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ENGL 1410: Technology and Media: Search Tips

Why You Need a Search Strategy

decorative image   The library catalog and databases work differently than search engines like Google and Bing.   decorative image

They won't correct spelling errors. They don't respond well to long search phrases because they do not search the full text of a website. Follow the tips on this page to get the best results from our library tools.

Basic Search Tips

Brainstorm Keywords

  • Use encyclopedias, internet searches, and your own brain to develop a list of terms to search. If your first search attempt doesn't match a lot of results, you'll be able to quickly try a new keyword. If your topic is hydraulic fracturing be ready to search its synonym, fracking.

Short But Sweet

  • Don't enter long phrases. Use only the most important keywords. A research topic like "the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment" should break down to a search for "hydraulic fracturing" and "environment".

Phrase Searching

  • Keep specific phrases together by using quotation marks. A search for "hydraulic fracturing" will only find those words together in that order. It will not match the words hydraulic or fracturing separately.

Truncation (aka wildcards)

  • Use an * to search for multiple word endings: A search for environment* will match results with the words environment, environmental and environmentalism.

Tips for Searching with Boolean Operators

Time Saving Tip

Here are bonus tips that will help you use Boolean Operators to make a search for sources more effective:

  • Enter a short search term in each line
  • If you use AND to connect too many search terms you won't get any results - if that happens, remove the least important search term.
  • Type OR between synonyms in one line of a search box

Boolean Operators

You have to experiment with different search strategies when you are doing research. Sorry, there's just no way around it. Boolean Operators- AND, OR, NOT- can help you save time because they can improve your search results, but it's important to know when and why to use each one.

For example, let's use the research question "How do national parks contribute to biodiversity in the United States?"

Venn diagram illustrating and Boolean operator

Use AND when your research topic has more than one key term that must be present in all of your search results. In this example, use it to link the key terms "national parks" and "biodiversity" so that both concepts appear in all of your search results. Searching with AND gives you fewer results.

Venn diagram illustrating OR Boolean operator

Use OR when your key term has synonyms which different authors may use interchangeably. In this example, use it to link the synonyms"biodiversity" and "biological diversity" so that you'll get results with either concept. Searching with OR gives you more results.

Venn diagram illustrating NOT Boolean operator

Use NOT when your research topic is often closely associated with another concept you do not want information about. In this example if you are researching biodiversity and national parks, but do not want information about invasive species link the key term "invasive species" to the other key terms with NOT so that you eliminate all results that include the unwanted concept. Searching with NOT gives you fewer results.

How to Build a Search Using Boolean Operators

You have to experiment with different search strategies when you are doing research. Sorry, there's just no way around it. Boolean Operators can help you save time because they can improve your search results, but it's important to know when and why to use each one.

For example, let's use the research question "Do soft drinks contribute to childhood obesity?" Most databases give you the option to select Boolean Operators on the search screen, so all you have to do is select the operator you want from a drop down box between search boxes.

Here's our advice:

AND

picture of a search using AND in a database

Use AND when your research topic has more than one key term that must be present in all of your search results. In this example, use it to link the key terms "soft drinks" and "childhood obesity" so that both concepts appear in all of your search results. Searching with AND gives you fewer results.


OR

picture of a search using OR in a database

Use OR when your key term has synonyms which different authors may use interchangeably. In this example, use it to link the synonyms "soft drinks" and "soda" so that you'll get results with either concept. Searching with OR gives you more results.


NOT

picture of a search using NOT in a database

Use NOT when your research topic is often closely associated with another concept you do not want information about. In this example if you are researching soft drinks and childhood obesity, but do not want information about vending machines in schools link the key term "vending machines" to the other key terms with NOT so that you eliminate all results that include the unwated concept. Searching with NOT gives you fewer results.