23 Define, Refine, & Adjust

Search Strategies: Define, Refine, & Adjust

Research is an iterative cycle. Iteration is a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result (Merriam-Webster Online).

In practical terms this means you may need to repeat your search several times. You will need to revisit your strategy each time to obtain the information you need. On the first search, you may not know all the right keywords to use or all the right places to look.

There are three parts of the search cycle:

  1. Assemble a search string
  2. Examine results
  3. Implement refinements

Assemble a Search String

Search tools, like databases and even Google are not smart. Search tools are primarily matching your keywords to words that appear in the sources. The more words search tools can match, the higher they rank the source. Therefore, you need to input exactly what you want the search tool to find.

For example, if you enter the word child into a search tool, it may only search for items containing the word child and omit sources aboutchildren . (It’s important to note that different search tools use different search algorithms and that algorithms constantly change).

When designing your search string, start with these three steps:

  1. Create a list of keywords
  2. Combine keywords and concepts
  3. Use punctuation tricks

Next, you will learn about the three steps of assembling a search string. (21)


keyword describes an important aspect of your investigation. Keywords in this research question are in bold: ”Should flu shots be mandatory for healthcare workers ?“ Keywords are:

  • flu shots
  • mandatory
  • healthcare

The more keywords you can think of, the more likely it will be that you will find what you are looking for because every search tool uses a different set of keywords to describe items in their index or database. One search tool might use the keyword phrase flu shot and another might use influenza vaccine . Develop a list of several keywords for each main idea in your research question.

Watch the video, Brainstorming keywords to see how to create keywords from a research question.

Which words? Does it matter?

Keywords and phrases are weighted differently in different search tools. For example, the phrase flu shot results in many more items thaninfluenza vaccination in Google, but in a library search tool, the opposite occurs.

Google returns more search results with common everyday terms. Library search tools generally return more results with academic terms.(21)

Combine Keywords and Concepts

Recall the research question from the previous page: ”Should flu shots be mandatory for healthcare workers ?“ When you enter words into a search tool, such as flu shots mandatory doctors nurses , you are directing the search tool to search for items that contain ALL of those keywords.

The search tools use an implied and to combine all terms: flu and shots and mandatory and doctors and nurses . That means it will return everything with all of your keywords, even if an article or source has nothing to do with doctors and nurses getting flu shots.

Narrow Your Search

The conjunction and is an example of a Boolean Operator : words you can use to connect keywords systematically. As you add more keywords, the number of documents that contain all of the keywords is going to diminish .

Expand Your Search

The conjunction or is a Boolean Operator that expands your search. You don’t necessarily want both of the keywords doctors and nurses to be in each of the items in your results list. Combine the doctor and nurse keywords with the or operator to tell the search tool that either keyword is acceptable. Terms combined with OR should be set off with parentheses.

Example: flu shots AND mandatory AND (doctors OR nurses) (21)

Boolean Operators: And, Or, and Not

Study the following figures to see how different operators can affect your search results. (1)


Two overlapping circles. One circle has the keyword “endangered.” The second circle has the keyword “animals.” The intersecting area has the operator “NOT.” Endangered area is shaded; the intersecting area and Animals is clear.Figure 5-3: NOT Boolean by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .


Two overlapping circles. One circle has the keyword “endangered.” The second circle has the keyword “animals.” The intersecting area has the operator “OR.” Both circles are shaded to show search tool results.Figure 5-2: OR Boolean by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .


Two overlapping circles. One circle has the keyword “endangered.” The second circle has the keyword “animals.” The intersecting area has the operator AND. The intersecting area is shaded in to show search tool results.Figure 5-1: AND Boolean by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .

Use Punctuation Tricks

Just as punctuation is important in written communication, it’s also an important tool for searching strategically.

There are several punctuation tricks you can employ in your search strategy. In addition to parentheses, which you just learned about on the last page, quotation marks and the asterisk symbol are also helpful to know.

Putting quotation marks around words tells the search tool to search for those words as a phrase. For instance, when you enter flu shot , instead of searching for everything flu and everything shot , you are searching for the phrase flu shot . Searching a phrase is more precise than searching keywords individually and finds fewer results:

Google Library Search Tool
“Flu Shot” with quotation marks 5,140,000 results 8,539 results
Flu Shot without quotation marks 12,700,000 results 51,787 results
“Influenza Vaccination” with quotation marks 498,000 results 18,040 results
Influenza Vaccination without quotation marks 959,000 results 89,993 results
(The number of results are constantly in flux; try it yourself to see the results.)

Use the asterisk (*) symbol to truncate your keywords. This means searching for all variant endings of a word. For example, truncating the word vaccinate to vaccin* will tell the search tool to search for:

  • Vaccinate
  • Vaccinates
  • Vaccine
  • Vaccines
  • Vaccination
  • Vaccinations
  • Vaccinating (21)


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