General Search Tips and Strategies

last modified 2016-01-08T10:54:13-05:00

The strategies below will help you refine your search and search more effectively, so you get the sources you need faster! Keep in mind that most databases will recognize the tools and operators shown below, but not all - and many have built in tools to streamline the process. Look around the advanced search screen on any database or search engine to see what your options are, and ask a librarian if you need assistance.

Also, it is generally important to remember that most search engines and databases will not understand natural language! This means that typing in a question or sentence likely will not get you the results you need. Instead of typing the question you're searching for, think about the keywords for your topic, and also how someone might answer your question. For example, instead of typing "What are the current views on illegal immigration?" try just "illegal immigration" "united states" and "public opinion." Look on the advanced search screen or the results page for an option to limit by year.

General Tips

Keep these in mind throughout your research process - these tips are generally more important than knowing how to use the specific techniques discussed in the rest of this guide!

Get Started Early - Research is a repetitive, and often time-consuming, process - even for skilled researchers. The sooner you start, the more time you have to evaluate resources – and you have time leftover to select new resources if the article you thought was fantastic turns out to be useless.

Brainstorm - After you have a topic, spend some time thinking about different ways it might be referred to – what words would authors use when writing about that topic?

Do Some Preliminary Research - If you’re unfamiliar with the topic, find an encyclopedia article, or search online, for some background information. Gaining background knowledge will make it a lot easier to select resources later. This is a point where Wikipedia can be a very handy resource - skim through the article for some general terminology and ideas, check out the resources linked at the bottom of the page, and then move on to library databases and the catalog to look for authoritative, reliable resources.

Search in Library Databases - Databases are designed to be used for research, and they are the main tool for accessing articles. Although the interfaces look different, most databases have some very handy tools designed specifically to help you locate the best articles for your research, which are not available in online search engines. Also, many of the databases provided by the library are subject-specific, so they do some of your work for you by eliminating articles that aren't in your discipline. Check the subject guides for ideas on which databases will be most useful for you.

Use Your Sources - At the end of scholarly articles and books, you will find a list of references - take advantage of this to find more resources!

Ask a Librarian - Getting stuck? Librarians have specialized training in searching for and locating information, so always feel free to ask us for help if you need it!

AND, OR, NOT Operators

It is important to put these words in all CAPS so the database recognizes them as a command.

AND - search for multiple words, and require that all the words appear. This narrows your list of results.

Boolean AND

OR - search for multiple words, and require only one of the words appear. This broadens your list of results

Boolean OR

NOT (sometimes AND NOT) - blocks certain words from your search. This narrows your list of results.

Boolean NOT

Phrase Searching

If you're looking for a specific phrase, it is helpful to put it in quotes. Otherwise the database searches for all of the words in the phrase, but doesn't pay attention to the proximity of one word to another. Remember to keep phrases short - the longer the phrase, the fewer search results you will get.

Quotes - Phrase Search

Note that you can also use quotes to force the database to look for a specific version of a word. In the example below, the quotes force the database to search for the specific spelling of the word, instead of assuming it's a typo.

Quotes - Exact Word Search

Truncating and Wildcards

These search tools allow you to search for multiple versions of a word, or search for words that you're uncertain how to spell. Both of these will broaden your list of results.


Replace the ending of the word with an asterisk (*) to search for different endings on the same stem word. For example, Educat* will tell the database to search for variations such as educate, education, educating, educator, educators, etc.



Replace one or more letters within a word with a question mark (?) to search for variations in spelling. For example, wom?n will tell the database to search for woman, women, and womyn. Be careful not to broaden the search too far - in the example below, the wildcards will catch feet and foot, as intended, but also words such as flat, fast, fact, etc. - any 4-letter words that begin with F and end in T.

Wildcard Searching

Nested and Combination Searches


Nested searching allows you to group similar terms together into a more complex search, as shown below. This can broaden your search - and save you time. We strongly recommend using the multiple search boxes built into most database search pages, with one topic in each box, as it is easy to accidentally make a mistake with the computer syntax when typing this by hand.

Nested Seach


All of the strategies in this guide can be combined into complex searches, saving you time by essentially running multiple searches at the same time. Careful thought should go into the search terms entered, as it is easy to search either too narrowly or too broadly.

Combination Search