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Library Subject Guides

Searching for information: a practical guide

Search skills

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.
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When you're searching for academic information you're likely going to have to do multiple searches across different aspects of the topic you're researching. Depending on the level you're at, you may be able to get away with a relatively simple bit of searching on Google Scholar or you may have to perform several different searches on several different databases.

Some basic principles

When faced with a search box, it's useful to know:

  • ...what is being searched;
  • ...how the words you enter are being interpreted;
  • ...whether there are any advanced techniques you can use;
  • ...how the results are being sorted.

On the following pages we'll consider the above with a particular focus on academic sources and the sort of interfaces you might have to deal when researching a piece of academic writing.

An example

Take the search box on this page, for instance. It takes you to a Google search for site:subjectguides.york.ac.uk/ and any search terms you've used. To return to our above prompts:

  • It's searching any pages that start subjectguides.york.ac.uk/ that Google has managed to find and index (so not necessarily the whole site);
  • Google's algorithm is complicated but it will generally try to match the terms you entered against content on the page. It might then start guessing and bringing up pages with similar terms or terms that mean the same sort of thing, and if you've entered more than one word, it might start ignoring some of your search entirely;
  • One advanced technique it's using is the site: restriction. There may be others you could use;
  • The results are being ordered by 'relevance' based on how well the page matches your search term. Other factors like how recent the page was written may also come into play. Google's algorithm is elaborate and secret so we don't know precisely what's involved.

Some of that may seem obvious, but not all search engines will behave in the same way. And some may have additional options that let you precisely control how they work, to better enable you to find what you're looking for.

In this section of the Guide we'll break down those basic principles in more detail:

Preparing your search

How to translate your research question into a search so that the database can interpret your needs.


Advanced techniques

Going that extra step to getting exactly what you're after...


Sifting through results

In the next section we'll look at our results in more detail.


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