Skip to Main Content

Broadening Your Search: Home

Techniques for Broadening Your Search

There is no secret formula for searching library databases. Even for seasoned librarians, it can be a time consuming, circular process of trial and error. Many students believe there is one perfect source out there to answer their research prayers if only they knew how to find it,  but that is simply not true 99% of the time. Usually, you will have to try a variety of keyword combinations, limiters, and databases to find sources that may only help with one aspect of your research. You have to figure out how you can glean the information you need from a variety of sources, and how to piece these together with your own thoughts and ideas to create your final document. But, there are techniques you can use to become a better, more effective and efficient searcher.

The main techniques for broadening your search are:

  • Boolean OR
  • Subject Headings
  • Using Fewer Search Terms
  • Using Broader Search Terms

Broaden Results

Boolean OR is used between words that are synonymous or can be used interchangeably. Using Boolean OR is useful because it allows you to search for different possible ways your topic may be described in a database. For example if you are searching for information on teenagers, the database might also use the term young adults or adolescents. In your search you can put an OR between each of these terms and the database will retrieve results containing any of those terms. 
For example: technology use AND (teenagers OR adolescents OR young adults)

Subject headings basically means the preferred language a database uses to describe a topic.  For example, you might type in self-driving cars, but the database uses the phrase electric cars. Sometimes, using the correct subject heading can narrow your results, but depending on the search terms you were using, using the correct subject heading can also sometimes broaden your results.

Use fewer search terms: If you are not getting many results for a search, you might want to try removing some of the terms from your search. For example if you search:

Yellowstone National Park AND tourism AND history

And you only get a few articles, you might try taking off history or tourism to expand your results.

Just remember, you may only need a few good articles.

Another way to expand your search results is to think of broader terms to describe your topic. For example, instead of searching Tesla, you might search electric cars.


A good tip to find related terms or synonyms is to use Academic Search Complete and begin to type in your search term, but before you finish typing, take a look at the suggested search terms that pop-up under where you are typing. Some of the things that came up for self-driving cars are autonomous cars or driverless vehicles.