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October 15, 2013 / Charlie McNabb

Search Strategies

Are you a student needing to write a paper, or a scholar working on research?  Or are you an avid Googler?  Whatever your information needs are, I bet you sometimes come up empty handed and get frustrated with searching.  Throughout my MLIS program, I’ve learned some great searching tips and I’m going to share them here.

First, a brief discussion of the search process: Carol Kuhlthau (1991) conceptualized the Information Search Process (ISP) model as having six distinct stages, each with an affective, cognitive, and action component.  In the initiation stage, the searcher often feels uncertain and thoughts are vague and unformed; as they locate background information, they can move on to the second stage: selection.  Selection occurs when the searcher identifies their topic and information need, and is generally accompanied by a feeling of optimism.  The third stage, exploration, is characterized by doubt, frustration, and confusion as the searcher investigates their topic and attempts to locate relevant information.  At this stage, many searchers give up because they fail to find what they need.  However, if the searcher is able to form a successful query and locate relevant information, they can move on to the formulation stage, in which they narrow their focus and begin to form a perspective on their topic.  In this stage, the searcher’s anxiety lessens and they gain confidence as they add new information to their knowledge base.  In the fifth stage, collection, the searcher actually gathers information to support their research focus.  Confidence continues to increase as the searcher synthesizes resources and gains clarity.  Finally, in the presentation stage, the searcher actually uses the findings—perhaps for a research paper or to make a decision.  If the search was successful, feelings of relief and satisfaction are common.

All this to say: during an information search, feelings of anxiety, doubt, frustration, and uncertainty are universal.  In fact, these feelings help direct us to formulate different questions and try new search strategies.  Don’t give up your search if you aren’t finding relevant resources or if your original idea is unsupported!  It may be a matter of refining your search technique or allowing a new idea to blossom.

So, how does one improve their search strategy?  I’ve compiled some tips, thanks to the information scholars listed below and excellent SJSU professors Mary Bolin and Michelle Holschuh Simmons.

  • Berry-picking (Bates, 1989): Most searches constantly evolve, as the searcher encounters information that inspires new directions.  Because your research question changes as new information is introduced, you should change your search query to reflect these new ideas and information needs.  This is called berry-picking because the searcher picks bits of information here and there, rather than just grabbing a bunch at once.
  • Pearl growing (Meadow & Cochrane, 1981): Sometimes you already have one great source.  When you find something that is highly relevant, exploit it to find more like it.  Look at the keywords, subject headings, and authors and change your search query accordingly.  You can grow a “pearl” of related sources with a grain of relevant information.
  • Citation chaining (Bates, 1989): Another technique when you already have one relevant source.  Look at the references to find related sources.  This is particularly helpful when you are compiling a literature review and need authoritative sources in a particular discipline or research area.  Once you skim a few bibliographies or reference lists, the big names pop out at you.
  • Boolean logic (Bell, 2007): The AND operator is the intersection of two sets, so this focuses your search rather than widening it.  The OR operator will bring up either of two terms, or both.  The NOT operator will ignore any sources with that term.
  • Controlled vocabulary (Bell, 2007): Searching by subject headings is my favorite strategy.  Many searchers don’t realize that the “subject” field in a database only works with very specific language called a controlled vocabulary.  We’ve been conditioned by Google to just input the words we think express our search query.  To get really relevant results, you’ll have to locate the thesaurus used in your particular database in order to find the correct subject headings.  Often, you’ll see a link to the Library of Congress Subject Headings list, or many databases will autofill with suggestions when you start typing.  Another way to locate subject headings relevant to your search is to use the pearl growing strategy to look up the subject headings for a relevant source you already have.
  • Truncation (Bell, 2007): What if you’re looking for articles about roller skating and you want a really broad search?  You could perform several distinct searches using the keywords “roller skates,” “roller skating,” “roller skater,” and “roller skate.”  But that would take forever!  Instead, you can use truncation to perform one search for all of those word variations.  Simply cut off the part of the word that varies and replace it with an asterisk (“roller skat*”).
  • Google searches (Babauta, 2007): You can use Boolean operators: + for AND, – for NOT, and | for OR.  Use quotes for exact phrases (“exact phrase”).  You can search for specific file types with the “filetype:” operator (filetype:pdf will locate pdf files of whatever you’re searching for, for example).  There are a LOT more excellent search tips, including vertical searching, site specific searching, and number algorithms; you should probably just check out the whole post:

I hope these tips help you find what you’re looking for!  Do you have any other great search strategies?  Share them in the comments!


Babauta, L. (2007). 20 tips for more efficient Google searches.

Bates, M. (1989). The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface. Online Review 13, 407-424.

Bell, S. (2007). What every searcher should know and use.  Online 31(5), 22-27.

Kuhlthau, C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective.  Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Meadow, C.T. & Cochrane, P. (1981). Basics of online searching. New York: Wiley.


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