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Composition 1 and 2 - Johnstown Campus: Constructing Keyword Searches

This guide is designed to help students enrolled in English Composition 1 and 2 classes at the Johnstown campus.

What are "Key" Words?

When constructing keyword searches in a library database or a search engine such as Google, look at your research question and select from it the most important words. Are there better words or alternate words for an important concept that can be used to retrieve better, more relevant results? Consider related, broader, and narrower words. Depending on the results retrieved by your search, you may need to search for different keywords. 

For example, "What effect does media have on body image?"

Alternate words to use include: effect = influence; media = TV, movies, magazines; body image = self.

In most library databases, combining your words with AND will narrow your results list because both words must appear in each record, while using OR will expand the list because the words may appear together or by themselves. In the example above, you could perform a single search for movies OR magazines to retrieve individual results for each keyword.  If the results list is too long, use AND to retrieve results that include both keywords.

How Would You Describe It?

Take a few minutes to brainstorm keywords that describe the above object. What does it look like? What is it made of? What is it used for? Don't use the brand name, even if you know it! Once you have your list of keywords, use them to search for the object on Google or Did you find it? 

This is how the inventor, Scott H. Stillinger, described the object for his patent. Look at the patent title! Were you close? When entering your keywords into a search engine or library database, you may need to use language that is technical, legal, medical, scientific, historical, slang, regional, etc. to find the information you need. As you search for information, you will find that you have more success if you use the same terminology that is used by the database or the authors. 


Keyword Challenge

Take the Keyword Challenge. (Note: the Challenge works best in Firefox and Safari.)

Sort the words in each challenge's research question into four categories:

  1. words that are probably effective "as is"
  2. words that are probably important, but for which better words exist
  3. words that probably have little impact on the search results list
  4. "stop words" - words that a library database or search engine ignores when executing the query (for example: a, an, the, that, is)


  • The object of the game is to drag each word to the category box where it belongs.
  • You can check the accuracy of your choices by using the check results arrow button located near the bottom of the screen. A score of 80% or higher is necessary to demonstrate mastery of keyword selection. You will get three attempts; however, points are taken off for each attempt. After each attempt, Wizard hints will indicate how close you are, with a final screen displaying suggestions for improving performance