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Skills at Library Essentials

Guides to search skills and using library research resources

Creating a search strategy

Building your search strategy

Once you have decided what kind of sources you are looking for and where you want to search (see the Finding Sources section for more on this) you will need to build a search strategy. 

Essentially, your search strategy will be what you type in to the databases and search engines you are using to find information sources. 

Follow the steps below to create a search strategy from your research question or topic

Pick out the keywords from your topic or question

The easiest way to do this is to write out your question and once it's in front of you, highlight what you think the keywords are. 

Think about what words you will be typing into the search. Whenever you're searching for information in your everyday life you will already be doing this without even thinking about it. For example, if you wanted to find out what is on the current menu in Fusion you would probably go to a search engine and type in something like "Fusion Essex menu". These are your keywords. 

Filter out unnecessary words

For example 'the', 'what', 'of', 'and' and so on. 

Don't include instructions

Words like 'discuss', 'analyse', 'evaluate' and so on are your instructions as you complete the assignment or answer the question. They are not what the topic is about. 


Let's have a look at an example question:

What evidence is there that children’s development is influenced by play with siblings and peers?

We could probably pick out the following as the keywords:

What evidence is there that children’s development is influenced by play with siblings and peers?

We wouldn't include the start of the question, as in this case it is our job as a researcher to gather and evaluate this evidence. We also don't need words such as "is", "with" and so on. The keywords we would be searching for would therefore be:

  • children's development
  • influences
  • play
  • siblings
  • peers 

Identify synonyms and alternatives

Once you have identified your keywords, quickly make a list of as many synonyms and alternatives as possible for them. Alternatives could include alternative spellings, plurals and so on. 

This is an important step, as it really will help you to get the best search results. If you don't make use of alternatives for your keywords, you will be limiting your search and may be missing out on relevant and useful results. 


Let's go back to the example we used for identifying keywords: 

What evidence is there that children’s development is influenced by play with siblings and peers?

Have a quick think about some synonyms and alternatives for these keywords. Just a few are listed below:

  • children's development: child development, childhood, adolescence
  • influences: impacts
  • play: games 
  • siblings: brothers, sisters 
  • peers: classmates

Use your subject knowledge to help you, you may have already come across some alternatives in your reading, lectures or class discussions. You could also try using a thesaurus to help you find synonyms. You'll also find you come across more as you start to read around the subject. 

Now you need to think about how you are going to combine these search terms. 

There are a number of ways you can do this, and the next section will go into much more detail about how to do this. 

Reviewing and amending your search strategy

Your search strategy will often change as you search 

Searching is not usually a linear journey, rather a cycle of continually refining and improving until you get the results you need.

For example, while you search you may: 

  • Find new keywords, synonyms or alternatives
  • Find too many or too few results and have to change your search strategy (or where you're searching)
  • Find that your results aren't relevant enough and need to refine the search 
  • Have to adapt your search to the limits of different databases or search engines