How can I get fewer search results?

I’m often asked for help when students’ searches have too many results: this can be very overwhelming.  I have a few tips for avoiding or dealing with this problem, all of which I’ve dealt with in separate blog posts:

1. Presearch – make a plan before you start to research.  Get to know your topic, and think about what type of information you’re looking for.  Then think about where you can find that information: what type of resource is best for what you’re looking for? (Books, Journals?) If Summon doesn’t give you what you need, what database should you try?

2. Keywords – make a list of the words you’re going to try to search with.  Make a list of synonyms for these words, too.  And keep track of the ones you’ve tried in Summon or in different databases so you know which words work and which words don’t.

3. Use Boolean Operators – adding more concepts with “and”, especially when searching for journal articles, will help you reduce the number of results you get.  For example, searching just “diabetes” will get you way more results than searching “diabetes AND prevention AND diet”

4. Use Search Limits – you want to make your search results as perfect as you can.  There are tools to help you do this quickly!

As you’ve probably already discovered, research is time consuming.  But nothing is more frustrating than getting hundreds of sort-of helpful, but mostly useless results.  If you’re still stuck after trying the above, make sure to ask for help at the library desk!

Getting relevant results: keywords

It’s impossible to get the most out of your search results without combining keywords, Boolean Operators and search tips – make sure to read all three blog posts!

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 are dumb and are bad at mind reading.  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:

  • Soviet Union
    • Russia
    • USSR
    • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
  • Secret Police
    • 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:

  • type two diabetes
    • diabetes, type 2 (word order matters)
    • diabetes mellitus
  • alternative treatment
    • alternative treatments
    • alternative therapy/therapies (plurals matter)
    • diet (a form of alternative therapy)
    • nutrition
    • nutrition therapy
    • exercise
  • benefits
    • Common words like “benefits,” “advantages”, etc, often aren’t helpful as keywords as 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:

  • 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!