Search Strategies

Changes to Library services during the COVID-19 service disruption.

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

Filters

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 BY STEP GUIDE TO BREAKING YOUR SEARCH QUESTION INTO A SEARCH PHRASE

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: July 23, 2020