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5. Searching 101: Combining Search terms

You can often do more powerful searching by combining search terms by using the words AND, OR and NOT. These are known as Boolean Operators.

If the main idea contains 2 or more ideas, you'll want to use AND to combine them.

To look for information about spiders as signs of climate change you'll want to have both terms in the search and are performing an AND search. That's what automatically happens in search engines, such as Google and Bing unless you tell them to do something different by using OR or NOT.

spiders and climate

If the main idea has several synonyms, use OR to combine them. Most search tools search for all terms (AND) by default, so you need to use the term OR between terms to let it know you want to find any of the terms. In the previous example of Latino small business growth, we want to also use the term Hispanic.

Hispanic OR Latino

If the main idea has a common use you want to exclude, use NOT to exclude that word. For example if we were looking for information about illegal drug use we would want to exclude prescription drugs from the search results. This is commonly done with NOT or the use of the Minus (-) sign. In some resources they want AND NOT before the term. Note: Google uses the Minus (-) sign version and doesn't accept NOT.


drugs NOT prescription

drugs -prescription

Arrange your search terms in the most effective way

To get good results from a keyword search, you need to arrange the search terms you identified so they become the search statement that will find you what you want. Doing that frequently involves putting parentheses, quote marks, and Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT or their symbols) in specific places in the search statement.

While the operators or symbols used can vary from search tool to search tool, the concepts are the same. Search operators are used to connect terms, to remove terms, and to organize search terms in complex ways, much like you might a write mathematical statement.


More options for combining terms

Besides Boolean operators, there are other tools for combining search terms into precise searches:

Exact phrase: If a key term is really multiple words that represent one idea, such as hot dog, or United States, use quotes around the words to search that exact phrase.


"United States"

"hot dog"

Grouping or Nesting: When a search is complex and requires the use of more than one Boolean operator, use parentheses to group the terms with each Boolean.


(cats OR dogs) AND (treatment OR therapy)

"United States" AND (immigration or emigration)

Truncation and wildcards:

To retrieve variations of a word, use truncation and wildcards to allow for those variations. The most common characters used for this are:

? replaces one character (often requires replacing exactly one character)

* replaces multiple characters



wom?n finds both woman and women

cat? may not find cat, but will find all 4-letter words beginning with cat.



mathematic* retrieves mathematics, mathematically, mathematician, etc.

cat* retrieves cat, cats, catatonic, catalog, etc. Too many unrelated terms - what a catastrophe!





See if you can figure out what a searcher's intent is in the Search Analysis activity.


Possible Power Searches (or How to Speak Search Engine):



Search Function


Exact Phrase

Grouping/ Nesting
Search Engine/Database Retrieves results that has EVERY term somewhere in the document. Most search engines do this by default, but you might still get slightly different results if you use it Retrieves results that has AT LEAST ONE of the terms


Does not include documents with this term



Retrieves results that have the exact sequence of terms

Allows for complex combinations of search operators


How to Use in Various Search Tools
Academic Search Complete default (alternatively: term AND term) term OR term term NOT term "exact phrase search" term AND (term OR term)
Bing default term OR term term NOT term "exact phrase search" Not Available
Google default term OR term term -term "exact phrase search" term AND (term OR term)
WorldCat@OSU term AND term

term + term

term OR term term NOT term "exact phrase search" term AND (term OR term)
OSU Library Catalog term AND term term OR term term AND NOT term "exact phrase search" term AND (term OR term)



Check what you have learned; try your hand at the Rank 'Em game.

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