General Search Tips for Online Databases and the Internet

Search features and flexibility vary greatly between individual search engines and online databases. It will be necessary to READ your search engine's or database's "HELP" or "How to Search" pages to appropriately define your search. Review which options are available for the tool or product that you plan to use. If you use a particular product frequently, you may want to make a few notes to keep on hand. Search engines have a default way of combining search terms. Determining a search engine's defaults may require reading the documentation and/or experimentation. You can modify the default logic by combining terms and using special operators to clearly define your search statement.

Reading the "HELP" screens will show you how to refine your search and offer tips that increase search accuracy and save time. Listed below are features commonly available in search engines and online databases.

General Strategies For Searching:

  • Plan your search before you begin. Write down key words, phrases, and ideas related to your topic.
  • Use synonyms where appropriate. Example:
    • cat - feline
    • rabbit - hare
    • dog - canine
    • discover - find
    • moose - alces alces (scientific name)
  • Use multiple spellings as necessary. Example:
    • Khaddafi Quadafy Kaddafi Qadaffi
    • Athabascan Athabaskan Athapascan Athapaskan
  • Use Boolean searching to combine or limit concepts.
  • Consider using phrases, many databases use quotation marks "" to define phrases. Example.

    "global warming "

  • Use nesting ( ) to logically group terms, similar to a math equation.

    (denali or mckinley) and (bear or bears)

  • Use proximity terms to define phrases. Common proximity operators:

    near, after, before, adjacent

  • Use punctuation or special symbols that having particular meanings, such as, wildcards or truncation. Using truncation or a wildcard saves time, as you can do one search rather than several.

    Truncation is adding a symbol to the end of a root word to retrieve word variations. In most catalogs and databases the truncation symbol is an asterisk (*).

    For example:
    alaska* - would retrieve records containing Alaska, Alaskan, Alaskans, Alaska's, Alaskaland, Alaskafest, and any other word that begins with those letters.

    Wildcards are special characters that replace a letter within a word. Truncation symbols vary between products, so read the "Help" screens. Using wildcards can be useful in retrieving documents containing variant spellings of the same word. Common wildcard symbols are *, $, #, and ?.

    For example:
    If the wildcard symbol is $, typing klond$ke - would retrieve records containing Klondike or Klondyke.

  • Revise your search as needed during the process based on the number of hits and the relevancy of the results.

Be aware of differences you may encounter:

  • Some search tools and products are case sensitive.
  • Additional features may be available, such as, limiting by publication year, format, or language.
  • Differences between Quick (also called Basic) and Advanced searches.
This page was last modified on July 11, 2012