Ohio State University Tutorial on Search Strategies
Ohio State University Tutorial on Smart Research
Try your hand at this search strategy game
American University: search strategies

When you begin a search, you need to ask yourself the following questions.
1. What is it I’m looking for? (think about common keywords)
2. How would someone else talk about it? (what words would they use? how would THEY describe it?)
3. Which of those terms would be most common?
4. Which of those terms would be very specialized to this topic?
5. What kind of thing would make me happy? (do I want a single web page, a definition, a collection, an image.... or …?)

For example if you need:

  • a map of an area - consider using a print or online atlas
  • facts and figures about countries and cities - consider using an almanac, encyclopedia articles or geography sites from the research sites page
  • information about a person - consider using the library biography section or one of the biography sites on the research sites page

Then you need to follow the next four steps:

  • Brainstorm keywords
  • Prioritize keywords to use first
  • Reorder keywords / add more keywords
  • Try capitalization variations and punctuation

As you begin to search, think about these questions too.
Does your topic:

1. have distinctive words or phrases?
      • a word that has a unique meaning
      • or a phrase like "affirmative action" which has a specific, accepted meaning in a word cluster

2. have NO distinctive words or phrases you can think of? You have only common or general terms that get the "wrong" pages.
      • the phrase "order out of chaos" is used in too many contexts to be useful
      • the word sundiata can refer to a myth, a rock group, a person, etc.

3. seek an overview of a broad topic?
      • such as victorian literature or alternative energy sources

4. specify a narrow aspect of a broad or common topic?
      • automobile recyclability, want current research, future designs, not how to recycle or oil recycling or other community efforts

5. have synonymous, equivalent terms, or variant spellings or endings that need to be included? Pages you want may contain any or all.
  • echinoderm OR echinoidea OR "sea urchin", any may be in useful pages
  • "cold fusion energy" OR "hydrogen energy", some use one term, some the other; you want both, although not precisely equivalent
  • millennium OR millennial OR millenium OR millenial OR "year 2000", etc.

Your answers for all of these questions will determine how you go about searching for your topic. When you have determined what you want to search for, here are some important tips to remember.


6. Use double quotes when needed to specify exact phrase match:
      • [ “Daniel Russell” ] vs. [ Daniel Russell ]
      • [ Daniel-M-Russell ] or [ Daniel.M.Russell ]

7. Use OR to specify acceptable options:
      • [ vacation (london OR paris) ]
      • [ wildflower (seeds OR plants) ]

7. Number range (special note: only 2 dots, NOT 3… )
      • [ DVD player $50..$200 ]
      • [ Google price 2000..2004 ]

8. Special operators:
      • [ ~house fees during sale ] – will search these words with synonyms of house
      • [ ~inexpensive –inexpensive ]– this will show you all the synonyms that Google uses

9. When to use the plus sign?
Answer: When you really, really need to include a particular word in the search (that would otherwise be ignored).

  • · [ +how buy “cell phone” ] – will search for (roughly) pages on “how to buy a cell phone” , not just for information on cell phones in general.


Don’t be afraid to alter your search strategy if you are not getting the results that you want. You might want to try an image search when normal means fail, you might find something that will be useful or spark your interest in a different way.

Remember that
word order matters—when it’s not working one way, try another.