Learn how search syntax works
Search syntax is a set of rules describing how users can query the database being searched. Sophisticated syntax makes for a better search, one where the items retrieved are mostly relevant to the searcher's need and important items are not missed. It allows a user to look for combinations of terms, exclude other terms, look for various forms of a word, include synonyms, search for phrases rather than single words. The main tools of search syntax are these:
- Boolean logic
- Boolean logic allows the use of AND, OR and NOT to search for items containing both terms, either term, or a term only if not accompanied by another term. The links below and all the Web search engines "search help" have a lot of good examples of Boolean logic. Tip: NOT can be dangerous. Let's say you want to search for items about Mexico, but not New Mexico, so you use NOT to exclude the word "New" from your retrieved set. This would prevent you from retrieving an article about "New regulations in Mexico" because it contained the word "New," though that wasn't what you intended.
- Wildcards and truncation
- This involves substituting symbols for certain letters of a word so that the search engine will retrieve items with any letter in that spot in the word. The syntax may allow a symbol in the middle of a word (wildcard) or only at the end of the word (truncation). This feature makes it easier to search for related word groups, like "woman" and "women" by using a wildcard such as "wom*n." Truncation can be useful to search for a group of words like "invest, investor, investors, investing, investment, investments" by submitting "invest*" rather than typing in all those terms separated by OR's. The only problem is that "invest*" will also retrieve "investigate, investigated, investigator, investigation, investigating." The trick, then is to combine terms with an AND such as "invest*" AND "stock* or bond* or financ* or money" to try and narrow your retrieved set to the kind of documents you're looking for.
- Phrase searching
- Many concepts are represented by a phrase rather than a single word. In order to successfully search for a term like "library school" it's important that the search engine allow syntax for phrase searching. Otherwise, instead of getting documents about library schools you could be getting documents about school libraries or documents where the word "library" and "school" both appear but have nothing to do with a library school.
- This allows the user to find documents only if the search terms appear near each other, within so many words or paragraphs, or adjacent to each other. It's a pretty sophisticated tool and can be tricky to use skillfully. Many times you can accomplish about the same result using phrase searching.
- When searching for proper names, search syntax that will distinguish capital from lower case letters will help narrow the search. In other cases, you would want to make sure the search engine isn't looking for a particular pattern of capitalization, and many search engines let you choose which of these options to use.
- Field searching
- All database records are divided up into fields. Almost all search engines in CD-ROM or online library products and the more sophisticated Web search engines allow users to search for terms appearing in a particular field. This can help immensely when you're looking for a very specific item. Say that you're looking for a psychology paper by a professor from the University of Michigan and all you remember about the paper is that it had something about Freud and Jung in its title. If you think it may be on the Web, you can do a search in Alta Vista, searching for "Freud" AND "Jung" and limit your search to the "umich.edu" domain, which gives you a pretty good chance of finding it, if it's there.
Make sure you know what content you're searching
The content of the database will affect your search strategy and the search syntax you use to retrieve documents. Some of the different databases you'll encounter in your library and online research are:
- Representation or summary of a document
- If a document has been summarized, like a library catalog entry where certain features like title and author have been recorded along with a sentence or two of description, don't expect to retrieve the document by looking for keywords in the text. A search is only searching what's in the database—the representation, not the document itself. Consult the section on searching the library catalog for further details.
- Index and abstract of a document
- When a document like a journal article has been indexed and an abstract written, a human indexer has helped organize the document for easy retrieval. He or she chosen some words, phrases and concepts which represent the subject matter of the document and has attached those to the database record as "descriptors." The specific terms usually come from a book of terms used by that database producer, to promote consistency between indexers.
- The indexer, or possibly the author of the article, has written an abstract or summary of the article's content which is included in the database. Again, it's important to realize that you're not searching the entire text of the document but someone's representation of the document. If you can zero in on some of the database's descriptors which accurately describe the topic you're looking for, you can easily retrieve all the articles with the same descriptors. If you do a keyword search in this type of database without checking the permissible descriptors, you're hoping that the indexer will have used your keyword in the summary or that the author will have used it in the title of the article.
- Full text of a document
- Searching full text documents gives you a good chance of retrieving the document you want, provided you can think of some key words and phrases which would have been included in the text. The problem is retrieving too many documents when you're looking for something particular, because common words and concepts can appear in documents irrelevant to your topic. This is one of the problems with internet search engines which index the full text of Web pages. The more skilled you can become in your use of search syntax, the greater will be your success in finding relevant information in a full text database.
Online resources for learning search skills
Most of what you need to know is covered by several online tutorials listed at Links for Research—Other Resources - Web and internet tutorials. There is a lot of specific help with search syntax published by each of the search engines, since they all differ in their syntax. See the Links for Research—Search Engines for links to the search help pages.
A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz