Skip to page content

Creating Effective Searches

To begin locating material that addresses our information need, we need to identify the viable search terms embedded in our research topics or questions. These are the key concepts that drive our information need and usually make good search terms.

Identifying key concepts involves analyzing an information need, identifying the main ideas related to it, and translating those concepts into search terms.

Searching for sources using all (or most) of the words in our research questions does not usually work well in library databases, the library catalog, or on the web. We often get too few useful materials.

The more thought we put into identifying our search terms, the more relevant our search results will be. Then, the time we invest in researching will be more productive.

Strategies for identifying search terms include

  • Pick terms often used to name or label a research topic. Consider how others usually refer to the topic in articles, textbooks, or the media.
  • Use nouns and/or unique identifying words.
  • Use the standard or official terms for topics. For example, use "elderly" or "aged" instead of "old people."
  • Develop a list of synonyms to use as alternative search terms.
  • Look for clues in database and catalog records. The subjects listed in them are usually good search term choices.
  • Consult a thesaurus for the field you're researching. For example, the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms would be a useful for psychology topics.
  • When using a database, look at its subject index or thesaurus to learn the preferred terms for topics.
  • Watch this video about identifying search terms from Hartness Library for more ideas.

Once we've identifying viable search terms, we will need some strategies for creating effective searches in the online search tools. The next few pages offer tips for creating searches using phrases, Boolean operators (connectors), truncation, and wildcards, as well as tips for setting limits (specific boundaries) for searches.