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Search Techniques

Discover simple, quick ways to make your information search successful and effective.

Although every database and search engine is slightly different, there are some common techniques that you can use wherever you are searching. Applying these techniques will allow you to find more relevant, focused resources and will save you time and stress along the way.

Choosing your words

The words you use when searching can have a big impact on the quality and quantity of your search results. When searching Google, you may be used to entering sentences or phrases to find results, for example: does social media impact adolescents? However, this type of natural language searching does not work as effectively in academic databases. To get the best results you’ll need to use keywords and subject terms:


Keywords are the most important ideas or themes in your search question. They may be single words, short phrases or abbreviations.

The keywords for our question would be social media, impact, and adolescents.

Subject terms

Some databases use a controlled vocabulary to index their content. This is a standardised list of words and phrases for a particular subject. Controlled vocabulary may also be referred to as subjects, subject headings, subject terms, descriptors, thesaurus, or index terms, depending on which database you are using. Where available, you can use the built-in thesaurus or word list to find the most appropriate search terms for your topic.  

The subject terms for our question when using the Proquest thesaurus would be social media, effects and teenagers.

Combining both your own keywords and database subject terms will often give you the best search results. 

Combining your key words

Once you have your search words, the next step is to decide how to combine them effectively using linking words (Boolean operators) AND, OR and NOT.  Using AND will help to narrow your results to specific terms, while OR widens your scope, providing more options, and NOT removes any irrelevant terms from your results.


If you want to find information that must contain two different keywords (or phrases), place a capitalised AND operator between them. Your search engine or subject database will only find information that features both, narrowing your results. The AND operator is usually implied in searches, so isn’t always necessary. However, if you find a keyword gets ignored, (usually a database will do this to increase your search results), you can make sure they're included by using AND.

  1. g. "social media" AND adolescents
  2. g. ("social media" OR "social networks") AND (teenagers OR adolescents)


If you want to find information that contains either of two keywords (or phrases), use the OR operator. This is particularly useful when searching for terms that have synonyms. Your search engine or subject database will find information that features either word or phrase, significantly broadening your results. You should place brackets around your keywords when combining them with OR.


If you want to exclude a keyword, use the NOT operator. This is particularly useful when searching for information where you do not want results containing a keyword. However, you should use it carefully, as it may mean you end up eliminating relevant results.

  1. g. "social media" NOT Facebook

Search modifiers

There are a helpful selection of tools you can use to make your search terms work harder for you.  These can save you time as well as making your search results more relevant.

Phrase searching

Enclosing two or more keywords in quotation marks will return results containing that exact phrase only. 

For example, searching for “social media” will search for results containing that exact phrase only. If a result contains the words social and media, but not in that precise order, it will be eliminated.


If you are searching for information on teenagers, you could use that as your keyword. However, if your results are limited, and you want to broaden your search, use the root part of the word (teen) and abbreviate it with an asterisk (teen*). Your chosen database will return links to results matching teen, teenager, teenagers, teenaged and so on. 

Wild cards

If there are several ways of spelling a term, you can use a question mark, ?, in place of one or more characters. For example, behavio?r will return results containing both behaviour and behavior.

Filtering your results

Most search engines and subject databases allow you to refine your search results using a range of useful filters.  This will usually include filters for publication date, language, and type of publication. You can also limit your search to a particular field. This restricts a search to the data associated with a resource, i.e., the title, subject, or keywords, rather than the contents of the resource itself. By doing this, you’ll only retrieve highly relevant results. You can enable these filters before or after your search – whatever works best for you.


360 degree searching

When you find a useful resource, it is good practice to look through the bibliography to see if that will lead you onto other relevant readings. This allows you to look backwards in time at the research and ideas the author used to develop their work.  360 degree searching or 'cited reference' searching takes this idea further by allowing you to look forward in time from this point and see how research has developed from this work. Databases such as Scopus and Google Scholar provide ‘cited by’ options that allow you to explore a list of more recent publications that have cited the original publication (i.e., they have listed it in their bibliography).  This method gives you a fully rounded (360 degree) view of the research in this field prior to and following the article you have found.

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