• 3-minute read
  • 25th January 2017

5 Tips for a Superb Search Strategy

Having a good search strategy (i.e. a system for searching existing literature in your field) is crucial when writing an essay. In longer documents, like a PhD thesis, you may also have to document your search strategy as part of the methodology section.

Googling 'search strategy' is a start, but not enough in itself.
Googling ‘search strategy’ is a start, but it’s not enough in itself.

As such, it’s worth putting a little thought into how you conduct your searches.

1. Picking Databases

The first thing to consider is which databases you’re going to use. This will depend heavily on your subject area (e.g. searching the Australian Medical Index is no good if you’re looking for information about geology). Check which databases you can access via your library.

2. Selecting Search Terms

The next step in any search strategy is picking the right search terms, which are words related to your essay topic that you use to find relevant source material.

Some of these will be obvious. If you’re writing about geode formation, for instance, ‘geode’ will definitely be one of your search terms! But you can find others by looking at the keywords used by previous studies in your subject area.

e.g. 'Pretty crystal thing' or 'sooooo sparkly'
e.g. ‘Pretty crystal thing’ or ‘sooooo sparkly’.

3. Truncation and Wildcards

Two important techniques when searching for sources are ‘wildcards’ and ‘truncations’:

  • Wildcards

Wildcards use a symbol to widen searches, helping you to find alternative spellings of the same term. If a ‘?’ symbol is used for a wildcard, for instance, searching for ‘crysta?i?e’ would return results for ‘crystalize’, ‘crystallize’ and ‘crystallise’.

  • Truncation

Truncation uses a symbol with a shortened version of a term to find variations. If a ‘*’ symbol is used for truncation, for example, searching for ‘crystal*’ would return studies including this term and other similar words (e.g. ‘crystal’, ‘crystallisation’, ‘crystalliser’, etc.)

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The symbols used for each of these may depend on the database in question, though, so remember to check before searching.

4. Boolean Operators

Another way to expand (or restrict) the results returned during a search is to use Boolean operators. The most common terms here are ‘AND’, ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’.

We can use ‘AND’ to combine search terms. For example, searching for ‘geode AND amethyst’ would display results for sources that mention both of these terms.

Searching for ‘geode OR amethyst’, on the other hand, would return results that mention at least one of these terms, while searching ‘geode NOT amethyst’ would find sources that mention geodes but not the word ‘amethyst’.

Geode NOT amethyst (chrysocolla quartz, in case you were wondering). (Photo: Rob Lavinsky/wikimedia)
Geode NOT amethyst (chrysocolla quartz, in case you were wondering).
(Photo: Rob Lavinsky/wikimedia)

5. Limiting Conditions

Finally, you might want to use limiting conditions to restrict the number of results retrieved while searching. These let you filter results that aren’t relevant to your needs.

For example, if you want to find only recent research published in English, you could use limiting conditions on the database you’re searching to remove results older than ten years old or in other languages. This makes it much easier to search through large amounts of material.

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