bare bones lesson 6: Creating a search strategy



"Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind."
             --Marsten Bates, 1967


It's always a good idea to THINK about your search before you begin. Create a search strategy in your head by asking yourself this question:

What do I want to do?

  1. Browse?
  2. Locate a specific piece of information?
  3. Retrieve everything I can on the subject?

Your answer will determine how you conduct your search and what tools you will use.

  1. If you're browsing and trying to determine what's available in your subject area, start out by selecting a subject directory like Yahoo! Then, enter your search keyword(s) into one of the metasearch engines, such as Vivisimo, just to see what's out there.
  2. If you're looking for a specific piece of information, go to a major search engine such as Google, or to a specialized database such as Bureau of the Census (for statistics).
  3. If you want to retrieve everything you can on a subject, try the same search on several search engines. Also, don't forget to check resources off the Web, such as books, newspapers, journals and other print reference sources.


In your search statement, if you enter more than one keyword without using any accompanying sign, mark or symbol (see Lesson 7 and Lesson 8 for explanations and examples), the search engine will automatically add either the AND or the OR conjunction to link your search terms together. This could radically alter your search in unexpected ways. Be sure you know the defaults (basic settings) of the search engine you are using, as this could explain why your search results may not be what you expected them to be.

Strange things can happen for other reasons as well. Sometimes the relevance ranking systems that search engines use (and which they are reluctant to reveal), can throw off your search by ignoring some of the words in your search statement. This might happen when the search engine recognizes your string of separate keywords as a phrase in its list of pre-determined phrases or when it is responding to its own internal list of "stop words" (see below). Whatever the case, you may never know the real reason why your search retrieves so many irrelevant responses.


Stop words are words that many search engines DON'T stop for when searching texts and titles on the web. In fact, in order to cut down on response time, these engines routinely ignore stop words, i.e., small and common words, such as parts of speech (adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, or forms of  "to be"). Examples include: a, about, an, and, are, as, at, be, by, from, how, i, in, is, it, of, on, or, that, the, this, to, we, what, when, where, which, with, etc. Not all search engines recognize the same stop words. In addition, their lists can and do change frequently. If you initiate a search at a site that maintains a list of stop words and you type any of those words into your search statement (even in phrases surrounded by quotes), they may well continue to be ignored. An exception to this is Google, which has a stop word list but recognizes stop words within phrases surrounded by quotation marks, e.g., "to be or not to be" or "what you see is what you get".


When structuring your query, keep the following tips in mind:
[NOTE: See Lesson 7 for an explanation of the signs and marks used below.]

  • Be specific
        EXAMPLE:    Hurricane Hugo 
  • Whenever possible, use nouns and objects as keywords
        EXAMPLE:    fiesta dinnerware plates cups saucers
  • Put most important terms first in your keyword list; to ensure that they will be searched, put a +sign in front of each one
        EXAMPLE:    +hybrid +electric +gas +vehicles
  • Use at least three keywords in your query
        EXAMPLE:    interaction vitamins drugs 
  • Combine keywords, whenever possible, into phrases
        EXAMPLE:    "search engine tutorial"
  • Avoid common words, e.g., water, unless they're part of a phrase
        EXAMPLE:    "bottled water"
  • Think about words you'd expect to find in the body of the page, and use them as keywords
        EXAMPLE:    anorexia bulimia eating disorder
  • Write down your search statement and revise it before you type it into a search engine query box
        EXAMPLE:   +"south carolina" +"financial aid" +applications  +grants


Assume you are about to start looking for work and need to write a cover letter. What search string would you use? Go to Google and select a few of the following strings to search:

  1. "cover letter" "job search"
  2. "cover letter" +resume
  3. "cover letter" +template +form
  4. "cover letter" +example
  5. "cover letter" +sample "helpful tips"

Scan the results page for each search you conduct and see if you can tell which searches seem to be the most productive and why.

Evaluating Web Pages                                   Search Tips

[Table of Contents] [Search Engines] [Metasearchers] [Subject Directories] [Gateways & Databases] [Evaluating Web Pages] [Search Strategies] [Search Tips] [Boolean Operators] [Field Searching] [Troubleshooting] [Ask] [Clusty] [Dogpile] [GigaBlast] [Google] [MSN Search] [Yahoo!] [Graveyard] [Final Exam] [Beyond Bones] [User Agreement]

Last updated by E. Chamberlain,Thursday October 09, 2014