a single character.

For example, the following SELECT statement will return all rows from the customers table where the last_name column contains the string "Smith":

SELECT * FROM customers WHERE last_name LIKE '%Smith%'; 

This will also return rows where the last_name column contains the strings "Smithson" or "Blacksmith".


Benefits of using SQL Like Operator

The SQL LIKE operator has a number of benefits, including:

  1. Text-Based Filtering: It's useful for filtering and extracting data based on textual criteria, such as finding names, addresses, keywords, or descriptions that match a certain pattern.

  2. Text-Based Reporting: SQL LIKE can be employed in generating reports and data summaries. For example, you can use it to find all products with names containing a specific keyword or to identify customers with email addresses in a particular format.

  3. Data Validation: It can be used for data validation, ensuring that data entered into a database conforms to specific patterns, such as validating phone numbers, email addresses, or other structured text data.

  4. Query Flexibility: The SQL LIKE operator allows you to perform flexible queries, such as searching for customers with similar names or products with similar descriptions. It's particularly useful when you don't have an exact match in mind.

  5. Case Sensitivity Control: You can control the case sensitivity of SQL LIKE searches by using functions like UPPER() or LOWER(). This makes it suitable for case-sensitive or case-insensitive searches.

  6. Text Data Transformation: You can use SQL LIKE in combination with other SQL functions to transform and extract information from text data efficiently.


Examples:

The SQL LIKE operator is a valuable tool for any SQL developer. It can be used to find data in a database quickly and easily.


First, we'll create a sample table named employees with the following columns:

  1. Employee_id,

  2. First_name,

  3. Last_name

  4. Department.

CREATE TABLE employees (
    employee_id INT PRIMARY KEY,
    first_name VARCHAR(50),
    last_name VARCHAR(50),
    department VARCHAR(50)
);

Then insert the value:

-- Insert some sample data
INSERT INTO employees (employee_id, first_name, last_name, department)
VALUES
    (1, 'John', 'Doe', 'HR'),
    (2, 'Jane', 'Smith', 'Sales'),
    (3, 'Alice', 'Johnson', 'IT'),
    (4, 'Bob', 'Williams', 'Finance'),
    (5, 'Ella', 'Davis', 'Marketing');

SQL Like Operator - Employees table

Now that we have our table and data, let's perform a query:


Example 1: Using SQL LIKE for Partial Matches

To find employees with last names containing the letter 'o':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE last_name LIKE '%o%';
SQL Like Operator - Partial Match

To find employees with first names containing the letter 'a':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE first_name LIKE '%a%';
SQL Like Operator - Partial Match 2

Example 2: Using SQL LIKE for Full Matches

To find employees with the last name 'Doe':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE last_name LIKE 'Doe';
SQL Like Operator - Full Match

To find employees with the first name 'Jane':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE first_name LIKE 'Jane';

Example 3: Using SQL LIKE for Specific Patterns of Characters

To find employees with last names starting with 'Smi' and ending with 'th':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE last_name LIKE 'Smi%th';
SQL Like Operator - Specific Patterns of Character

To find employees with first names that start with 'Al' and end with 'ce':

SELECT * FROM employees WHERE first_name LIKE 'Al%ce';
SQL Like Operator - Specific Patterns of Character 2

Wildcard Characters

The percent sign (%) and underscore sign (_) are special wildcard characters used in conjunction with the LIKE operator to perform pattern matching within text data. These characters help you search for data that matches a specific pattern, making it a powerful tool for querying databases.


The percent sign (%)

The percent sign is used in a SQL LIKE expression to represent zero, one, or multiple characters. It's a wildcard that matches any sequence of characters.


Example:

-- Find all names starting with "J" and followed by any characters
SELECT * FROM employees WHERE name LIKE 'J%';  

-- Find all names containing "doe" anywhere in the name
SELECT * FROM employees WHERE name LIKE '%doe%'; 

Pros:

  • Versatile for matching patterns with any number of characters before or after a specific pattern.

  • Useful for searching for substrings within larger strings.

Cons:

  • Can be resource-intensive for complex patterns with many wildcard characters since it might require more extensive scanning.


The underscore sign (_)

The underscore sign is used to represent a single character in a LIKE expression. It matches any single character, which makes it useful for finding patterns with known characters in specific positions.


Example:

-- Find all two-letter words ending with "t"
SELECT * FROM employees WHERE department LIKE '_t';  

-- Find all five-letter words that start with "A"
SELECT * FROM employees WHERE first_name LIKE 'A____'; 
SQL Like Operator - Underscore sign (_)

Pros:

  • Useful for matching patterns with a specific character in a particular position.

  • More specific and efficient for simple patterns with known characters.

Cons:

  • Limited to matching a single character, which can be restrictive for complex patterns.

  • May require multiple underscores to represent missing characters, making the query longer.


Both the percent sign (%) and underscore sign (_) are powerful tools for pattern matching in SQL, and their use depends on the specific requirements of your query.

  • Use the percent sign (%) when you need to match patterns with variable numbers of characters before or after a specific pattern, or when searching for substrings within larger strings.

  • Use the underscore sign (_) when you need to match patterns with specific characters in known positions or when searching for patterns with a single wildcard character.

The choice between them depends on the complexity of the pattern you want to match and the efficiency of the query. Using them appropriately can help you write more precise and efficient SQL queries.


Advantages of SQL Like Operator:

  1. Pattern Matching: The primary advantage of the SQL LIKE operator is its ability to perform pattern matching within text data. This allows you to search for data that matches specific patterns or substrings within a larger text.

  2. Versatility: SQL LIKE is versatile and supports wildcards such as % and _, which can be used to represent any number of characters or a single character, respectively. This flexibility makes it suitable for a wide range of search scenarios.

  3. Partial Matches: You can use SQL LIKE to find partial matches within text, making it useful for situations where you want to search for data that contains a specific keyword or pattern anywhere in the text.

  4. Simple to Use: The SQL LIKE operator is relatively easy to use and understand, making it accessible to both beginners and experienced SQL users.

Disadvantages of SQL Like Operator:

  1. Performance: While the SQL LIKE operator is powerful, it can be resource-intensive, especially when used with wildcard characters like % at the beginning of a pattern. Queries with leading wildcards can be slow because they require a full table scan.

  2. Case Sensitivity: By default, the SQL LIKE operator is often case-sensitive. This means that "John" and "john" might be treated as different values. You need to use functions like UPPER() or LOWER() to make searches case-insensitive.

  3. Limited Pattern Complexity: SQL LIKE is suitable for simple pattern matching, but it may not be the best choice for complex pattern matching tasks. Regular expressions offer more advanced pattern-matching capabilities.

  4. Indexing Challenges: Queries that involve the SQL LIKE operator may not utilize indexes efficiently, leading to slower query performance in some cases. Full-text search engines like PostgreSQL's vector or dedicated full-text search engines may be more efficient for text searches.

  5. Exact Matching Limitation: If you want to find exact matches without any partial matching, the SQL LIKE operator may not be the most efficient option. Using = or other comparison operators is often better for exact matching.


Read -


Conclusion

The SQL LIKE operator is a crucial tool for pattern matching and text-based data manipulation. We've learned about its syntax, benefits, practical usage, wildcard characters, as well as its pros and cons. This operator empowers us to find partial and exact matches and work with specific character patterns in text data. It's a valuable asset in SQL for various tasks, such as filtering, reporting, and data validation. Mastering the LIKE operator is essential for effective text-based data operations in SQL.

Commenti


bottom of page