Main Body

1 Keyword Formulation

Think about your topic before searching. Break it down conceptually. Try formulating one or several keywords to represent your topic. Writing down your keywords in a notebook to document your search strategy, and corresponding search results, is recommended.


Learning Objectives

  • Be able to break down complex ideas or sentences into key concepts for online searching
  • Know when and how to use quotes (e.g. “climate change”) for exact match phrase searching
  • Know when and how to use Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) to narrow, broaden, or refine a search.

Effective Keyword Searching, 1 min 6 sec

Choosing Keywords

When doing a keyword search it’s a good idea to try a number of different search terms and phrases. Don’t be discouraged if your initial keyword search brings back too many, too few, or irrelevant results — you’ll want to try multiple keywords.

Make a list of synonyms to use as alternatives. Since different writers will describe the same concept using different words, it’s good to use a variety of keywords so you don’t miss important information.



keyword image


Quotation Marks for Searching with Phrases

Using Quotation Marks

If you’re searching for a phrase (two or more words strung together) rather than a single word, typing quotation marks around the phrase will refine your search to include only those results that contain the exact same words in the exact same order.

For example, put quotation marks around “World War I” so results are limited to items that contain the expression “World War I”. This could help you avoid search results about, say, World War II.

For really long strings of words (say, six or more words in a row), using quotes might not help, unless you are certain you only want that exact sequence of terms. The more search terms you add to an exact match phrase search in quotes, the less likely it becomes that there will be any matches at all.

Phrase searching with quotes is often useful when looking for titles. Some examples could include:

  • “Interior Chinatown” for the 2020 novel by Charles Yu.
  • “Parable of the Sower” for the 1993 novel by Octavia Butler.
  • “Notes of a Native Son” for the 1955 collection of essays by James Baldwin.


Boolean Operators: AND, OR, NOT

Using AND

Use AND in a search to:

  • Narrow your results
  • Tell the database that ALL search terms must be present in the resulting records
  • Example: texting AND driving AND teens

The pink triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram shows the result set for this search. It is a small set using AND, the combination of all three search words.


Using OR

Use OR in a search to:

  • Connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms)
  • Broaden your results, telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records
  • Example: (hydrogen OR electricity OR biodiesel)

All three circles represent the result set for this search. It is a big set because any of those words are valid using the OR operator.

Using NOT

Use NOT in a search to:

  • Exclude words from your search
  • Narrow your search, telling the database to ignore concepts that may be implied by your search terms
  • Example:  cloning NOT sheep


Searching Google

Many of these tips work when searching Google too. Use this handout, Google like a Pro from the News Literacy Project for helpful advanced search techniques for Google.




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Library Research: The Basics Connecticut College by Research Support, Information Services, Connecticut College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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