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Search Success

Improving your search results

Done a resource search and still not found anything? Or are you getting too many results? Here are a few tips for altering the search.

Make sure you understand and interpret the question before searching

Pick out the subject words from the question you're being asked, and search for just those – if you put the whole question in, you'll get fewer or no hits. For instanced:

What is the effect of climate change on the tourism industry in Australia?

The underlined words are the key subjects of the question, so just search using those terms.

Not finding enough appropriate results?

  • Think of alternative words with the same or similar meanings, and search using those instead (e.g. Higher Education instead of University).
  • Think of a concept that is a little wider than your original choice (e.g. instead of Key Stage 1, look for Primary Education; instead of television, look for media).
  • Choose keywords from the topic you have chosen and search for those, instead of all of the terms in the question (e.g. instead of 'the impact of higher petrol taxes on annual car mileage', search for 'petrol tax car use').
  • Change the search tool you are using - it may be that another one will yield more results.

Finding too many results?

  • Lots of search tools will rank the most relevant results first, or you can change the result set to order by relevance yourself.
  • Add more keywords to your search, e.g. add a population group such as 'children', or a country, to make it more specific (only do this if the question you are answering requires this level of detail).
  • Check the dates of the results - do you want to refine them to recent publications only, or re-order the results list to most recent first?

Further tips to improve your search results

Remember that search tools can be literal and need to be told exactly what you mean. There are established shortcuts to help with this. Common ones include:

  • using an asterisk (*) at the end of a stem of a word to find any ending, e.g. learn* will automatically search for learners, learning, learned, learnt, etc.;
  • using a hashtag (#) to find words with alternative spellings, e.g. colo#r will find both colour and color;
  • putting words you want to find as a single term together in quotation marks, e.g. "higher education", "global warming".

Why should we bother searching out information like this? The below video investigates why the people behind search result algorithms are also important to consider.

Moral bias behind search results?

Search Success is based on SMILE by Imperial College, Loughborough University and the University of Worcester, modified by Library & Learning Services at York St John University. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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