Here are a few things I’ve learned over 20+ years that I’ve been searching databases and the Internet.

Are you in the right place?

  • Some databases contain information in all areas, some are very specific. If it is not obvious from name of the database, look for the information – usually under about or in the beginning of the help section.
  • Some search engines search all areas; others are for specific subjects or types of files. If there is a search engine which meets your specific need, you will be better off starting with it.


The hardest part of searching is coming up with the right words.

  • Every database has a Controlled vocabulary which refers to the use of standard terms to describe the contents of the articles in the database of a computer index. Some databases will let you look at this list of words, but it can be hard to find. Not only that, they don’t even all use the same words in talking about this vocabulary. Some might call them thesaurus terms or descriptors. Each computerized index has a specific controlled vocabulary that is all its own. Searching the index using that vocabulary allows you to retrieve all the records in the database on a particular topic using a single search term. If you aren’t coming up with the right search word, try these ideas:
  • Do a keyword search (see below) and see what subjects are assigned to the resulting list of hits.
  • Ask. Ask a classmate, teacher, or the library staff.
  • Use a thesaurus, either print or online (
  • Be more specific when you have too many results or less specific if you aren’t finding the topic at all. If you search a library’s online catalog for poodles you may not find a book, however, a search for dogs might result in a book with a chapter on poodles. In a database or on the Internet, though, searching for dogs would be too general.
  • Terminology is crucial to searching the web effectively as well. You can eliminate useless hits without eliminating helpful hits by using the right terminology.
  • Talking to others or using a thesaurus is a good beginning.
  • Use a search engine which makes suggestions for ways to narrow down the topic. One such search engine is ISeek

Use What You Found to Find More

If you find an article that is close to your topic, but not quite right, look at the title or subject headings (usually at the end of the article) to get ideas for search terminology. Also look at the author. Authors tend to write multiple papers in the same subject area, so doing an author search might give you the results you need. Scan the article for references to other articles or authors for which you might search.


Use the Help feature. Every database and search engine has its own way of doing things. The only way to know what ‘tricks’ are specific to a particular search mechanism is by checking out the search.

Subject vs Keyword, Author, Title, etc.

Be aware what type of search you are using.

  • Some databases open to a Subject search, which will only look at the subject headings that have been assigned to an article. These subject headings might use the terminology you are using, but they might not. Most databases will let you search for Subject, Keyword, Title, Author, and Journal or Source. The keyword search comes as close to type of search that an Internet search engine will do.
  • Most search engines open to a key word search; however, that key word uses “or” technology. If I search for McPherson College Miller Library; it will search for all those terms, returning all the McPherson’s, all the College’s, etc. There are ways around this, though, if you use the ‘advanced searching feature’ available on many search engines along with some of the techniques given here

Some Searching Tips

There are many, many search helps in databases (these will be listed in “help”). The ones given here are ones that are fairly common across a variety of databases (and search engines).

AND, OR, NOT (Boolean Operator Search)

Boolean searching is the use of Boolean logic and set theory. Boolean operators, such as AND, OR and NOT, are used to combine search sets in a variety of ways and appear within search mechanisms (both in databases and on the web) in a range of disguises.

  • AND –Use the AND operator between any two or more words or phrases to find articles containing all of the words. For example, laptops and wireless will limit results to those items containing both words. Any article containing just one of the words will be eliminated.
  • OR — Use the OR operator between any two words or phrases to find documents containing either of the two words. For example, laptop OR notebook.
  • NOT — Use the NOT operator between any two words or phrases to find documents that do not include the word or phrase immediately following the NOT. For example, laptop NOT wireless.

Some databases will have an advanced search that will let you put the Boolean terms on different lines. Others only allow you to search using one line, so put the operator between the words in ALL CAPITALS. Example: wireless AND laptops

Proximity Operators

Most search mechanisms will let you limit how close the words must be to each other. This feature varies widely between databases, however, so be sure to check the help feature. Here is how EbscoHost does it.

  • With –The W (within) operator specifies that the word that FOLLOWS the operator must occur within a number words after the word that precedes the operator for a record to match. For example, the search expression wireless w3 laptop matches any records in which the word laptop occurs three or fewer words after the word wireless. (Some search mechanisms have you put w/3 instead. Check the help if what you try does not work.)
  • Near — The N (near) operator specifies that the words on either side of the operator must occur within that number words of each other IN EITHER DIRECTION for a record to match. For example, the search expression wireless n5 laptop matches any records in which the words wireless and laptop occur within five or fewer words of each other in either direction.

Field Searching

Some search mechanisms will let you specify where to search within the search statement. Again, the rules vary, so be sure to check help. For example, TITLE: laptop or intitle: laptop are two common methods. Ebscp, however, uses TI

Wildcards and truncation

Use the wildcard and truncation symbols to create searches where there are unknown characters, multiple spellings or various endings. Neither the wildcard nor the truncation symbol can be used as the first character in a search term.

  • An asterisk (*) stands for any number of characters at the end of a word, including none, and is especially useful when you want to find all words that share the same root. For example, crim* matches crime, crimes, criminal, etc.
  • A question mark (?) stands for exactly one character and is especially useful when you’re uncertain of a spelling. For example, a search like crim?nal means you can match the word criminal even if, like many of us, you can’t remember spelling. A question mark is also useful for finding certain words with variant spellings. For example, organi?ation finds both organization (American) and organisation (Australian). In some databases, multiple question marks in a row stand for the same number of characters as there are question marks. For example, organi??? matches either organizes or organized but not organization.
  • The pound sign (#) when the spelling might include an extra character. Example: colo#r will find color and colour
  • An exclamation point (!) stands for one or no characters and is especially useful when you want to match the singular and plural of a word but not other forms. For example, control! matches control and controls but not controlling. The exclamation point can also be used inside a word to match certain variant spelling.

If you see a message about a search being invalid, check the help feature.

Quotation Marks

Place a phrase within quotations will limit the search to all those words in exactly that way. You will eliminate reverse order. For example, “searching online” will eliminate articles that only have “searching of online” or “online searching”.

Plus and Minus Signs

Many search mechanisms eliminate 1-letter, 2-letter and 3-letter words, such as the II in World War II or the I in I Have A Dream. Many times, this can be fixed by using the quotation marks, but there may be times when this will not work. Placing a plus sign (+) in front of the word will make sure it is included in the search. NOTE: The + sign does not work in Google any more.