Choosing keywords

Keyword selection is one of the most vital parts of your search techniques. You can type an assignment or dissertation title into GoogleGoogle Scholar or Discovery and you will get results. You can just type in words that occur to you and you will find material. However, you can dramatically improve what you are retrieving with a little thought and also by using the advanced search that each of those offers.

Let’s take an example where your assignment or project title is concerned with ‘preserving privacy through social networking decentralization’. Typing that phrase into Discovery, for example, will find around 600 items. You might think that’s enough to be going on with but by the time you’ve refined your results – perhaps by date or by source type – there may be very little of any use.

If we start to think about alternative terms we can widen the pool of our original search and include more relevant articles.

For ‘social networking’ we might think of ‘social network services’ or ‘SNS’ (or even ‘S.N.S.’ which most databases will treat as a different search) or ‘social media’ or perhaps even ‘online interaction’. Note that these are not all synonymous but may be the preferred term for a subject area, or a term used by some authors, or close enough to give relevant results.

For ‘privacy’ we might think about ‘anonymity’ and/or ‘security’ and the latter might lead us on to ideas such as ‘data handling’ or ‘data privacy’ or ‘data security’.

We can consider using phrase searches to increase relevance: “social network services” (with the double quotes, will find fewer items than simply typing social network services, but the fewer results will almost certainly be more relevant.

We might consider different spelling such as ‘decentralization’ or ‘decentralisation’; or we could consider using the truncation feature of most databases to search for several words at once, e.g. decentrali* would find ‘decentralization’ or ‘decentralisation’ or ‘decentralising’ etc. Note that you can’t use truncation within a phrase search; note also that Google will ignore punctuation, such as truncation or full stops in abbreviations, except for “ “ which it treats as a phrase search.

If you’re finding too much material, you might choose to use narrower keywords, for example instead of ‘social networking’ try ‘facebook’ or ‘twitter’ or ‘linkedin’.

If you’re finding too little, you might need to broaden your search. Our guide to applying a search strategy gives you a form that can help with thinking through this process.

Look out for keywords that a database or author or publisher has assigned to an article or conference paper. Even if the actual paper is not relevant, you might get good ideas for your keywords from these to reutilize in your subsequent searches.

Some databases offer a thesaurus which can help with keyword selection. Engineering Village – very useful for computing subject searches – is a good example. Note that you may find terms referred to as ‘keywords’, ‘subject headings’ or perhaps ‘descriptors’.

Now take a look at how thinking about our search terms can affect an advanced search on Discovery.

Instead of:

“social networking”

which at time of writing produces nearly 1800 results (which is already better than typing the topic as a phrase into the simple search box as above), we might try:

“social networking” OR “social network services” OR sns OR s.n.s.
privacy OR anonymity OR security

which gives over 12,000 results. A much bigger pool of relevant results with which to refine our search by date or source type etc.
To see more on what is going on with the OR and AND words, see our guide to Boolean Logic.

In summary:

Think about the keywords you use in the Library Catalogue, in database searching, or in Google or Google Scholar.