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Advanced Search Strategies: Search Strategies

Phrase searching

If you're searching for an exact phrase, use 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. Use this tip only when needed. 

# of entries in Communication and Mass Media Complete:

  • social media  =  47,295
  • "social media" = 20,116

Search Fields

Most databases have drop down fields or advanced search menus where you can customize what you are searching. By default, most search the title, abstract, citation information, and assigned subject headings. You can change this to limit your search terms to the subject or title. This would decrease your results but (hopefully) increase the relevancy of your results. Alternatively, you may have certain keywords that you would only expect in the full text of the article. The full text is usually not searched, but you can select this as an option. Databases frequently have multiple search boxes to allow you to customize the search field for different keywords. 


EBSCO search showing different search fields selected

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 NGO

Screenshot of EBSCO search engine using boolean operators


Truncation (or "wildcard searching") is a way of searching the prefix or branched spellings of search terms. For example, "build" with a truncation symbol will search for build, building, buildings, builder, etc. For most databases you are using the truncationi is an asterisk: build*. Wildcards let you replace an internal letter and is usually a question mark: wom?n.

Don't overuse truncation and be careful where you truncate a word! It can be easy to inadvertently add totally different concepts to your search. For example, if you truncated politics to poli* you would also get research on polio, policing, politeness, etc.