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Information and research skills: Search techniques

Search techniques

Follow the steps on this page when searching databases or the web.


1 Identify keywords

Don’t type your essay question into a database; instead break it into important concepts. For example, if your question is:

Investigate the impact of advertising cigarettes on teenagers

The important concepts are  advertising, cigarettes and  teenagers

Next think of alternative words (synonyms) for your important concepts. This will make your search as broad as possible.

Using the example above,

  • advertising could also be  marketing or  promotion
  • cigarettes could also be  tobacco or  smoking
  • teenagers could also be  youths or  adolescents

4 Use advanced features in database

Most databases offer advanced search features. These can help ensure that your search is highly relevant. Check the individual databases for details; you may be able to limit where your search terms appears, for example in the title, or set a date range or a country of origin.

Using the example above the search would look like this:

advert* or market* or promot*


cigar* or smok* or tobacco


teenage* or youth* or adolescen*

2 Combine searches

Combine your search terms using OR and AND. This will save you time and give you more accurate results.


OR will broaden your search, if you search for

advertising OR marketing

you will get results with  any of these words in them.

This diagram shows how using OR between terms will broaden your search; you will get results on either of the topics.


Boolean OR

advertising OR marketing: OR broadens your search


AND will focus your search, if you search for

advertising AND teenagers

You will only get results containing all these words

advertising AND teenagers: AND narrows your search

5 Review your results

Look at the results from your search, are they what you expected? Are they useful? Are they relevant? Could they be improved?

  1. Look at your original search terms and be prepared to change them
  2. Identify useful articles from your results and try another search using the keywords which appear in these articles
  3. If your database is American be prepared to use American vocabulary and spelling, for example, instead of paediatric use pediatric
  4. Use the database’s thesaurus or online help
  5. Make an appointment with a Librarian for further assistance with searching. Ask at the Information Centre on Level 2 of the Stirling Campus Library or email for searching advice.
  6. Be prepared to try a different database - view a full list of all University of Stirling databases.

3 Use truncation

Using truncation is a quick and easy way of saving time. It allows you to search for words which begin with the same letters. Databases use different symbols for truncation, the most common is *

Advert* searches for advertising, adverts, advert, advertisements and advertisement

Cigar* will search for cigar, cigars, cigarette and cigarettes