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Top Database Search Tips

Your search strategies will depend partly on the research tools you use. Search engines like Google tend to be less picky about your terms. However, Google search results also usually require more careful evaluation of  source credibility, since it includes a larger number of sources from a wider range of places.

Library databases allow for advanced searching and include high-quality content. They often, however, are more challenging to search than Google. These database search tips will help:

  • Limit the number of search terms that you use.
  • Use key words that best express your topic. Avoid non-essential terms like "the" and "of."
  • Try multiple searches. Experiment with related terms, including broader or narrower terms.
  • Explore the database's Advanced Search options.
  • On the search results page look for ways to refine your search.

Keyword Searching

Keywords are search terms that express the essence of your topic. They are crucial to an effective search, especially in library databases.

Video on Choosing & Using Keywords (John M. Pfau Library)

1. Be concise.

Begin with only 2-3 essential terms, and avoid long phrases. The more terms you enter the fewer results you’ll get. (For example, a search for environmental consequences of fracking may yield 0 results, while fracking environment yields over 2,000.)


2. Use synonyms and related terms.

If your first term doesn’t work, try a synonym. You may have to try out several related search terms to find the types of resources you're looking for.  (Example: environment INSTEAD OF environmental consequences)


3. Identify keywords with background research.

To identify useful keywords, do some quick background research. Note terms that are often used to discuss the topic. (Reference sources like Wikipedia or the library databases Credo Reference and Britannica Academic offer overviews of many topics. Of course, remember to evaluate information in Wikipedia with particular care since almost anyone can edit it.)


4. Identify keywords from search results.

Do a quick database search and view the search results page to identify relevant terms.

  • Titles and article abstracts (summaries) often include helpful terms. 
  • “Subject” terms are used in library databases describe what a source is about. Look in a database for relevant subject terms - they can help you locate more records on the topic.

5. Combine search terms.

In most databases you can refine results using the search functions AND, OR, and NOT.

  • AND: shows results that include both terms (e.g., government AND policy)
  • OR: shows results that include one or more terms; used for related terms (e.g., civic OR government)
  • NOT: removes results that include a term (e.g., Julius Caesar NOT Shakespeare)

Search Tip Examples

Keep it simple! Start by typing the name of a relevant thing, place, or concept:

  • [puppy training tips]
  • [london dinner cruise]

Add relevant words if you don't see what you want after doing a simple search:

  • First try: [puppy]
  • More precise: [puppy training]
  • Even more precise: [large breed puppy training class]

It may take several attempts to find the right words to describe your topic.


Try other words to describe what you're looking for:

  • Not ideal: [my head hurts]
  • Not ideal: [why is my head killing me]
  • Better: [headache]

Use only the important words. Too many words will limit your results:

  • Not ideal[country where bats are an omen of good luck]
  • Better: [bats good luck]

Use quotation marks to search for an exact phrase to narrow results.
Example: A search for [medical error] without quotations retrieves results with those two words anywhere in the document. ["Medical error"] finds results only for that exact phrase.


Use an asterisk (*) to search for all endings to a word. (This works in most databases and in Google.)
Example: [mexic*] searches for Mexico, Mexican, and Mexicans

Too Many or Too Few Results?

Too Many Results

Start Small! Begin with just one or a few search terms. Add additional terms if you have too many results.

Use good search terms. Use terms that are more specific. Do not use OR between terms that mean different things (for example, do not search [women OR salary]

Too few search terms. If you only have one general term in the search box, consider adding another word that expressed what aspect of that term you are interested in.

Use limiters. Limiters (such as date, format, language of publication) give you more targeted results.

Topic is too broadNarrow the scope of your search. Think about the different aspects of your topic you will address and search for them separately. Then synthesize the information. You may need to narrow your topic if it is too large to cover in a short paper.


Too Few Results

Is this the best database for your topic? If you are using a subject-specific database (History, Education, etc.), try Library Search or a multidisciplinary database like Academic Search Complete or a specialized search engine like Google Scholar. Be prepared to try several different databases. If you need a subject-specific database, look at the recommended History databases.

Use good search termsCheck spelling and brainstorm synonyms or related terms. You can use OR between synonyms (for example: salary OR pay OR compensation). 

Too many search terms. If you have three or more search terms, try removing one to see if your results improve.

Too many limiters. Use only limiters that are absolutely necessary.

Your topic is too narrow. What is the broader theme of your topic? Break your topic down and search for different parts separately. For example, if you are comparing primary school education in China and Spain, search for articles about each country separately. Then synthesize the information you find.