Developing Your Search Strategies


The search strategies that most people use regularly have been largely defined by popular Internet search engines and the techniques these services promote. Conducting searches for an academic research project will require a more thoughtful approach. Here are some strategies you can use to improve your search results and find better information sources.

1) Be specific, but not too specific. The best searches are often the ones that find that sweet spot between specific and stubborn. You want to be narrow in your search, narrow enough to find the sources that really touch on your topic, but not so narrow that you don’t find any matching sources at all. Include all the relevant terms, but be ready to trim it back a bit if the results seem to miss the mark. Conversely, you can begin with a single general keyword, then add progressively specific terms until you find a good balance.

eg. “social media” self-esteem adolescents

2) Use synonyms for your keywords. The most common reason why a search doesn’t return good results is that the researcher isn’t using the right keywords. Often the words we search first are not the most effective and some topics will be represented by a large variety of terms. To get around this, consider adding relevant synonyms to your search. The best method is to separate your synonyms with the search command OR. This opens up your results to any of the terms you’ve used.

eg. “social media” OR “social networking” OR facebook OR twitter

3) Combine, or “nest”, multiple searches into one. Your search query can be as complex or as simple as you need it to be. If you have multiple concepts, each with multiple synonyms, you can combine these into one large search and see how all the terms intersect. To do this, you’ll need to “nest” your concepts between parentheses.

eg. (“social media” OR “social networking”) AND (self-esteem OR identity OR “body image”)

4) Use any alternate terms you discover along the way. If other terms come up as part of the title or description of relevant sources, it’s often useful to add these terms to your search. Authors, publishers, and librarians spend a lot of time contemplating how to describe these sources, so the words they use are very likely to be quite good as search terms. In particular, look at the subject headings for each source.

Alternative Search Terms Example

eg. (“social media” OR “social networking”) AND (“body image” OR “eating disorders”)

5) Narrow your results by format, year, etc. The library’s main search interface will allow you to narrow your results to a specific format, year, author, language, and more. Using these limiter can be helpful for sifting through a large set os results. In particular, many students take advantage of the Peer-reviewed Article limiter to see only sources from academic journals.

Peer-review Limiter

eg. (“social media” OR “social networking”) AND (self-esteem OR identity OR “body image”) *limited to Peer-reviewed articles

6) Don’t be afraid to browse. Browsing is a really great, but often forgotten, way of exploring the library’s collections. In the library, the classification system will give you an idea which sections to explore. Even if the subject coverage of a book is quite broad, there will usually be a chapter or a section within that is directly relevant to your topic. Use the Table of Contents and the Index to find those sections.

Index example

see Library of Congress Classification Outline

7) Use existing bibliographies and reference lists. All academic authors will create a list of the sources they’ve used in conducting their research. These bibliographies will be indispensable to you in tracking down other relevant sources. You can use the main search or the journal titles search to find out if you have access to these sources through the library.

Bibliography Example

see Library Journal Title Search