Jessup Playbooks Logo

How do I come up with keywords for searches?

Need Help?

Ask a Librarian @
Betty Sue Jessup Library

501 College Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22902


  • A common complaint from students is "I can't find anything on my topic!"database search icon
  • Finding sources, especially when using specialized tools like databases, is not hard, but it requires an ability to understand how databases communicate.
  • To communicate with a database, you will need to learn how to talk to it in its language.
  • To talk to a database, you will need the right keywords and the right connectors.
    • A database won't understand this very well: does classical music increase a newborn's IQ?
    • A database will understand this: "classical music" AND newborn AND IQ
  • To speak a database's language, use keywords connected with Boolean connectors, (AND, OR,NOT).
    • Examples
      • leukemia AND (cat OR feline)
      • bullying AND "middle school" AND self-esteem
      • Saturn NOT planet

Where do keywords come from?

target board with dart

  • Where do keywords come from?  They come from your topic.
  • How are keywords helpful? They help you find results that are targeted to your topic.
  • This is why it is important to flesh out your topic as clearly and precisely as possible. A vague topic will not yield good keywords.
    • Example of a vague topic: iPads for children
      • Why is this topic vague? Because it's unclear what you're going to be saying about iPads and children.
      • There are two keywords here: iPads, children.  Can you search with these? Sure! But you will get a lot of results that may be unrelated to your topic except for having those two words in them.
    • Example of a clearer topic:  Using iPads in the k-12 classroom to facilitate flexible learning experiences.
      • Why is this topic clearer? Because the content of your topic is more precise; people reading your topic would immediately understand what your essay will be getting at. 
      • There are 4 useful keywords here: iPads, k-12, classroom, "flexible learning." Searching with these words will give you more targeted results.

Finding the right keywords

  • Once you have written down a short, precise, and clear description of your topic, you can begin harvesting keywords from it.
    • Examples of topics, with the keywords highlighted:
      • Using acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat migraines in children.
      • The regulation of speech and other forms of expression in private colleges and universities.
      • Plastics and microplastics in the oceans and their impact on seabirds, sea turtles, and seals.
  • The keywords you harvest will then be used in searches.
    • Examples:
      • (acetaminophen OR ibuprofen) AND migraines AND children
      • regulation AND (speech OR expression) AND ("private colleges" OR "private universities")
      • (plastics OR microplastics) AND oceans AND (seabirds OR sea turtles OR seals)

Searching with keywords

magnifying glass icon

  • To search a database using keywords, separate your terms with Boolean operators (these are short connectors; the most useful ones are AND, NOT, OR). Type Boolean operators in all caps, and start by using the AND operator.
  • Examples
    • Children AND migraines AND acetaminophen
    • Plastics AND oceans AND seabirds
  • If search results are not quite what you want, try these tweaks:
    • Use synonyms. For example, if teen didn't work, try teenager, adolescent, or juvenile.
    • Harvest terms from a topic overview or a topic-related article and plug them into the search.
  • Use the Boolean operator OR for synonyms, and enclose the synonyms and operator in parentheses, like this:
    • (migraines OR headaches)
    • (dogs OR canines)
    • (teens OR teenagers OR adolescents OR juveniles)
  • Use the Boolean operator NOT to exclude terms. For example, you are looking for information about Saturn the car, and get a lot of results about Saturn the planet. Exclude those results like this:
    • Saturn NOT planet
  • You can combine operators for much more precise and targeted searches, like this:
    • children AND (headache OR migraine) AND (ibuprofen OR acetaminophen)
    • The database interprets your search to mean this: "I want results with the word children combined with the word headache or the word migraine and the word ibuprofen or the word acetaminophen." 
    • The database will retrieve results that have the word children, plus either the word headache or the word  migraine, or both, plus either  the word ibuprofen or the word acetaminophen or both.

Step by step : Clara's research

photo of smiling student

  • This is Clara. She wants to write a paper about the unhealthy effects of smoking.
  • She could only think of one effect: lung cancer
  • Clara needed to learn more, so to find a topic overview, she searched Gale eBooks by typing smoking in the search box. 
  • From her results, Clara chose this article from the Encyclopedia of Medicine.
  • She jotted down some of the effects of smoking: lung cancer, high blood pressure, emphysema, stroke, heart disease
  • She decided to investigate two of the effects of smoking: emphysema and lung cancer.
  • Next, Clara went to the EBSCO database and searched it using this search string: smoking AND (emphysema OR lung cancer)
  • While looking at her results, she saw that articles used the term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease more often than they used emphysema.
  • Clara modified her search a bit:  smoking AND (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease OR lung cancer)
  • After reading many articles, Clara selected 6 articles that contained information she could use for her paper.
  • By following a systematic approach, finding terms and then using them in database searches, Clara found targeted sources, avoided frustration, and saved time.



house made up of puzzle pieces

Coming up with keywords and connectors to talk to a database is like putting pieces together to create specific shapes. It takes some practice (see the next section for a practice activity), but if you stick with it, you will soon find the process happens almost automatically. Remember to ask for help if you need it!

Let's practice!

Need Help?