Search strategies

When you design a search strategy you are planning how you will look for information. The more care and thought you put into your search strategy, the more relevant your search results will be. For designing a search strategy it is important to identify your information need and to make a clear definition of the topic.

There are different stages in the process of building a search strategy:

Built concepts groups; analyze your topic

A search strategy is built up of concepts groups. These concepts are the main topics which best describe the information you seek. Analyze the topic you need information about by writing out a few detailed sentences about this topic. Underline the main words in these sentences. "Write down any ideas you have, even the ones that seem harebrained; sometimes they end up being the most helpful". 

Develop terms; define search terms

From the description that you wrote, create a list of search terms/keywords and phrases. Brainstorming helps you choose good search terms before you begin. In developing a set of terms on a particular concept you could use different sources. first of all your own experience but also general dictionaries, thesauri, manuals handbooks etc. If you have already one article on the particular subject, you could use this to develop your search strategy. Once you have an initial list, think of other terms that also describe your topic. 

Find synonyms (dictionaries)

Come up with synonyms - other words or phrases that have the same meaning - for your terms. Don't forget to list alternative spellings, abbreviations, and acronyms for words on your list. You should also identify words that have broader or narrower meanings than your original terms. Synomyms for concepts and terms can be found in thesauri, dictionaries and encyclopedia. These can be found in the ITC library. 

Define relation between search terms by using Boolean operators

By using the Boolean operators you may define the relation between search terms:

"And" operator:

  • retrieves records that include both terms
  • narrows your search
  • used for terms or concepts that are not related


"Or" operator:

  • retrieves records that include either of the terms
  • broadens your search
  • used for related terms or concept


"Not" operator:

  • retrieves records that include one term but not another term; eliminates all the records containing the second term
  • narrows your search
  • may eliminate relevant records



Truncation tells the database you're searching to fill in for one or more letters in your keyword search. Truncation symbols can be used either inside the word or at the end of it. While each database uses its own truncation symbols, the asterisk * is used most often. 



- will find woman or women


- will find dietsdietitiandietingdietary


- will find cartographiccartographycartographical


- will find planplansplanning


- will find systemsystems


- will find sciencesciences

Research tip:

As a general rule, your search retrieval is greater when using truncation. But, be careful, because you might find records with an unexpected variation of your search term.

Example: diet* - finds also diethylstilbestrol (a synthetic estrogen)

A well designed search strategy:

  1. Saves you time in the long run
  2. Helps you to search for information in the right places
  3. Helps you to find a larger amount of relevant information
  4. Makes it possible to evaluate your search results