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Search Techniques: Identifying search terms

Online support for developing effective online search techniques

Define your research topic

Before you start searching, spend some time defining your research topic. Ask yourself, what is it that you want to find out? What search terms or keywords will find this information?

Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

Use whatever technique works best for you - e.g. brainstorming, words lists or mind maps etc. can help you think around your topic and identify all possible search concepts and terms. 

Alternative search terms

Are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results?

For example:
If you were researching the failure of small business in the UK you could use the following keywords:

 failure, success, demise, challenges, risk etc.

As well as searching for the UK, you might also search for United Kingdom, GBGreat Britain etc.

If you are looking for material on the Conservative Government you might also search for the Tory Government

Subject Specific Terminology

Does your area of research use subject specific terminology or technical terms?

Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results. If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.


Acronyms & Abbreviations

Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read?  These can be included in your search terms in order to findi matching results. 

For example: 

small and medium-sized enterprises and/or SMEs

AIDS and/or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome

Doctor and/or Dr

Changes in terminology over time

If you are searching across long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time.  

New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.

For example:

 tweet or twitter has a dual meaning:

  1. posting a short message to the Twitter social media platform
  2. bird calls or short sharp sounds

Spelling & terminology variations

When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.

For example:  

globalisation (British spelling) 
vs. globalization (American English spelling) 

Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.

holiday vs. vacation         underground vs.subway      

Experts / Key Thinkers & Writers


Are there key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area? 

It may be worth including these 'names' in your searches.      

Identifying Keywords Video

Top tips

  • Check if the database you are using has a thesaurus or index of keywords / subject terms. 

‚ÄčA thesaurus or index means that subject content is tagged in a consistent way, even where authors use differing terminology for the same concept.  By using the subject terms in your search you can easily search for related content. The thesaurus will also help you identify broader, narrower and related terms for your keyword(s) which you can use in your search if you need to amend it.

  • Be prepared to amend your searchers between databases.  

You may find that the search strategy that worked really well in one database needs to be tweaked for another. 

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