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Information Technology, Analytics, & Workforce Learning

Basic Search Tips

Instead of typing a full question or sentence into a search engine, divide it up into smaller sections of keywords or phrases to use. 

Example research question: "How does social media affect children?" 

You can break this down in a variety of ways: 

Types of social media Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
Effects what? self image, bullying, ability to focus, evaluating information, etc. 
What age children? school-aged children, teenagers, etc.
Where? United States, Australia, North America, etc. 

One way to help keep your ideas organized is to create a concept map (or a mind map) that links all of these ideas to your central topic. Then you can mix and match your keywords from that map into search strings of keywords or phrases. 

Here are a couple of free websites that you can use to create concept maps: 

If you're having trouble finding sources with the keywords you've typed in, try coming up with synonyms to help find different results. 

For example, if you were looking for articles about the impact of the price of gas on the economy, you might consider the following synonyms: 

gas gasoline, fuel, fossil fuels
price cost, expense
economy finances, economic, fiscal, inflation
United States USA, America, North America

Here are a few resources that can help you find synonyms:

In the databases there are a number of search tools, also known as limiters that can help you narrow down your results:

Online Full Text

This limits to full text only items in that database. 

Recommendation: Don't use this unless you're in a time crunch. You can request items through interlibrary loan.

Peer Reviewed This limits to sources that have gone through an official peer review process. 
Date Range Use this to help limit by date - the last year, 5 years, 10 years, or even a custom range of time.
Source Type Limit by the type of source - article, book, news article, magazine article, trade publication, etc. 
Subject These are the most common keywords that are popping up in your search. Subjects are librarian recognized official keywords.
Language If your results list is full of sources in other languages, use this to limit to languages that you can read. 
Geography Use this to limit by location, e.g., the United States. 


It's really easy to just open up a search page, look for your topic, and then just pick something from the results page to use. But, what do you really know about that source? Is it really a "good source" to use for your paper? 

Whether you're using Google, Google Scholar, or even the library's databases, it is important to evaluate your sources. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Who wrote this? Why? What can you find out about them? 
  • Who published this? What's their reputation? 
    • A Google search can tell you a lot about the author and publisher and if you can't find information about them, it might not be the best source to use
  • Is this source relevant to my topic or am I just trying to make it work? 
    • If it's the latter, talk to your librarian! We can help you find a better source.
  • What evidence is used in this source? Where did it come from? 
  • Is there any obvious bias in the source? 
  • Is the source organized and written well?
  • How recently was this source published? 
    • For some areas, this is very important - you have to have recent sources. For other areas, this might not matter as much, especially if you're researching a past event or topic.

Advanced Search Tips

Are your searches bringing back too many results?

  • Try adding more keywords to your search by using AND in your searches find results that mention two or more keywords.
    This will bring back fewer results than searching just one keyword on its own.
    E.g., (cats AND dogs)
  • Try using quotation marks around two or more words. This searches for those words in that exact order.
    E.g., "video games" - this weeds out sources that only talk about videos or only talk about games and instead looks for "video games" as a phrase
  • Use more specific terms or subject headings

Are your searches bringing back not enough results?

  • Use OR in between keywords to expand your search. When you use OR, your search results will include anything with one of your keywords.
    E.g., (cats OR dogs)
  • Truncate roots of important words to find variations of that word. To truncate, use an asterisk(*) after the root of a word.
    E.g., writ* searches write, writing, writer, written, etc. 
  • Remove some or all of your limiters, if you've used them

If your results don't seem to reflect what you're searching for, consider: 

  • Using NOT to weed out certain areas. 
    E.g., (elections NOT presidential) - to focus on local elections instead of Presidential elections
  • Trying new keywords or subject headings 
  • Talking with a librarian about your topic to get suggestions