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Search Strategies

Tips and strategies to improve online searching.

Where to Start

Developing a good, viable research topic takes time and skill. While many instructors may assign topics, you may also be required to select your own topic of interest. Or, you may be required to expand on a specific topic across your studies. You'll want to identify a topic that is sufficiently narrow and focused to be interesting and manageable; yet broad enough to find adequate information. There are a few points you'll want to consider when preparing to conduct your research.

  • Brainstorm for ideas.
  • Read general background information on your topic to gain a basic understanding of the issues and sub-topics.
  • Ensure the topic is manageable in scope.
  • Make sure materials are available.
  • Make a list of keywords and concepts, including topics related to your primary interest.
  • Be flexible and be prepared to modify your topic to fit the assignment and available resources.

Sources for Finding a Research Topic

  • Frontline PBS, featuring current issues and topics in the news
  •, pros and cons of controversial issues and policies
  • Room for Debate, a blog from the New York Times with discussion from outside contributors on current issues and events
  • Scan magazines and newspapers for current issues and events.

Formulating a Search Strategy

Finding the best resources for a research paper or project doesn't happen without some effort. Creating a search strategy is a key component for retrieving relevant search results. 

Basic Steps to Formulating a Search Strategy:

  1. Define what the articles/materials need to be about.
    1. Break your topic into concepts.
  2. List all of the relevant keywords.
    1. Identify similar or related keywords/keyword phrases.
  3. Organize your search.
    1. Establish relationships between concepts using search operators (and, or, not).
  4. Choose databases and search engines appropriate for your topic.
    1. Library databases can be either general, such as Academic Search Complete, or specific, such as Communications & Mass Media Complete.
    2. Most search engines are not subject specific, and are designed for broad searches of the open web.
  5. Evaluate your results and refine your search to retrieve additional relevant resources.

Zero Results?

Zero or very few results? 

Don't worry. This isn't unusual. Information research is a continual process of defining and refining your strategy. You might need to perform multiple searches before finding the bank of good, usable information.

First, revise your search, trying different keywords. Try a broader search using synonyms or related topics to your search. If your initial searches returned some results, look at those for additional keywords to use in refining your topic.

Try your search in a different database. Topics can span multiple subject areas.


Too Many Results?

Overwhelmed by thousands of results?

Like finding too few results, it isn’t unusual to retrieve too many results. This is another instance when you want to refine your strategy.

First, revise your search by adding additional keywords and using AND to link concepts and help narrow your potential results. If your initial searches return some useful results, look at those records for additional keywords to use in refining your topic.

Try using limits, such as publication date or source type (e.g., magazines, academic journals, etc.). Or, limit your search to full text or scholarly (peer reviewed) journals.

Select subject-specific databases to retrieve results more closely related to your keywords.