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ENG 100 Information Literacy Tutorial: Techniques

Search Techniques

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Searching for information encompasses inquiry, discovery, and serendipity. Searching is nonlinear and may take unexpected twists and turns. Expert researchers:

  • Consider information produced by many different types of sources
  • Use alternate search terms and exhibit flexible and creative search strategies

Please visit the ARCL Frame "Searching as Strategic Exploration" for more info

Keyword vs. Subject

There are two basic search types:  keyword searching and subject searching.  

Keyword searching is the type most often used when searching the Web.  Keywords appear anywhere on a search record (title, summary, abstract, author's name, subject, etc.). Use keywords to get more results.

  • Uses natural language

  • Searches all parts of the record

  • Yields more results including irrelevant items

Subject searching uses predetermined sets of words or phrases to describe things.  Subject is what the information resource is about.  Use subject headings if you want more precise searches with fewer irrelevant results.

  • Uses controlled vocabulary

  • Searches subject field only

  • Yields fewer results than keyword, but results are more relevant

Phrase and Symbols

The following search techniques allow you to search by phrase or search for different word endings. Use these techniques to create more effective searches.  Databases use different symbols so check with the database "Help" page first to find out which symbols to use. 

Phrase searching forces a search for a specific phrase by keeping words together in order.
Example: "climate change" or "hawaiian monk seals"

You may also use symbols (such as *) to truncate words, which works to retrieve variant word endings.
Example: comput* retrieves computer, computers, computing, computation, computational

Boolean Language

Three simple but powerful words will allow you to create more precise search statements. The words are "AND", "OR", and "NOT." These connecting terms, search operators, are also known as Boolean operators. The Boolean operators define the relationships of the terms that you enter in a search box.

Sample Venn diagram with overlapping circles to visualize what Boolean operators do


"AND" narrows your search
When you use the connecting term "AND," a database search engine looks for records that contain all of the terms connected by "AND."
 The example here illustrates a set of resources on "tourism" (blue circle) and a set of resources on "Hawaii" (green circle). Using "AND" retrieves only those articles or documents that include both of the terms "tourism" and "Hawaii" (red intersection) in their records. 
You get fewer results or "hits" when you use the "AND" search operator. The default search operator for most database search engines is "AND." This means that any terms typed into the search window will have an "AND" automatically placed between them, thus, saving you keystrokes.

Two overlapping circles; only the overlapped area is red


"OR" broadens your search
When you use the connecting term "OR," the database search engine retrieves records that include any of the terms connected by "OR." You receive more results or hits. "OR" is often used to search for synonymous terms, terms with the same or similar meanings.
The example here shows a set of resources that includes those about

Fish farming only
Aquaculture only
Fish farming and aquaculture

Two overlapping circles; the entire figure is red


"NOT" excludes specific terms from your search
When you use the "NOT" operator, the search engine excludes any record that contains the word(s) following "NOT." Be careful when you use "NOT." You might exclude a source that you really should see just because the source mentioned the "NOT" word.
The example here shows a set of resources that includes those about:

Toyota only 

Any source about Toyota but which mentions Honda, too, will be excluded from your search results. Use the "NOT" operator with care. 

Resembling a cookie with a bite taken from it, only the part of the Toyota circle not overlapping the Honda circle is colored

Search Results

What happens if your search retrieves... 

Too many search results for you to reasonably review:

Your search is too broad if you come across many irrelevant results and they number in the thousands. To address this add additional descriptive keywords to narrow and focus your search.

  • If using a database, apply filters to refine your search
  • Consider including geographic or location terms in your search
  • Also consider groups or population descriptors, e.g. children, adolescents, elderly, or students

Few or zero search results:

If your initial search yields very few (5 or less) or zero search results, review your search terms

  • Check your spelling - typos and misspellings are not autocorrected
  • Replace a search term with a synonym (i.e. children or adolescents)
  • Too many search terms were used; remove one and try the search again

You know you're on the right track when...

Your search discovers relevant results; the number of search results is neither too large or too small, but just right.

  • After reviewing your initial results continue searching by using different synonyms and keyword combinations; you don't want to miss anything important
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