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Keyword Search Strategies: Choosing Keywords

How to use keywords to make your searches more effective.

Tutorials

View a brief video tutorial via YouTube (closed captioned):

Why Keywords Matter

Despite all the advances in web and database searching, computers still don't do well with meaning.

When you type a word into a search box, the computer looks only for the word you typed, not the concept you had in mind. To you, that word is an idea. To the computer, that word is a bunch of letters. 

So, the burden is on you, the researcher, to choose the best keywords to search with. The keywords you choose have a direct and measurable effect on the results you get back. Even a small change in your keywords can lead to a big change in results.

Generating Keywords

The first step in thinking of keywords is to define your topic. You can't research or write about a topic if you can't articulate what it is! Try writing your topic down as a sentence or a question.

Think of keywords to describe each concept involved in your topic. Think of more than one, in case your first choice does not work. Focus on synonyms and related terms. What are other ways to state your topic? Is there a specific word that will describe an abstract concept in your topic?

Sample topic: Does the death penalty unfairly target minorities?

Concept 1: death penalty

Alternative Terms: capital punishment, execution

Concept 2: unfairly targeting minorities

Alternative Terms: discrimination, racism, prejudice

Alternative Terms: African-American, Hispanic, ethnic groups