Search Strategies

Search Strategies and OMNI Video

Developing a good search strategy is important

  • what is your assignment?
  • what is the main topic?
  • what aspect of the topic is of interest to you?
  • who has an interest in that topic?
  • what other language might they be using to talk about that topic? do they spell it differently?
  • when was it relevant? is it a new idea, or a long standing issue?
  • what other factors play into your issue? climate, population, government, geography, etc.

Once you've decided which terms are the most useful for your search, combine them in a boolean search. 

For example: "social work" AND (child* OR youth OR teenage*)
  • the brackets keep synonyms together
  • the * will look for alternate endings
  • AND/OR will modify a component to narrow or expand your results (the capitalization of AND/OR varies from database to database, it is better to get in the habit of capitalizing them)
  • if you had a multi-word phrase, putting quotes around it will search specifically for those words, in that sequence, side by side such as "Human Rights"

Controlled vocabulary

Some databases have a list of terms used to index articles in a consistent manner.  These terms can be used to search for relevant material.

This list may be referred to as:

  • Thesaurus
  • Subject Headings
  • Taxonomy
  • Synonyms


Use database filters to narrow down and focus the results you find. For example:

  • Category or Topic
  • Document Type
  • Date
  • Search within

Discover new search terms

As you read through a list of search results, take note of any new terms that are relevant to your topic.  Search using these new terms.


Step 1: Write your topic out in sentence or question form

  • How do Canadian social workers treat teenage drug abuse?

Step 2: Break your topic sentence up into main ideas or keywords

  • Canada, social work, teenage, drug abuse

Step 3: Think of synonyms or alternate words to describe each concept

  • teenage - juvenile, youth

Tip: Use dictionaries, encyclopedias, or a thesaurus to find alternate words.

Step 4: Add "Boolean operators" (AND, OR) to make a complete search statement

  • Use AND to limit or narrow your search to results that mention all of your keywords.
  • Use OR to broaden your search to include synonyms.
  • Canada AND social work AND teenage AND drug abuse
  • (teenage OR youth OR juvenile) - Note: OR terms must be bracketed.

Step 5: Add wildcards to search for all possible word endings

A wildcard is usually represented by a *.  This is also called truncation.

  • (teenage* OR youth OR juvenile*) AND Canad* AND drug abuse

Step 6: Consider Key Phrase searching

Some databases search each word separately.  To ensure that your words are evaluated as a key phrase, enclose them in double quotation marks.

  • "drug abuse"

Step 7: Evaluate your results

If you are finding too many or too few results, try these tricks:

To broaden your search (find more):

  • Find synonym for each keyword.
  • Search for a broader concept ('dog' instead of 'poodle').
  • Use wildcards/truncation.

To narrow your search (find fewer):

  • Add another concept or idea to your search with AND
  • Use more specific words ('poodle' instead of 'dog').
Content last reviewed: January 11, 2021