Skip to Main Content

Research @ Reynolds Libraries

4 b. Online search strategies

Keyword Search

A keyword search retrieves words or phrases from the important fields of the database records. In most databases a keyword search finds words in fields that have descriptive content, such as author, article title, source title (book, journal, magazine, or newspaper, subject/descriptor terms, and abstract. In some databases, additional fields may be included in the keyword search. And in other databases, a keyword search will search everything in every record.  Some keyword search engines allow you to specify which field(s) are to be searched.

A keyword search usually retrieves more items than a subject search, but they may not all be relevant. The computer is looking for the exact word you typed, not for the meaning or context of the word.

For example, a search on AIDS will retrieve items on...

  • aids for the hearing impaired
  • school aids
  • AIDS (the disease)

A keyword search is the best method to use when:

  • You are beginning your research
  • You are searching for a new trend or concept
  • You are not sure of the correct subject heading
  • The database does not have subject headings
  • You are looking for specific factual information

 Some search tips:

  • Use only significant words, not common words, such as the, of, an, and that.
  • Avoid using phrases such as "people with diabetes", or whole sentences, such as "How do people buy cigarettes if they are under 18?"

Subject Heading Search

A subject search involves searching for subject headings/terms used in the library catalog or a library database. The library catalog and many library databases include subject headings/terms that are assigned to each record.

A list of subject headings, (also known as a subject thesaurus), ensures that all items about the same topic have uniform headings. Users can then retrieve all of the items on the same topic using a subject heading/term, even when there may be several other ways to state the concept. By using the subject heading/term, you will retrieve every relevant item for your topic. Searching with a subject heading/term retrieves items ABOUT that particular topic, and it is a more precise search than a keyword search.

For example, you may want to research the topic pet therapy.

Possible ways (synonyms) to state this topic include: 

  • pet therapy
  • animal therapy
  • dog therapy
  • therapy pets
  • therapy animals
  • therapy dogs
  • pet assisted therapy
  • animal assisted therapy
  • dog assisted therapy

When using the library catalog, to search for books, the subject headings for pet therapy are:

  • animals - therapeutic use
  • pets - therapeutic use.

When using the library catalog or the Academic Search Complete database to search for articles, the subject headings for pet therapy are: 

  • animal-assisted therapy
  • dog-assisted therapy
  • pet therapy
  • therapy dogs

The subject heading for pet therapy may be different in other library databases.

Keyword vs. Subject Heading Search

  • May search multiple fields including subject, title, and abstract
  • May retrieve irrelevant items
  • Low precision, more results
  • Allows grouping terms to expand or narrow search
  • Searches for subject or descriptor field only
  • Controlled vocabulary from thesaurus
  • High degree of relevancy
  • High precision, fewer results
  • Requires knowing, finding subject headings

Search strategy tutorials

Using Boolean Operators

More Search Strategies

Boolean Operators


Type AND between your keywords to narrow your search. The database or search engine will only retrieve those articles or web pages that contain both words. Using AND will decrease the number or hits or articles or web pages in your result list.

Example: school AND crime

Note: Some databases and search engines (such as Google and Craigslist) allow you to type a plus sign (+) in front of a keyword when doing a basic search. This works the same as AND.

Example: +school +crime


OR     undefined

OR Type OR between your keywords to broaden your search. The database or search engine will retrieve those articles or web pages that contain at least one of these words. Using OR will increase the number of articles or web pages in your result list (especially if not used in combination with AND or NOT). Use OR between keywords that are synonyms or have similar meanings.

Example: baby OR infant


NOT     undefined

Type NOT before a keyword to exclude that keyword from your search. Using NOT will decrease the number of articles or web pages in your result list. The best use of NOT is when you are searching for a keyword that may have multiple meanings.

Example: bat NOT baseball

Combo     undefined

Use parentheses ( ) to keep combination searches in order. In the example below, the database or search engine will retrieve articles or web pages that must contain the word law and at least one of the words in parentheses.

Example: (ecstasy OR mdma) AND law

More Search Strategies


Truncation, also known as stemming, uses a character such as asterisk (*) or question mark (?) at the end of a word, which allows you to search for a root form of a word and pick up any ending.

Example: typing teen* will find teen, teens, teenage, teenager, teenagers.


  • Be careful not to end the stem or root of a word too early to retrieve too many results. Example: typing cat* will find cat, cats, catalog, catastrophe, catsup, etc.
  • Different databases use different symbols to truncate words. However, most of our popular databases, such as our library catalog (QuickSearch), Academic Search Complete and Access World News (NewsBank) use an asterisk (*) as their truncation symbol. If in doubt, check the "Help" screen for the truncation symbol.
  • Some search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, automatically use truncation without you having to type a truncation symbol.

Wildcard Symbols

Wildcard symbols can be typed in place of a letter or letters within a keyword if you are not sure of the spelling or if there are different forms of the root word.

Example: wom?n will find both women and woman.

Note: Again, check the Help or Tips links available on most library databases and Internet search engines to verify the wildcard symbol that should be used - usually an asterisk (*) or question mark (?)

Exact Phrase Searching

To look for an exact phrase, use quotation marks (" ") around the keywords.

Example: "attention deficit disorder”

Note: this works in most search engines as well. If you type an exact phrase without quotations when doing a basic search, most search engines will look for each word separately. This means your result list will include web pages that not only contain the exact phrase (ex: attention deficit disorder) but also web pages that contain a word or words from the exact phrase appearing separately (ex: attention may appear in one paragraph or sentence and disorder will appear in another paragraph or sentence).

Web Tutorials

Other schools have put together demos and tutorials on various search techniques.