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Search Terms and Boolean Operators

How to choose good search terms and narrow down your results with boolean operators

Search Terms

The first thing to do is stop and think. Ask yourself some questions about your topic. Did you choose it? If so you must already have a reason for wanting to write about it. What is it? Is your paper going to be expositorySee the glossary definition (just presenting information) or persuasiveSee the glossary definition (you want to convince the reader about your point of view)?

Let’s say I’m interested in the importance of music in education. I already have two keywords: music and education. But these are very broad fields. If I put music and education into Google, I get more than 4.5 billion results. If I use Google Scholar I get 1.6 million results. Better, but more than an afternoon’s reading. So I need to narrow down my search. I could ask myself some questions about the term "music". What type of music? Classical? Rap? Opera? Rock? Jazz? "classical music" and "education" gives me 50,000 hits. Similarly, education is a very broad field. I’m interested in the educational benefits of teaching music so I add this term to my search. I now have "classical music" "educational benefits" in my search box and I have 600 hits, so it's getting more manageable. I'm interested in the effects of teaching music to young learners, especially preschool children, so "pre-school" seems like a useful search term to use. "classical music" "educational benefits" "preschool" gives me 130 hits. So now I'm at the stage where I could begin to scroll through and see if there is anything useful. I could narrow these down even further by selecting only publications after a certain date. You could perform a similar search using Google Scholar or SearchSmart which would give you results from academic journals.

Spending a little time learning how to search can pay rich dividends and save you a lot of time. Here are a few suggestions.

You should use multiple rather than single word searches (which will give you too many results to be useful). You should use phrases enclosed in quotes if you can, and you can use multiple phrases. "tropical fruit" AND "southeast asia" will give you much better focused results than these words written separately. Note that you do not need to capitalise. You should also avoid common words such as the, an, a, of, who, which, is. These will be ignored in any case.

Boolean Operators

The common ones are AND, OR, NOT. Here's how they work:

  • AND: This requires both search terms to be present for a result to be returned (it narrows the search). Be aware that you don't need to use this in most search engines. If you write apples oranges, you will get the same results as apples AND oranges.
  • OR: This only requires one of the search terms to be present for a result to be returned (it broadens the search). With Google you can use the the pipe symbol (|) instead of OR.
  • NOT: Use this to eliminate particular terms. fruit NOT bananas will return articles containing any mention of fruit but none mentioning bananas. Note that Google uses the minus (-) operator instead of NOT (fruit -bananas ).
  • Truncation: This concerns ways of finding words with different word endings. The truncation symbol is usually * . So illuminat* would find illuminate, illuminates, illuminating, illuminated, illumination, illuminations. Google does this automatically. They call it stemming. If you don't want this to happen, you can put quotes around the word you don't want stemmed. So "illumination" will not return results with the other variants of illiminat* but only those containing "illumination".
  • Wild cards: The wild card symbol is usually ? . It is used to find variant spellings and plurals. So systemati?e will return systematize and systematise.

Google Search Operators

These can be very useful for narrowing down results. They are case-sensitive so you should always use lowercase letters. Here are some of the most useful:

  • inurl: Restricts the search to sites which contain the search word within a particular site or sub-domain. For example, "nucleotide database" inurl:ac.uk returns pages containing the phrase "nucleotide database" only from academic sites in the UK.
  • filetype: Returns pages of a particular filetype. For example, schubert impromptu filetype:pdf returns only pdf files containing the terms schubert and impromptu.
  • site: Searches within a particular site or domain. For example, bach invention site:https://www.mutopiaproject.org/ returns only pages related to Bach inventions within the mutopiaproject site.
  • intitle: Returns pages with word or phrase in the page title. For example, intitle: "coherence and cohesion" returns mainly pages concerned with coherence and cohesion in texts

There are many others: Google - intitle: "google search operators" to find others.

Google Advanced Search

Some of these operators can be set in Google Advanced Search. Go to Settings on the Google Search Page and choose "Advanced search" or enter https://www.google.com/advanced_search?. You can restrict your search in other ways on this page such as for language, date range and last update.

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