Studying Effectively
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Search skills

To get the best out of online databases and search engines, improving your search skills can help you to:

  • Narrow down search results when a large amount of information is available
  • Extract only the most relevant information
  • Explore different aspects of a topic
  • Make your search more efficient and save time

Planning your search

Whether you are searching an online catalogue, a bibliographic database or using Google, it is helpful to plan your search in advance. This will save you time in the long-run.

  • Think about how you would describe your topic area
  • How would you translate your topic into keywords which the database or online search will understand?
  • Evaluate your results.  Has the search found relevant results?
  • How would you refine your search if you find too much information, too little information or irrelevant results?


These allow you to specify the topic area you are interested in.

More about keywords
  • Keywords are significant words or phrases which you can use as search terms to retrieve relevant results.
  • Keywords can be found in the title, subject headings, contents notes, abstract or full text of a reference in an online catalogue or database.
  • Keywords are useful when searching for general information about a topic or subject as they allow a broad range of information to be retrieved.

Identifying keywords

You will need to think about your assignment topic: 

  • Break the topic down into its key components/concepts
  • Think of the keywords that describe these concepts
  • Consider alternative keywords (synonyms) that describe your subject
  • Consider using broader and narrower terms
  • Think about common (lay words) and technical words that describe the same topic
  • Consider using different spellings (e.g. US and UK) and abbreviations as well as the full word or phrase
  • If your keyword is a phrase, use quotation marks to ensure that the words are found next to each other, e.g. "higher education"

An example of how keywords may be displayed in the search results



Defining keywords is important wherever you are searching.  However, different search skills may be required to search the internet and bibliographic databases or online catalogues; or you can utilise citation searching as another way of finding relevant information.

Students searching online
Students searching 

Further reading

Developing search strategies


Reading and interpreting sources and data


People who can help

Talk to someone in your school or a specialist support service


Studying Effectively

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