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Strategic Communication: Search Strategies

Crafting a Search

Limit to a Few Keywords

  • Library databases expect that every word you enter in the search box to appear in the information provided about the article. A good way to think about this to start is to brainstorm 2-4 keywords you would expect to appear in the title of almost every article on the topic. If you receive few results or your results are not on topic, review your search and remove any extra words or try alternate keywords

Quote Phrases

  • If you're searching for a phrase, put it in quotation marks. Let's consider an example. If you search the phrase social media without quotation marks, the database will return articles that include the words social and media used in any context. You could get results that aren't relevant at all. For example, there might be articles on how social workers are portrayed on TV. By quoting "social media" you are limiting the results to only articles that use those words in that particular order.

Step up your search: Consider Boolean Operators

  • You can conduct a more advanced search by using the operators AND, OR, and NOT to combine your keywords. This works really well in the advanced search screen of most databases. Putting terms together with OR will expand your search and give you more results. Using AND will narrow your search and return fewer results. NOT will exclude search results that include specific words. 
  • EXAMPLE: If our broad topic was social media use by nonprofit organizations we could try a search like:
    • "Social media" OR "Social networking" OR Facebook OR Twitter OR Instagram
      • AND
    • nonprofit OR non-profit OR NGOScreenshot of EBSCO search engine using boolean operators

Focus Your Search Results

Effective searching is usually an iterative process. One approach is to try a fairly simple search, quickly identify the best sources in your results based on those records and then adjust your search to identify more similar results.  Things to look for are wording, source type, subject headings, database, etc.

Screenshot of EBSCO search result

For example, you might quickly identify that the best results are published in academic journals and limit your search to just those if you haven't already. Or, you might notice common wording to consider alternate or additional search terms. 

Usually in databases sources are tagged with subject terms. These may be assigned by the database or by the author as a form of controlled vocabulary. Ideally, every article in that database on that topic should be tagged with that subject term. In your search bar, there will be a way to limit to just these subject terms. In practice, sometimes searching just subject terms works well to first identify some of the most relevant articles on a topic, but you'll probably also miss other articles that were not, for whatever reason, assigned that same tag. That's why that iterative search process is important. Trying multiple searches is an important way to identify scholarship that you might otherwise miss. 

Screen shot of EBSCO search using the NOT operator

In addition to looking for useful things in your search results, it's also important to identify the things that are decreasing the relevance of your results. Perhaps your topic is researched heavily in a language you cannot read. You may want to apply a language limiter to your results. If your search returns a lot of results from other disciplines that use the same terminology but in different ways, look for an option in the filters to just search the disciplines or subject databases relevant for your topic. You can also use the boolean operator NOT to exclude results that mention a word (or more) that should not appear in your results. 

Quickly scanning your search results is an important skill that you can develop and grow. It's also useful in all information research, not just when you're searching library resources. Practice by scrolling through the first page of your search results before you click on any of your results. Look for the best results, identify alternate search terms, possible subject terms, and look for problems in your search. Think about how you may want to adjust your search to improve your results.