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7.3 Choosing Search Terms

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how to use synonyms and topic components to expand a search.
  2. Know how to use multiple words, quotation marks, asterisks, question marks, and parentheses to improve your search results.
  3. Recognize how to use “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” to strengthen a keyword search.

Whether you are searching research databases or conducting general online searches, the search terms and phrases you use will determine what information you find. Following some basic search term guidelines can make the process go smoothly.

When searching for articles within a database, start by using keywordsMain term relating to a topic. that relate to your topic.

Example: alternative energy

To expand your search, use synonyms or components of the initial search terms.

Synonym Example: renewable energy

Components Example: algae energy, wind energy, biofuel

Another technique you can use is to refine the presentation of your search terms using suggestions in the following table.

Use multiple words. Use multiple words to more narrowly define your search. renewable energy instead of energy
Use quotation marks. Place quotation marks around two or more words that you want to search for only in combination, never individually. “renewable energy”
Use “AND” to connect words. Use “AND” between words when you want to retrieve only articles that include both words. algae AND energy
Use “OR” to choose one or the other. Use “OR” to find information relating to one of two options but not both. This option works well when you have two terms that mean the same thing and you want to find articles regardless of which term has been chosen for use. ethanol OR ethyl alcohol
Use “NOT” to eliminate likely options. Use “NOT” to eliminate one category of ideas you know a search term will likely generate. algae NOT food
Use “*” or “?” to include alternate word endings. Use “*” or “?” to include a variety of word endings. This process is often called using a “wildcard.” alternate* energy
alternate? energy
Use parentheses to combine multiple searches. Use parentheses to combine multiple related terms into one single search using the different options presented in this table. (renewable OR algae OR biofuel OR solar) AND energy

When you find a helpful article or Internet site, look for additional search terms and sources that you can follow up on. If you don’t have time to follow up on them all when you find them, include them in your research log for later follow-up. When possible, copy and paste terms and links into your log. When you have to retype, take great care with spelling, spacing, and most of all, attributing direct quotations to their original source.

The aforementioned tips are general ideas for keyword searching. When you are searching within a database or a certain search engineA computer program that searches on the World Wide Web., pay attention to any search tips or help screens that present methods that work well with the specific database or search engine. For example, you may have the option to narrow your search to “full text” entries only or to refine it to texts published within a certain time frame.

Key Takeaways

  • A quick and easy way to increase your search results is to try synonyms of your initial search term, such as “ethanol” for “ethyl alcohol.” A similar step is to try components of an idea, such as “wood,” “ethanol,” and “algae” when you are searching for biofuel.
  • You can use special techniques to more accurately target your search. Using multiple words will typically narrow your search more specifically to the information you want. For example, “ethyl alcohol” will bring up a wide range of uses of ethyl alcohol, such as fuel, drinking alcohol, chemistry, and lotions. A search for “ethyl alcohol as fuel” will limit the results to only the use of ethyl alcohol as fuel. Similarly, the use of quotation marks will limit search results to a complete term rather than to individual parts of a term. For example, within quotations, “algae energy” returns only results that include both words. Following a word with an asterisk or a question mark invites results including alternate endings of the word. And using parentheses allows you to combine multiple searches.
  • Using “AND” allows you to make sure a search includes identified words. Inserting “OR” between two words lets you conduct two individual searches at once. Placing “NOT” between two words excludes all results including the second word.


  1. Write a search term you could use if you wanted to search for sites about the Eisenhower family, but not about Dwight Eisenhower.
  2. Write a search term that would work to find sites about athlete graduation rates but not about nonathlete graduation rates or other information about athletes.
  3. Brainstorm a list of search terms to use when researching the topic “television violence.” Include all the techniques from this section at least once. After finding at least ten sources, work with your writing group to develop at least three different statements of purpose (specifying your desired voice, audience, message, tone, attitude, and reception) for possible research projects of eight to ten pages. Discuss how the sources you found in each case affected your decisions about purpose.