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: search limits

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!

There are search limits that will help to make the process of searching a bit easier.  Please note that not all of these are used in every single database – I’ll just feature the most useful and popular ones here.  Before using them, though, make sure to check the “advanced search” page or the “search help” page of the database (or catalogue or Summon) you’re about to search.

  • Truncation*: putting an asterisk* on the end of a root word.  Doing so will retrieve all words that include the letters you put before the asterisk.Example: teach*
    This will find words like: teach, teacher, teachers, teaching, etc.
  • (Brackets): like BEDMAS, databases will search everything inside brackets before moving on to your next word.  They’re most helpful around “or” words, as it helps the computer search things more logically.
    • Examples: (I’ll use the keywords from the Keywords blog post)
      • (Russia OR Soviet Union OR USSR) AND (secret police OR NKVD OR People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)
      • (diabetes OR diabetes mellitus OR type two diabetes) AND (nutrition OR diet OR food) and (benefi* OR advantages)
    • So, typing this into a database, the computer will first retrieve all the articles that contain the words diabetes, diabetes mellitus or type two diabetes, and then will sort through those articles to find the ones about diet, food and nutrition.  You’ll notice I put truncation on “benefi” as then I’ll retrieve benefit, benefits, beneficial, etc.
  • “Quotation marks”: in some databases (Google Scholar in particular) and in Summon, it’s helpful to put quotation marks around words that need to show up together, as a unit.  This is a helpful feature if you’re concerned about word order, or searching something with common words in it.
    • Example: “green tea” or “Mary Queen of Scots”
    • Not putting quotation marks around “green tea” tells Google Scholar to search “green and tea” which could bring up a whole bunch of irrelevant results.
  • NOT: Not is actually a Boolean operator, but I don’t tend to tell beginning researchers about it.  As you can probably guess, using “not” will exclude results, so it’s important to use it only when absolutely necessary.  If you’re not careful, you may exclude very helpful resources.
    • Example: One time I was searching for diabetes research in a database, and results on “killer whales” kept coming up.  This was not so helpful.
    • (Note: in regular Google, there is a “not” function.  Instead of writing the word not, but a minus sign next to the word you want to exclude.  For example: diabetes -killer whales).
  • Left to right: Databases search left to right, like we read.  This means it’s important for you to put your most unique words first (i.e. the words that will bring up the fewest, or most relevant results).
  • case sensitivity: Databases and library catalogues are usually not case-sensitive

Use these tips to get more relevant searches, whether you’re looking in Summon, the library catalogue, online databases, or even in Google!