Keywords and Queries

Tutorial Directory

Unlocking Keywords

Nothing works more quickly to find digital information than well-chosen keywords entered into a search engine. Keywords that return hundreds of thousands of hits, however, are weak. Strong keyword combinations narrow search results effectively. Thoughtful keyword selection is the fluent searcher's most powerful tool. A powerful keyword combination is the fastest path to relevant information--unless you already know where the information is located.

Finding the right combination of keywords:

  • Before searching, create lists of keywords that describe the topic
  • Use a thesaurus to discover more word choices
  • Generate synonyms for the concept
  • Use search engines that provide suggested queries as you type in the search box

Keyword Strategies:

Less is always more when it comes to searching with keywords. Generally speaking, use more than one keyword but not more than five. Two terms broadens the results better than three, giving you more contextual clues to browse, so if you are unsure about where to look, start with two to three unique terms in a query. A query is simply the terms entered into a search engine.

Unique matters! There are three unique types terms: Proper Nouns, Numbers and Professional Vocabulary.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

Proper Nouns like 'yellowstone' or 'agatha christie' have few other meanings. Compare this to 'bears' which has many meanings. If you are looking for the national football team, use the combination 'chicago bears.' Capitalization doesn't matter for most search engines.

Numbers also make unique search terms. Depending how they are used, numbers have limited meanings. For example, '1776' is synonymous with the American Revolution. When used with Merchandise Mart, '222' is an address; it won't mean much else.

Professional vocabulary is also an excellent source of powerful keywords. Discipline-specific terms that are used almost exclusively by the experts such as "stellar cartography" or "seismic hazards" retrieve discipline-specific information. These words are unique and descriptive. Combining professional terms in meaningful ways make powerful queries.

It is not always necessary to look up professional vocabulary in a thesaurus. It is possible to find them in query results. Skim snippets for new words that better describe what you are looking for. The right descriptive term is often included in snippets. Keep an eye out for unique terms; you might even not know what they mean. It pays to look up unfamiliar words in search results, as these may be important terms in a specialized field.

Refine your keywords based on preliminary results

snippet example showing better keywords

Shown above: Snippet example for the query population buffalo north america note the professional language (bison).

Scanning the 'snippets' (abstracts or summaries) returned by your first searches can give you good ideas for keyword refinement. You might notice an evocative phrase that better describes your target. Additionally some search engines, Such as Google, identify associated keywords when they return results. Combining these techniques can quickly get you focused on power words for your search.

Substituting a more specific term for a general one in the original query will narrow the search results. For example, if your search results are still too broad, try using hyponyms--more specific terms such as statistics bison. If the results are two narrow, use hypernyms--more general or broad terms, such as number bison.


Google and engines like it, are no longer limited by spelling mistakes. But if you use a search engine that returns no results, check your spelling. There are still hundreds if not thousands of search engines that only do literal matching. Alternate spellings may return a selection of results that might be missed otherwise. Consider the differences in American vs. British spelling. Will the keyword 'catalog' yield the same results as catalogue?

British American
programme program
colour color
theatre theater
aeroplane airplane
defence defense
Example: Try searching for 'Shakespear' on Google. This spelling returns about 600,000 hits (in 2003 it was only 52,000). Google suggests the correct spelling: 'Shakespeare.' Searching with this spelling returns 134 million hits (3 million in 2003--how about that for an information explosion?). You'll always want to narrow your search with combinations of keywords, but don't presume that pages using an alternate spelling are of no value. Ultimately it is the content of the resource, rather than minor spelling variations that counts.

What is full text vs. field searching?

Full text searching is the most common type of searching. The search engine examines the complete content (full text) of Webpages to locate words that match your search query.

Field Searching takes place at a higher level of organization. Field searching is like using the author or title field in a card catalog. Just like a card catalog, Webpages have important descriptive fields within the hidden HTML code. These 'fields' include descriptive titles, headings and the site's URL. Using special operators, a field search looks only at the title or headings or URL of a Webpage. This strategy assumes that keywords found in these parts of a page have a high degree of relevance.

Different search engines provide unique syntax to aid field searching. Using the operator title: you can search only the title field in search engines that use that operator. You can do the same thing for titles using the allintitle: operator. If a keyword is part of a title, it may be particularly relevant.

When to use a thesaurus

A traditional thesaurus or an online tool can be a powerful tool when you are seeking just the right keywords for your search.

Example: The Visual Thesaurus: Visuwords. This online tool displays synonyms in a unique 3-D environment. Other tools are also available but may require a subscription.

Juggling word order

Some engines give more weight to the first keyword in a query. In this case it makes sense to place the most unique or important keyword first.

Try varying the order of keywords. When doing this, avoid the use of quotation marks, or operators such as AND, OR, NOT that work to control word order.

Example: Do different keyword combinations return the same results?

blues music
music blues

Does word order matter? (try it using several search engines)

Stop words

To improve retrieval times or conserve storage space, some older search engines exclude the most common words from their databases. Search engines like Google may record every word, so eliminating stop words only saves time typing. Here are some words typically treated as stop words:

a an and are as at
be but by for from had
have in is it of the

Removing stop words from a sentence has little impact on the meaning of the sentence or the speed of current search engines. If the word 'the' is removed from the sentence: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, a search engine will look for: quick brown fox jumped over lazy dog. The elimination of the stop word 'the' doesn't change the meaning of the sentence or the likelihood that the search engine will find relevant pages.

By skipping stop words, you do save time typing useless terms.

Understanding nyms for power searching

When striving to name a concept with great precision, it helps to understand the subtleties of nyms. The root nym comes from the Greek onoma, a name. We use the term nym to identify many classes of words. As keywords, some nyms have a definite impact on your search results.

Hyponyms more specific names such as Ford, Chevrolet, or Toyota, which will narrow a search.
Hypernyms more general or broad terms, such car, truck, or automobile, which will widen the results of a search.
Heteronyms words that are spelled identically, but change meanings when pronounced differently. Consider: buffet BUFFet - to pound or bump; booFAY - place where you serve yourself; dove DUV - a bird; DOHVE - jumped off; wind WHINEd - to coil up; WINd - the blowing air
Homonyms words that have the same sound but a completely different meaning. Misspelling these common words can create confusion. Consider: ACTS= things done/chopping tool; RACKET= illegal moneymaking scheme/or bat for tennis; RIGHT correct/ rite or ritual/wright=a maker write= to inscribe
Contronyms (also called Janus words) words which confound a search because they are words with the same spelling and contradictory meanings. Consider: buckle: to hold together (e.g. buckle your belt) vs. to fall apart (e.g., buckle under pressure); cool: positive sense (cool web-sites) vs. negative sense (cool reception); transparent: easily seen ("His motives were transparent.") invisible.

For more about these concepts see the IMSA MicroModule: Nyms

Authored by Dennis O'Connor 2003 | Revised in 2015 by Carl Heine