Identifying effective keywords

This resource will help you recognise the importance of keywords for your online search and provide some basic guidelines to identifying effective keywords.

What is a keyword?

A keyword is a word or phrase that is used to facilitate an online search for information using search engines such as Google. A keyword represents the essence of the content that you are looking for. It can either work as the kernel of the search queries or be the search query itself. A search query or search term is the actual word or phrase that you type in the search engines to find content associated with specific questions or topics. Identifying keywords is an important step in planning your search.

For example, you might want to look for a used laptop and start with the keywords 'second-hand laptop'. Your search queries might include the exact keyword, its variation such as 'laptop second-hand', or more specific forms such as 'black second-hand laptop', 'laptop second-hand 2016', 'second-hand laptop Wollongong', etc.

Plan your search to find what you need

It is helpful to plan how to research and find information on your topic before you start searching. Below is a simple four-step plan which will help you find useful and relevant information and save you time. This plan will work in many different search interfaces including the Library search engine, Google, and all Library databases.

1: Break down the question

With your assessment task question in front of you ask yourself:

  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What else do I need to find out to answer the question?
  • What is the question asking me to do?
  • Do I understand all the words in the question?

2. Identify the right search words

Choosing the right words to search for information about your topic is not always simple and you won't always get it right the first time.

When selecting search words:

  • Start with the most obvious search words in your assessment task question. These will be single words (i.e., environment) or phrases with two or more words (i.e., 'climate change').
  • Next think about alternative search words. This is important because people use different words to describe the same thing (i.e., 'global warming' instead of 'climate change'). Think of synonyms, or related words which are still relevant to your topic.
  • Don't use instructional words (discuss, explain) or prepositions (to, of, for) in your search. These will not help you find information on your topic.

Try our search word generator to help work through this process of identifying effective search words. You can use one of your own assessment tasks, or the example given within this activity. (i.e. Impact of online bullying on adolescents in Australia)

3: Choose the right search tool for your needs

Some search tools are better suited to finding specific kinds of information. For example, library databases are primarily used to find academic journal articles and academic information, whereas Google is best suited to finding information from a broader range of non-academic sources. Below is a general guide on different types of information you may need, and the best tools to use to find it.

  • For academic journal articles: library databases, Library SEARCH, Google Scholar
  • For academic books: Library SEARCH
  • For government information: Google (try using an advanced search to limit your search to results from the domain, library databases. Try the tips in our government information guide.
  • For industry information, patents, and standards: library databases (try the tips contained in our companies and Industries, patents, and standards guides).
  • For historical information: archives, library databases, Google, Library SEARCH
  • For social commentary: Google (use it to find blog or other social media posts of interest)
  • For newspapers: Library SEARCH, Library databases, Google (some newspapers have made their archives publicly available), Trove database. Try the tips in our newspapers guide.
  • For statistics: library databases, ABS website (try the tips in our statistics guide).

Always think about what you want to find, and how to find it (i.e. what is the most appropriate search engine to use). If you are unsure, you can ask us via the Live Chat on the library website.

4: Enter your search words and review your results list

You will have to experiment with your search words, try entering the main search words from your assessment task question into the search engine of your choice (see note below) and click search.

There are clever ways to include your alternative search words at the same time. If you would like to know more try the activity in step 2, or contact UOW Library at 'Ask Us'.

If you're getting too many results or the results are not relevant, you need to try refining your search. This is a normal part of the search process, and it's common to refine your search several times to find the best information for your needs.

Here is an infographic to help plan your search.

Further resources