Tuesday, 30 June 2015 12:53

Getting the Most Out of Advanced Search Techniques


The information super highway that we simply refer to as the ‘internet’ is estimated to contain at least 4.41 billion documents. As large as it may be, the number of people who seek out this information is also massive. Google statistics indicate that there are, “over 40,000 search queries every second on average, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.”

No doubt, finding what you want in this vast pool of information would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Search engines, which are the programs designed to search and retrieve documents from the internet, act as the gateway to exploring the online material. However, a search tool by itself may not ensure finding precise information. It is a combination of two elements; a search tool plus learning appropriate search techniques that will eventually ensure a successful online search.

What is a Search?

What do we mean by a search? As a source defines, a search is “the organized pursuit of information.” In an online platform, this refers to finding information you need on the internet. Internet searching is an iterative process where a person would repeatedly refine their search until they hit on the exact information they require or locate answers to their questions. A key problem that many people encounter when carrying out an online search is that their search either returns too many or too few records. While it can be very time-consuming to go through hundreds of sources, it could also be frustrating to receive limited results that do not fulfil your information requirement. In this aspect, careful construction of search strings (what you type into the search box) becomes necessary. Planning your search with appropriate search techniques, allows you to refine your search and receive what you want while saving both your time and effort.

Basic Search vs. Advanced Search

A basic search starts with a simple query. Simply by typing a single word or a phrase that we commonly refer to as ‘keywords’, a person carry out a basic search. This kind of search usually does not require any particular skill other than identifying few keywords related to what you are looking for and then typing it into the search box. This could lead to several results although the chances of what you want to find may depend on various factors. If it is a simple information requirement, one may be able to extract such information quickly by going through few results. On the contrary, if the information need is more significant where a person requires solid facts about a topic, there is a chance that the person could get lost in this vast pool of information. In this sense, searching the internet may require a person to take a step further in mastering advanced online search techniques.

Advanced search on the internet utilizes more sophisticated search techniques of online information to increase the chances of finding out what you want. These type of search techniques are useful particularly when carrying out a search using a search engine, database or a library catalogue. Using advanced search techniques allows you to either narrow or expand your search based on certain principles. In this way, a person can find what they want easily with less effort. Most search engines also offer several advanced search features for its users. It is worth exploring these features prior to embarking on learning advanced search techniques.

Techniques of Advanced Searching

USING KEYWORDS: This is the simplest way to search the internet. Identifying correct keywords for the topic is the backbone of every search. No matter which search technique you use, if the keywords identified are not related to the subject of concern, that search would retrieve irrelevant records. Identifying keywords may require you to run a quick search to see what’s available on the topic and make a list of them. Dictionaries, Thesauri’s, journal articles or any other material related to the subject can be useful in identifying possible search terms. Moreover, capital sensitivity should be considered when typing keywords into a search box. As some search engines are capital sensitive, it may return documents that have capitalized words only, leaving the documents that have uncapitalized words, narrowing the number of search results returned. It is always desirable to keep your search terms uncapitalized if you want to receive results from either form.

PHRASE SEARCHING: This allows you to use a phrase as your search term. It looks for words together as a group rather than seeking individual words separately. This type of searching is carried out through use of quotation marks or speech marks. Phrase searching becomes necessary in instances where two words put together makes more sense than searching each word individually. The following example shows that when taken individually the terms may denote different meanings, retrieving completely irrelevant results.


“distance learning” 

“drug addiction”

PROXIMITY SEARCHING: This allows you to search for words within close proximity or within a certain distance of another. W and N are the symbols used in proximity searches. W represent the word “within” while N represents the word “Near”. A proximity operator is composed by using a symbol (W or N) and adding a number in front of it (to specify the number of words).

Search using proximity operators

Near Operator (N) – N5 indicates that the search has to be within five words of one another, regardless of the order in which they appear.

Within Operator (W) – W5 indicate that the search has to find words if they are within five words of one another, in the order in which you entered them.

BOOLEAN SEARCHING: Boolean operators are used for linking or combining search terms. In this way, a search engine, a database or a catalogue will know what you are looking for while making your search fast and efficient.

The most common Boolean operators include AND, OR and NOT.

AND – This Boolean operator is used to narrow a search by retrieving documents that contain all your keywords. When you use AND between your keywords, it will return records that have all the keywords you type, be it two, three or more.


Literacy AND Africa

Literary AND children AND Africa

OR – This Boolean operator is used if you want to find either of the keywords in your search term. This is useful particularly when your search term has synonyms. When you use OR in between the search terms, it will retrieve documents that have either of the terms, obtaining more results. More than two words can be joined together using OR.


Sleep disorder OR insomnia

dogs or cats

NOT – This eliminates the documents containing a particular term. Note that some databases expect the word AND to be added in front of the NOT, so you may need to refer to individual help section in databases, catalogues, etc.


Cats NOT leopards

Pets NOT dogs

NESTING OR NESTED SEARCHES: This is when we combine several search techniques such as Boolean operators, phrase searching, truncation, synonyms, wildcards to create more complex search strategies.  Each part of the research topic is considered separately when formulating a nesting search. This is considered as a complex search technique and it is advisable to use it only if you know how to use it correctly. Wrong usage can lead to loosing relevant search results.


The use of multimedia technologies in higher education

A search for this topic is as follows:

"multimedia technolog*" AND ("higher education" OR universit*)

TRUNCATION: Truncation symbol (*) allows you to search for a range of words within the same root in a search engine or a database. Using truncation, a search can be designed to retrieve a range of words that has the same word stem.


Child* - Child, Children, Childhood

Bank* - Bank, Banking, Bankrupt

Teen* - Teen, Teens, Teenager

WILDCARDS: Wildcard symbols, usually a question mark (?) or an asterisk (*), can vary from one database to another. This allows you to substitute a character as a stand-in for any word or letter in a keyword.


Transfer?able     - would retrieve transferable and transferrable

Wom?n                - would retrieve woman and women

Globali?ation      -would retrieve globalisation and globalization


The search techniques that you should use to search for online information very much depends on the type of material you require. If you are conducting serious research for an academic paper, thesis, etc., you may need to consider advanced search techniques that are listed above. On the contrary, if you require to conduct a quick search to find out information on a general topic, typing few keywords into a search box would do the job.  The bottom line is that there is no fixed way to conduct an effective internet search. If you type a few keywords and find what you want, then your search is successful. If not, you can keep refining your search until you hit the jackpot although it may be time consuming. Advanced search techniques becomes useful particularly when you have to carry out a specific search with less time and effort. Yet, advanced search technique itself will not ensure finding precise, authoritative information on a given topic. Careful evaluation of Internet resources using your critical thinking and common sense will also play a significant role in this regard. 



World's leading professional association of Internet Research Specialists - We deliver Knowledge, Education, Training, and Certification in the field of Professional Online Research. The AOFIRS is considered a major contributor in improving Web Search Skills and recognizes Online Research work as a full-time occupation for those that use the Internet as their primary source of information.

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