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How to Come Up with Search Terms: Home

How to Come Up with Search Terms - Home

How to Come Up with Search Terms

A human figure standing in front of a large red question mark.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

When you are researching for a paper, using the right search terms will often determine whether or not you find the resources you need. Sometimes, figuring out what to search for is even harder than picking articles, or writing the paper itself! In fact, as a librarian, one of the most common questions I get asked is, "How do I figure out what to search for?"

While there is no one true, universal method, there are a lot of things you can do to find the right keywords and quickly access what you need!

Why is it Hard?

Why is Coming Up with Search Terms Hard?

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Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

In order to learn how to optimize your searching, it's important to understand why coming up with the right terms is difficult, and why it can be even harder to get search engines to call up the proper results.


  • Reason #1: You may be thinking about your prompt and your paper, not about the articles you're looking for. People are likely to start their research by looking for words that are in their prompt, but this can sometimes eliminate articles that might be more helpful. Looking outside the prompt is a great way to go!
  • Reason #2: You may be using natural language searching. Natural language searches are conducted using normal speech patterns, or searches that are written the way people talk. For example, a natural language search could be written like, "What's the best way to treat a cold?"
    Searches like this will work in popular search engines, such as Google and Bing, but library catalogs and smaller search engines may not return related results because they are not programmed to recognize natural language searches.
  • Reason #3: The search engine may not be recognizing related terms, or recognizing the context of your search terms. Another difference between searching on a larger search engine and searching a smaller collection is that the search engine may have difficulty recognizing terms that are related to your searches. Modifying keywords often is recommended so you can make sure that you are locating the correct articles.
  • Reason #4: Results are usually sorted by relevancy by default, and relevancy is subjective. A person searching Google for movie theaters in Milwaukee will see different movie theaters from someone in Tampa. A person searching our catalog, however, will see articles and books related to movie theaters, and these will be sorted based on which results students use the most, and whether or not the title matches part of--or your entire--search query. If you're searching for the history of the Tampa Theater, however, these aren't the results you'd find the most helpful, and you would have to modify your search terms to find what you're looking for. Changing your results from being ranked by relevancy or "Best Match" to another organization method can help solve this problem.
  • Reason #5: Your topic is too narrow, or based on something too recent. If you are conducting research on a very specific or narrow topic, it may be difficult to find articles that match perfectly. In cases like this, it is recommended that you conduct multiple searches for articles that match parts of your topic, rather than the whole thing.
    It is also sometimes difficult to find scholarly resources about recent events, such as COVID-19. This is because such articles take time to research for, write, and get published, and the situation is still developing. In cases like this, one solution is to compare a current event to an older one, using research articles about the older event, and the current news and data available for the present event.
    * NOTE: Researching how specific industries plan to handle events like the one you're researching is also a good idea in this case.
  • Reason #6: Your topic is too broad. If you're searching for a broader topic, it is likely that you will get a lot of results that are not relevant to you. By adding or revising search terms and restricting criteria, you can limit your results to only relevant articles. For instance, if you're writing a paper about raccoons, but you notice a lot of the results are related to rabies, and you do not need any information on rabies, you can use the Advanced Search tool to search for "Racoons" NOT "Rabies" to limit your search results.

What if I'm Still Not Getting Enough Results?

But what if I'm not getting ENOUGH search results, even after following these tips?

A human figure with their hands over their ears, on their knees, with five question marks overhead.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

  • Re-evaluate the prompt and the stance you wish to take on your paper: If you are still having difficulty finding articles, it is likely that this is because your topic is too narrow. Take note of the related ideas in your prompt to adjust your future searches. Consider using articles from different searches that support the stance you're taking in your paper, even if the individual articles you find do no match all parts of the prompt on their own. This is a good time to consider scheduling a session with our writing and research support faculty! They will be happy to help you brainstorm ways you can modify your research and paper.
  • Think about what did and didn't work from past searches, and repeat winning search terms and strategies: Use search terms that have helped you generate articles that were more relevant to your prompt when you repeat searches, as well as any search settings and databases where you've had luck before. If you're having trouble finding databases with relevant articles, we have a LibGuide you can use that breaks down databases by subject!
  • Look for news articles related to your topic: News articles are a great way to find out about new research, and will often reference past research as well. While they are (usually) not scholarly sources on their own, they can help you learn the names of researchers and studies, increasing the likelihood that you can find articles they may have written on the topic. This can also help you reinforce your stance in a paper.

So, How Do Find the Right Words?

So, How Do I Find the Right Words?

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Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

So, how do you get around all those problems? Luckily, I have a few tips for you!


  • Replace your search terms with related terms: Let's say you're writing a paper on how adolescents are affected by video games, but you aren't finding as many articles as you need for your paper by searching for "Adolescents and video games." You can try replacing "Adolescents" with related terms like "teen," "teenager," and "young adult" to expand your search results! It is also a good idea to consult a thesaurus if you are having difficulty coming up with them.
    Our databases and catalogs can help you there, as well!
    • EBSCO, one of the most popular and extensive databases we subscribe to, includes a thesaurus feature that can suggest related search terms. These suggestions will appear to the left of your search results under "Subject: Thesaurus Term." Below is an example of this feature used in an EBSCO search for "Video games" AND "Autism."
      A screenshot of an expanded search result area in EBSCO called "Subject: Thesaurus Term." Several suggestions are listed, including "Computer software" and "Children."
    • Entries in our catalog can also give you suggested search terms based on the Subjects listed in a catalog entry. When you find an article you think may be relevant to your topic, you can find more keywords you can use to search for other relevant articles by checking what is listed under "Subjects." Click "View Description" in the catalog entry and take note of what is listed in the "Subjects" area. Below is the "Subjects" listed for an article titled "Video games from the perspective of adults with autism spectrum disorder."
         A screenshot of a library catalog entry's "View Description" area. Subjects such as "Electronic Games" and "Technology" are listed in the "Subjects" area.
  • Re-read your prompt, and think about what's really important: If you are having trouble finding articles, it is also a good idea to re-read your prompt and rethink how relevant your search terms are. For example, if your prompt is "Explain how video games affect the mental development of adolescents," and you are searching for "video games and teenagers," you are less likely to find articles that fit all parts of the prompt.
  • Try the Advanced Search tool: Advanced Search tools are used in catalogs and databases in order to allow users to search for multiple criteria at once. To learn more about the Advanced Search tool in our catalog, watch the video linked here. In this case, searching for "Video games" AND "Teenagers" AND "Brain development" is a search that could generate results related to all parts of the prompt.
  • Try reading a couple of articles and see if you can find any industry terminology to include in your searches: In researching technical topics and reading research articles, you may find industry terminology or "jargon" that you were not aware of. It is a good idea to try incorporating these into your searches when possible. Industry terminology is sometimes present in article titles and abstracts since the articles are written and published for those in the field, and more common terminology may not be used.


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