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Getting started with search terms

Less than 500 words

Searching for items in the library can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  So the first step has to be reducing the size of the haystack. 

Search terms are key words that you ask the library catalogue or a search engine to look for when searching for something.  They are words that may feature in an assignment title; or if you're doing an independent research project, subjects that you are focussing upon.

Creating a list of search terms should come before the search itself.  It's useful to jot them down in a notebook beforehand.  Sometimes you might be asked to include your search strategy in your work.  This is a case of writing down what you searched for and how many items you found by doing different searches.


Identifying keywords

Imagine you are a geography student.  Let's take the following question as an example assignment.

Compare and contrast the climates of the UK and Canada.  What role does the jet stream play?

There is a temptation to enter an assignment question into a search engine and hope for the best.  If you enter this into Google it will look for any items that contain any of the words.  So it might give you links to:

  • The UK and Canada
  • Climate of the UK
  • Comparisons of Canada and any other country
  • When are the Jets playing in Canada
  • The political climate of Canada
  • UK streams

When putting together a search strategy, it is important to identify what the important words are and discard the others.

For a search engine or better still a database you need to tell it about the subject only.

The subjects in this case are climates of the UK and Canada and the jet stream.

Compare and contrast are verbs - doing words.  This is what you - the assignment writer - are being asked to do.  So once we have the subject, we need to ask, are there any other words that are not important to a search engine or database?  With the exception of AND, OR and NOT (see Boolean), small words don't count.  So if we strip out the small words our first set of search terms are:

Climate   UK   Canada   Jet Stream


Alternative terms

To ensure a thorough search is done and that you understand the question it's good to think about any alternative search terms that exist.  They might be synonyms, which are words that mean the same as another word; or they may be terms that are broader than or narrower than your original term i.e. Europe is a broader term that includes the UK; and Wales is a narrower term which is part of the UK.

So take a look at some of the alternative terms for our original search terms:




Jet Stream

  • Weather
  • Temperature
  • United Kingdom
  • Great Britain
  • Britain
  • England
  • Northern Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • North America
  • Arctic circle
  • Wind
  • Weather system


If you know what the official terms are for something then use them as a search term e.g. femur instead of thigh bone, but if you're not sure just use the terms that you know.  Databases are much better than search engines like Google, because often they will suggest alternative terms or synonyms for you.