The words you use when searching for information really matter. This is the case whether you’re looking for books, journals, or searching Google. Remember: computers can’t read minds. You need to be very specific when you’re telling them what you need.

So, if you’re not getting the search results you want, try making a list of words relating to your topic (try to make them specific about what information you’re trying to find).  Then make a list of synonyms for those words:

History Example:

I’m supposed to write an essay on the secret police in the Soviet Union.

So, my keywords could include: secret police, Soviet Union.

Here are my synonyms for those words:

  • Russia
  • USSR
  • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
  • NKVD
  • People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs

 Foods and Nutrition Example:

I need to find information on the benefits of alternative treatments for type two diabetes (i.e. other than insulin).

So, my keywords could include diabetes, alternative treatment, and benefits.

Here are my synonyms for those words:

  • diabetes, type 2 (word order matters!)
  • diabetes mellitus
  • alternative treatments
  • alternative therapy/therapies (plurals matter!)
  • diet (a form of alternative therapy)
  • nutrition
  • nutrition therapy
  • exercise
  • common words like ‘benefits’, ‘advantages’, etc. often aren’t helpful as keywords since they appear in so many articles. Use with caution (or skip altogether!)

Now I have a whole range of words to try in online databases, in the library catalogue, etc. Note that spelling (i.e. Canadian versus American), plurals, and word order matter.

If you need help coming up with your words, here are some places you can look:

  • Brescia’s handy research guides, which provide suggested keywords by subject area (here’s an example from Foods, and one from English).
  • Your textbook
  • Wikipedia (just for the keywords!)
  • Google (again, just for the keywords!)
  • An online encyclopedia

I advise you not to search for library material while coming up with your keywords – it can lead to frustration and wasted time!

Note: This blog post was updated from a prior post on Keywords, developed by Heather Campbell.