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Effective Search Strategies: Keywords

How to search effectively using keywords, boolean operators and other options.

Why Keywords Matter

  • Despite all the advances in Web and database searching, electronic devices still don't do well with meaning.
  • When you type a word into a search box, the computer looks only for the word you typed, not the concept you had in mind. 
  • To you, that word is an idea. To the computer, that word is a bunch of letters. 
  • The burden is on you, the researcher, to choose the best keywords.
  • Keywords have a direct and measurable effect on the results you get.

Even a small change in your keywords can lead to a big change in results.

(Credit: Adapted from the John M. Peau Library)

Generating Keywords

The first step in thinking of keywords is to define your topic. You can't research or write about a topic if you can't articulate what it is! Try writing your topic down in a sentence or a question.

Think of keywords to describe each concept involved in your topic. Think of more than one, in case, your first choice doesn't work.

Focus on synonyms and related terms. What are other ways to state your topic? Is there a specific word that describes an abstract concept in your topic? 

Example: "How does funding from Political Action Committees affect the election process?"

1. Identify synonyms for key concepts:

funding             Political Action Committees      election process  
financing PAC's elections
fund raising donors campaigns


2. Identify related concepts: political parties, voters, candidates, special interests, politics, state & federal laws, democracy

(Credit: South Dakota State University)

Choosing Keywords

Search Engines vs. Library Databases

Tips for selecting keywords

  1. Searching library databases is different than using a search engine like Google.
  2. If you enter a question or phrase in a search engine you may find the information you need.
  3. This strategy is less likely to work with the library's catalog or databases.
  4. For these electronic resources you'll want to enter more precise searches using keywords rather than a complete sentence.

 (Credit: Adapted from South Dakota State University)