Finding the Right Search Terms

Too often students come to us and claim they “can’t find anything” on their topic or they “can’t find anything good.” Often it is because they do not have a search strategy with appropriate keywords. Last year a student told Tom that she was having difficulty finding sources on the Internet about movies in the 1920s. How could that be? Well, the keyword “movies” is not a particularly effective search keyword for information from the 1920s. People in the 1920s simply did not use the term “movies.” Had the student done a little background reading on the 1920s in an encyclopedia before turning to Google, she likely would have come up with better keyword terms and phrases, such as “talking pictures,” “talkies,” or “silent films.” The point is that it is a good idea to do some background reading and develop effective search terms before turning to a search engine.

Another important search strategy is to move both horizontally and vertically in the search process. The student in the paragraph above did not think of horizontal, related terms to movies, such as “films” or “pictures.” There are also numerous times during the search process when moving vertically, either up or down, is needed. Broader terms (moving up) and narrower terms (moving down) can be used effectively to expand or contract a search. The image below may help to illustrate the concept.Search Terms

For instance, a student who searches for “World War II” will find that these keywords yield many general and broad World War II sites. To narrow the search, the student could add categorizing terms such as names of campaigns, battles, generals, political leaders, and the like, to the “World War II” search terms. In those instances when search terms are too limiting and search results are too few, a search can be expanded by using broader terms. To illustrate, the three top results in a Google search for “weather underground” have to do with weather and climate, not the radical activist student organization. Adding a broad term such as “1960s” to the keywords “weather underground” leads immediately to sites on the “hippie era” organization.

If we think back to the traditional research process, before the Internet, many of us began our exploration with an encyclopedia. With today’s technology, that is still a valid way for students to get some introductory information. The only difference is that they have a variety of encyclopedias from which to choose.

A great source is If the students type in the name of their general topic, such as World War II, the results will be dozens of articles from a variety of encyclopedia type sources including the Columbia Encyclopedia, the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, the Gale History Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia.