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General Search Tips & Strategies

Queries vs Keywords

With any search your first step is deciding what terms to include. Should you use keywords or entire phrases/questions? And what will be the results with each?

Query Search

Query searches are the actual terms and phrases that you might use in the real world.
This type of search works with search engines like Google but not with academic databases.

Keyword Search

Keyword searches include only the most important terms in a query. They are the basic terms extrapolated from search queries.
This type of search works with academic databases and search engines like Google.


Query Search: how are robots used in social work
Keyword Search: robots AND “social work”


You may need to think outside the box with your keywords to get the best results. Try thinking about how the term might be used in an academic setting, variations on the term, alternate spellings, or synonyms. For instance, instead of just search robots, you may try automation, machine, robotics, or even artificial intelligence. A useful tool to create alternate keywords and topics based on your subject is a Mind Map, which is discussed in a separate tab on this page.


Keyword searches generate more focused search results, whereas query searches provide a wider range of results because the search engine is looking for all of the included words in any order. In order to receive the most relevant results, it is recommended that you use keywords to search; however, when beginning your searches, performing generic query searches may provide you with a wider range of keywords or more subject-focused keywords than you had before.


Google uses an automatic spell checker, so you don't need to worry about spelling. If you are uncertain about spelling a keyword in an academic database search, try the word in a Google search first.


Searching for a historical topic with keywords but can't seem to be finding many primary sources? You may be approaching the topic from a modern perspective. Try approaching the topic by thinking about how people of the bygone time period thought of it or by events that occurred during the time of your topic to see how they referred to it.

For instance, let's say you are searching for primary sources related to the cold war. If you use the phrase "cold war" as your search terms, you may not get as many historic sources as you might expect. That's because the time period may not have been referred to by that name early on. You may be better off searching for keywords such as Cuban missile crisis, Ronald Reagan, communism, Joseph McCarthy, Joseph Stalin, Berlin Wall, etc. to search for historical documents. From there, you can use the terminology the historical documents used to get better results.

If you don't know what items or events might relate to your topic, start with a Google search of the term followed by AND and see what populates. (cold war AND ...)

Create a Mind Map

A Mind Map is a visual way of brainstorming that involves jotting down your initial keywords or ideas and building out. You can use related words, spelling alternatives, words that come to mind when you think about your keywords, and even antonyms. Then continue building based on these new words.


Watch this short Mind Map video for more information about creating a mind map.


Stuck? Try entering your keyword into a Google or database search to see what other words and subjects are returned.

Use the Available Search Filters

Each database will have its own unique list of fields that will help you limit or expand your research. Some of the most common are Author, Publication Date, Subject, Language, and Peer Reviewed. Use these options to help you find the most relevant documents.

Don't forget about the importance of sorting your results! In addition to the filters available to refine your results, most databases also allow you to sort your results by date and relevance. Some offer the ability to sort alphanumerically by author or title. Some even allow you to sort by the number of times the document has been cited by other sources. All of these options offer you a path to your best results.


Google (and other popular search engines) have their own set of filters and sort options. In Google, these are found under the search bar. The sort options are accessed by clicking the Tool button, and the filters are labeled Maps, Images, News, Videos, and More. These filters focus your search similarly to those found in databases.

Google Filter Examples:

Google Images, News, and Videos all have advanced filters that are hidden under the Tools button. This button is accessed by clicking Tools directly below the search bar. Each tab has its own set of additional filters.

Google Images allows you to filter by Size, Color, Usage Rights, Type, and Time. It's good to know how to properly search images with regards to copyright and usage rights, which can be done using the Usage Rights filter.

Google News allows you to filter between All News or Blogs, Posting Date, and Sorting By Relevance or Date.

Google Videos allows you to filter by Duration, Time, Quality, Source, and All Videos or Closed Captioned.

You can also access Google's Advanced Search by clicking the Settings button under the search bar.

Narrowing & Expanding Your Results

Too Many Results

Conducting a search and receiving thousands upon thousands of results may initially seem like you've hit the topic jackpot, but it can quickly become overwhelming to try and sort through even a small percentage of them. Much less, finding results that really are relevant to your topic. Here are a few tips and strategies you can use to narrow your results list.

Use the filter and sort options that are available

This subject is covered in multiple places within this guide because it is so relevant, but it is also one of the easiest ways to focus your results to those that are related to your topic. The options allow you to filter by Subject, Date Range, Relevancy, Author, and more.


It may help to think of it this way - if you are searching for shoes on a shopping website like Amazon, you may start by searching for shoe, but then you would use the filters available to narrow your results by items such as size, color, type (running, trainer, casual, etc.), and price. This is exactly what you are doing in a database search.

Add keywords to your search query

Try adding keywords related to your topic using the Boolean Operator AND.


original query - "skin cancer" 

updated query - "skin cancer" AND treatment

Add a subject to your query

Similarly, you can add a subject to your query to focus your search on a specific field. (This can also be accomplished using the Subject Field search or the Subject limiter.)


original query - "race relations"

updated query - "race relations" AND psychology

Focus your topic

If your topic is too broad, you may get too many results. Instead of trying to narrow your results you may try narrowing your topic.


original topic - childhood obesity

updated topic - childhood obesity in the united states

Too Few Results

Nothing is worse than finding the perfect keywords for your topic and then getting one result - especially if your assignment calls for more! Use these tips and strategies to expand your results list.

Verify spelling

It may be the most obvious, but start by verifying that your keywords have been spelled correctly. Unlike Google, many database do not automatically correct spelling. This is especially important if your search terms are enclosed in parentheses.

Remove unnecessary keywords from your search query

Being too specific about your keyword choices may be limiting your results. Try removing the least important term to see if you get more results. You may find that your concept is still being represented in the results list, just using different terminology.

Add related keywords to your search query

Try adding a related word or a variation of the word to your query using the Boolean Operator OR


original query - "skin cancer" AND treatment

updated query - ("skin cancer OR melanoma) AND treatment

Use truncation and wildcards

Using truncation and wildcards will expand your keywords to encapsulate variations.


original query - color blind

updated query - color blind * (* used as a wildcard to represent an entire word - returns color blind test, color blind awareness, color blind casting, color blind racism, etc.)

Remove filters / limiters

If you've used filters or limiters to narrow your results, you may have used too many or have used too narrow a range (such as a date range). Try removing a filter or adjusting the range to include more.

Expand your topic

Perhaps your topic is too narrow. You may need to expand your topic to receive more results. After you obtain more results, you can begin refocusing your topic.


original topic - freshman wellness at the University of Tennessee

updated topic - college student wellness

Try using a different database

You may be using a database that isn't going to give you the best results. The University Libraries' A-Z Database List allows you to filter databases by subject. Additionally, the Research Guides by Subject will list recommended databases for many fields.

Connect Google Scholar and your University Libraries' Account

Google Scholar is Google for academic documents. This is a great option; however, sometimes you don't have access to all of the documents listed, or you may be asked to pay to access an article. To use Google Scholar most effectively (and to avoid paying for documents), connect Google Scholar to your University Libraries' account.


A tutorial video is available to walk you through connecting your accounts. Take a look at Connecting Google Scholar and the UT Libraries.

Test the Limits

Uncertain about how well a database or search engine will work for your research? Test its limits! Don't worry, you're not going to break the database or search engine by conducting complex or extravagant searches. The worst that will happen is that you receive zero search results. The best way to learn is by testing, so go in and test away!


Try conducting an Advanced Search for even more selectable options.

Research the Databases' Tutorials, Search Tips, and Guides

All of the databases perform similar searches, but each has its own unique rules and restrictions. Try locating your database of choice's tips and tutorials, which can often be found under the heading Help or Search Tips. These guides can help you move from novice to professional.


The University Libraries's Tutorials page offers several guides and tutorials about using some of the most popular databases. If you can't find what you're looking for there, try conducting a Google search for the database's tutorials. This can often lead to informative videos created specifically for each database.

Ask for Help

If you have additional questions or need help, don't hesitate to ask the University Libraries for assistance. Visit the University Libraries' Ask Us Now page for contact information - including options like chatting, texting, calling, or even setting up an in-person consultation with a Subject Librarian.