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Writing & Research Helps

Developing Search Terms

The key to finding good search results is to have good search terms and to have several search terms to use.

  • To begin finding search terms, begin a list of all the words and phrases which come to mind that describe your subject. Synonyms, unique words and distinctive names are particularly useful. 
  • You may it useful to find background information on your topic by using subject specific reference works. These resources are also useful for helping you to narrow your topic and see how it fits into the larger discipline.
  • After creating a list of words and phrases, identify what particular aspect of this subject is the most interesting to you.  As you consider that particular aspect, list all of the words or phrases which come to mind about that particular aspect. 
  • Write down what you want to know about your topic in the form of a question.

If your topic involves several ideas, utilize this procedure for each idea in order to find the best results.

Keyword vs. Subject Searches

Keyword searches and Subject searches are very similar but can produce vastly different results.

Keyword searches search for a word anywhere in the search record.  Depending on the type of resource being searched, a keyword search may also search the text of an article or book.  Because a keyword search searches everywhere, often the search results can be quite large and may contain results that do not match your topic.  For example, a search for Paul as shown below has a large number of results.

Keyword search for Paul finds over 9,000 results.

A search for Paul finds results about anyone named Paul whether that is the subject being written about or the name of the author.  Paul would also locate items published in a location with Paul in the name such as "St. Paul, Minnesota."

This example shows how "Paul" can be found in the title, author, subject, or table of contents of a search:

Paul in search results

A subject search on the other hand is more precise as it is an official heading given to a topic.  In the example above, "Paul, the Apostle, Saint" is the official subject heading and the search is a much smaller 79 results.