Skip to Main Content

Library DIY

Navigating UWG library resources and research

Developing Keywords for Searching

Video on Choosing & Using Keywords (John M. Pfau Library)

Keywords are search terms that express the essence of your topic. They are crucial to an effective search, especially in library databases. Here are some tips for identifying keywords:

1. Be concise.

Begin with only 2-3 essential terms, and avoid long phrases. The more terms you enter the fewer results you’ll get. (For example, a search for environmental consequences of fracking may yield 0 results, while fracking environment yields over 2,000.)

2. Use synonyms and related terms.

If your first term doesn’t work, try a synonym. You may have to try out several related search terms to find the types of resources you're looking for.  (Example: environment INSTEAD OF environmental consequences)

3. Identify keywords with background research.

To identify useful keywords, do some quick background research. Note terms that are often used to discuss the topic. (Reference sources like Wikipedia or the library databases Oxford Reference Online offer overviews of many topics. Of course, remember to evaluate information in Wikipedia with particular care since almost anyone can edit it.)

4. Identify keywords from search results.

Do a quick database search and view the search results page to identify relevant terms.

  • Titles and article abstracts (summaries) often include helpful terms. 
  • “Subject” terms are used in library databases describe what a source is about. Look in a database for relevant subject terms - they can help you locate more records on the topic.

5. Combine search terms.

In most databases you can refine results using the search functions AND, OR, and NOT.

  • AND: shows results that include both terms (e.g., government AND policy)
  • OR: shows results that include one or more terms; used for related terms (e.g., civic OR government)
  • NOT: removes results that include a term (e.g., Julius Caesar NOT Shakespeare)

More search terms strategies


Remember to use key search terms that express the most important concepts related to your topic. The more terms you use the fewer results you get, so be selective. 

Example: A search like impact of gender on people's salary expectations will get far fewer results than gender AND salary AND expectations.


Think of search terms that have similar meanings.


Example: an article about salary may not use that word, so try terms like wages, pay, income, or earnings. Searching for all of those terms together with OR between them (example: gender OR pay OR wages OR income OR earnings) tells the search engine to find at least one of the terms in your search results.


A quick background research, or presearch may help you identify effective keywords.


See resources in reference databases like Oxford Reference Online which contain general and subject-specific resources (e.g. Business, Education, Psychology.) Wikipedia may also provide basic information about your topic (e.g. keywords, people's names, or place names). Once you have your key search words, try them in various combinations in the library's research databases.


More Tips for Searching


Brainstorming keywords video (Portland State University)