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Quick Reference: Search Engines

Quick answers online, using dictionaries, search engines, news sites, translators, etc.

Search Engines

There are three main popular search engines: Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Each search engine has its own strengths.

Created by Information Commons student Kimbra Shaner.

Goldilocks Dilemma

Feeling a little overwhelmed by your search?Bike overloaded with packages

Information overload is a real thing!

If you are getting back too many results:

  • Be more specific with your search terms
    • Select narrower, more specific search terms
    • Add additional terms and connect with AND
    • Use quotation marks with phrases
    • Use subject headings instead of keywords
  • Utilize the search limiters
    • Search within the Abstract or Title fields specifically
    • Limit to a certain date range
    • Limit to certain types of publications
  • Search within a more narrow database
    • Instead of searching in the very large, multidisciplinary databases, search in a smaller subject-specific one

Heavy Overload / baskets on a moto by dee_. Used underCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Frustrated by a lack of relevant search results?Frustrated guy

If your search doesn't return results, it's (normally) because you are searching:

  • With problematic terms
  • In the wrong place
  • For something that doesn't exist

If you are not getting back enough results:

  • Work with your search terms
    • Is everything spelled correctly?
    • Is there an alternative term that would work (examples: automobile instead of car or middle school instead of junior high)
    • Select terms that are more broad (example: Midwest instead of Indiana).  
    • If you had multiple search terms, try reducing the number of terms. If you had been connecting terms with AND, try using OR instead.
    • Try using a truncation symbol to give the search flexibility
  • Remove search limiters
  • Make sure you are searching in a appropriate place
    • Use the About or Help feature to learn more about the database. Make sure the subject and coverage are appropriate for your search.
    • Try searching in a large, multidisciplinary database like Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, or Google Scholar.
  • Take a break and try again later. 
  • If you are still struggling, ask a librarian!  

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive I day 244) by Sybren Stuvel. Used underCC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Two is better than one

Think about it: search engines crawl thousands, maybe even millions and billions, of pages or records trying to match your search term with results. You're going to be absolutely overwhelmed with results if you only enter a single search term. You're also going to find a lot of completely irrelevant stuff.

So how can you improve your chances?  

Come up with multiple search terms and combine them using the options described here.

Venn diagram highlighting the area of overlap between the two circles.

Combining search terms with AND will:

  • Reduce the number of results
  • Make the search focus more specifically on your topic

Search for "college student"  = 1.2 billion results 

Search for politics = 296 million resultsAdvanced search examples show how to select AND to connect multiple search terms

Search for "college student" AND politics = 43 million results more focused on your topic

Search for "college student" AND politics AND "2008 election" = 543,000 more relevant results

Combining search terms with OR will:

  • Expand your search and increase number of results
  • Give your search flexibility to find alternate terms

Search for film  = 601,786 resultsEBSCO search for movie or film

Search for movie = 199,781 results 

Search for film OR movie  = 642,906 results that mention either film or movie, or both

Search for "middle school" = 21,401 results that mention "middle school"EBSCO search for "middle school" or "junior high"

Search for "junior high" = 7,261 results

Search for "middle school" OR "junior high" = 28,177 results that mention either "middle school" or "junior high", or both

Combining search terms with NOT will:

  • Decrease your search results
  • Increase the relevancy of your results by telling the search to exclude certain terms

Search for "Hunger Games"  = 745 results Demonstrates the advanced search "Not" feature of EBSCO

Search for "Hunger Games" NOT movie = 487 results 


Search for cloning = 42,736 resultsBasic EBSCO search bar: cloning NOT human

Search for cloning NOT human = 30,325 results

Search engines attempt to match your terms to the items it searches (titles, authors, abstracts, description fields, full text, etc).

However, search engines do NOT understand phrases, sentences, or questions. So when it does this matching, it searches for each term indivdiually. Some searches attempt to find terms in proximity to each other, but this varies depending on where you search.

Quotation marks to the rescue

If your search terms are more than single worlds, employ quotation marks to show the search engine that you want the terms to be found together. The search will look for exactly what you place in the quotation marks, so be sure there are no mistakes.

Search for Adam Smith = 38,700,000 results

Search for "Adam Smith" = 2,730,000 results

Search for theory of relativity = 3,430,000 results

Search for "theory of relativity" = 856,000 results


Truncation is a way of giving your search tool flexibility to find alternate endings for your search term.

Why it's helpful:  Search engines match your terms to results; they will not find an alternate version of your term. Truncation tells the search to match the root of your term and gives it freedom to find whatever endings it can.

Truncation symbols include question mark, number sign, asterisk, and exclamation point.


  • Gene! will bring back gene, genes, genetic, genetics, genetically, general, generally, etc
  • Liv* will bring back results for live, lives, lively, livelihood, liver, livery, etc
  • Child$ will bring back child, children, childrenhood, etc

How to do it:  Shorten your search term to its base or root form. Then add a truncation symbol to the end of your term. Note: truncation symbols vary by search tool.

Truncation Symbols by adstarkel. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Subject Guide

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