Flinders University Library
Search Smart

Search Strategies

Useful search tips for advanced searching

Use Keywords, Truncation, Wildcards, Phrases & Subject Headings

What are keywords?

Keywords are the significant words or phrases that define the topic of an essay question. For example, in the following assignment topic;

“Discuss the impacts of social media on grammar use in teenagers”,

the keywords would be social media, grammar, and teenagers.

Words like discuss, examine, outline etc. are instructional words that describe the task. (The academics in the Learning Lounge can provide advice on how to interpret these)

The words that you use will determine the success or failure of your search. Before you begin your search, it is worth taking the time to identify key words or terms that define your topic. These will then form the basis of your search to see what resources the library has on that topic.


Not all literature you want to look at will use the exact same terms that identified in your question. Different words can mean the same thing. You can improve your search results by coming up with a list of synonyms and alternative terms for the keywords you identified from your topic question. Think about broader, narrower and related terms. For example, some synonyms for the keywords identified above may include:

Social Media: social networking, Facebook, Twitter

Teenagers: adolescents, young adults, youths, teens

Using synonyms will get you a more complete set of search results than if you stick to only your keywords. Try an encyclopedia or subject dictionary or textbook if you can't think of synonyms and related terms.

Things to consider when selecting keywords to enter in a library search tool.

  • Broader terms are often better when looking for books in FindIt@Flinders and library catalogues.
  • Spelling variations matter when searching e.g. British - behaviour and United States - behavior.
  • Abbreviations and full words matter too e.g. WWW or World Wide Web.
  • Figures and dates can be tricky e.g. 1930s or nineteen thirties
  • Hyphens are often an issue so try search terms both with and without them

Want to learn more?

Watch this short video below for more information on keywords.

What is Truncation?

Truncation, also called stemming and root expansion, is a very useful way to expand a search using a symbol to represent the various endings at the root of a keyword for example,

If you entered the keyword politic with an asterisk* (politic*) in FindIt@Flinders, most library research databases and even Google, the database or search engine would interpret it as:

  • Politic, Politics, Political, politically, Politician and Politicians 

And return information that contained all these terms.

Things to consider when using Truncation:

  • While most search engines use the asterisk* other symbols may be used in some databases so always check the help pages of each databases to be sure.
  • Truncation may not work with other search strategies such as phrase searching
  • Truncating some words can have unintended consequences and search for things you are not interested in, for example.

The Keyword with truncation (Cat*) will search for cat, cats, cataloguing, caterpillar etc.


What are Wildcard characters?

Wildcards are also symbols used in place of one or more characters in a keyword search. Usually a question mark (?) is used. For example:

wom?n will search for women and woman

It is also a useful way to deal with American and British/Australian spelling variations when selecting keywords to use in a search. For example, behavio?r

Things to consider when using Wildcard characters:

  • While most search engines use the question mark, other symbols may be used in some databases so always check the help pages of each databases to be sure.
  • Wildcards may not work with other search strategies such as phrase searching.


What is Phrase Searching?

Identifying terms that can be searched as a phrase will focus your search and reduce irrelevant results.

When considering keywords that define your topic try to identify words that are commonly understood as a phrase, e.g. "word bank" or common terms such as "glass ceiling". By enclosing these phrases in quotation marks the computer will look for them in that exact order rather than anywhere in the database.

Things to consider when using phrase searching.

  • Different databases may use different symbols to represent phrases. The most common are single quotation marks 'like this' or double quotation marks "like this". Check the help pages of each database to be sure.
  • Some databases automatically search for keywords as phrases if you don't use boolean operators such and AND, OR, NOT in the search statement. Check the help pages of each database to be sure.
  • Phrase searching can limit a search too much and you may need broader or related terms as well.
  • Phrase searching can negate other search strategies such as truncation and wildcard symbols.


What are Subject Headings?

  • Subject Headings are fields in database records that contain specific words or phrases used to describe the content of a book or journal article. For example, Biology, or Engineering. These can be used to search for information on that topic.
  • Headings are often broken down into sub-headings to narrow their scope. For example, the heading Engineering may also include a sub-heading of Engineering - Biotechnology
  • Highly structured databases may also provide related, broader, narrower and preferred terms within the subject fields.  Terms may have a Scope or explanatory note about the terms.
  • Many book records use the subject indexing language called Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) while medical databases such as MEDLINE and PubMED use the National Library of Medicine's controlled vocabulary thesaurus MeSH. This is useful because the headings have the same structure in different databases.

You can use subject headings to search databases. Usually you have to do an advanced search and then select the subject field to search in (This will be different in every database. Check your database's help section for tips).

You can start with a broad keyword search and narrow the results by choosing subject headings or limits. Searching by subject headings can provide very relevant results for your given topic.

Things to consider when using Subject Headings

  • Subject headings only search the Subject field of a database record. Keywords search in any part of the article and can return a broader range of results.
  • You need to know the exact terms a database uses for it's subject headings. Doing a subject search for Social Media will return no results if the database uses Social Networking as it's subject heading. Many databases allow you to search a thesaurus or index to find the preferred subject terms.

Want to learn more?

Watch the video Keywords vs. Subject Headings on the Keyword page.  See links below for more information on LCSH and MeSH


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