Advanced Searching Techniques

Earlier this year, I covered Google Image Searching and Boolean with a focus on how it can vary pending the database and search engine.  However, these are but two important methods to locating information.  Today I plan to introduce several more.

Each of the following search strategies are designed to work with both databases and online search engines.


Truncation is also known as stemming and is used to search for alternative forms of a keyword.  Alternatives include singular, plural, adjective, and adverb forms of the keyword.  A truncation symbol, or asterisk, (*),  is used at the end of a keyword to find multiple forms of the keyword.  The stem, or part of the word before the *, does not need to be a word; it can be part of a word.  Don’t make stems too short, such as cat* (the search won’t know if you mean cat, catalog, or category!).

Example:  Librar* will search library, libraries, librarian, librarians, and other variations.


Wildcards are another method for finding variations of a keyword.  Instead of focusing on a keyword’s ending, it is used in the middle of a word to find variants.  This works great with some plurals and to ensure both American and Queen’s English variants are located.  Again an asterisk (*) can  be used, but there are also databases that use a pound sign (#) or question mark (?) instead.  If you try searching with one and it doesn’t work, try another.

Example for plurals: Wom*n will search woman and women.

Example for English variants: harb*r will search harbor (American English) and harbour (Queen’s English).

Exact Phrase

In searching for an exact phrase, the words forming the phrase are enclosed in quotation marks (” “).  This ensures the words are located together and in that order.  Failure to use quotation marks (except in rare cases with Google) means the desired words are found in any order and/or location within the document.

Example:  searching “Four score and twenty years ago” will ensure the phrase searches for the Gettysburg Address or documents related to it.  If the quotes were left out, it would look for any document with the words four; score; and; twenty; years; and ago.


Nesting combines the various methods mentioned here and in my earlier Boolean post.  It allows for extremely detailed searching.

Here’s an example.  I’ll explain next.

Example: (“iron curtain” or “finest hour“) and “Winston Churchill”

In this search string, we want either the Sir Winston Churchill speech about the “Iron Curtain” given in 1949 or his earlier “Their Finest Hour” from 1940.  Both are regarded as two of his best speeches.  Had the search been written as “iron curtain” or “finest hour” and “Winston Churchill” it would have completely changed the search so it would be:  “iron curtain” or (“finest hour” and “Winston Churchill”). Instead of for looking for documents containing or referencing the two speeches, it would look for anything iron curtain or anything (“finest hour” and “Winston Churchill”), with the former not having any relating to Churchill.  Nesting the speeches ensures that all results pertain to one or both of those speeches and Churchill.  This one is a bit hard to explain without an in-person demonstration, so did I confuse anyone?  If so, please comment and I’ll do my best to elaborate further.


In future posts on searching/researching (in 2013), I plan to introduce more search techniques, evaluation assistance, more about locating images, and guidelines for specific databases.  I hope to have a searching- or research-related post about once a month.  In fact, the posts will kick off January 7 with posts every other week in January to create a “grand opening” for my new project.  My “Researcher’s Corner” will give these posts a home outside my blog’s archive.  For those of you not following the blog by e-mail or RSS, you might have noticed the soft debut of “Researcher’s Corner” tab two weeks ago with two old posts and links to several favorite reference websites.  This will be the third added post.  Until the other posts debut, I have several posts related to upcoming events, including a special one to begin the new year.

Do you have any questions about these methods?


7 thoughts on “Advanced Searching Techniques

  1. Thanks for taking the time to provide this practical information. About the asterisk for creating wild cards, I tried searching wom*n in “the past hour” tool in google, and mostly received results for “wom.” I received one for “woman’s.” Just wondering if you might have any ideas why it didn’t seem to work so well that time.

    • You’re welcome!

      About your example in Google, I just tried recreating it. I had the same problem. I also tried you keyword for several other time frames. In my tests where I don’t limit the keyword wom*n to a time frame, it works perfectly. I checked Google’s official search help page, but it still suggests using an asterisk, so I don’t think substituting a different symbol will help. While I’m not a hundred percent sure, it might be that when a specific time frame is added, Google removes the other search techniques from the picture. Why am I thinking this? None of the other techniques I mentioned in this post worked when limited by a time frame, but did without one. Does this help?

  2. Pingback: Advanced Searching Techniques | All things library |

    • Glad it helped! And I’m glad you brought the situation up; otherwise I wouldn’t have realized that difference. At least this way, if someone reads the comments, they know another search tip.

  3. Pingback: Advanced Searching Techniques | Future of Libraries: Beyond Gutenberg |

  4. Pingback: Hidden Search Tricks and Tips | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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