Chapter 1: Getting started with research

1.7 Translating your topic into searchable keywords

It is important to think about your search terms more carefully so you get better and more relevant results for your research. Take the time to think about the essential concepts that make up your research question. These concepts can become keywords, concise terms that you can use to make your search more efficient and relevant. Here are some examples of how you might go about generating keywords to improve your search. For these examples we’ll assume you have a class project on the topic “home design that is safe and comfortable for the elderly.”

Go to Google

One way of generating keywords would be to go to Google and search for that exact phrase. Using this approach, you’ll find lots of results, but only some of them will be helpful and relevant. As you look through your results, you might find synonyms or alternate vocabulary that could be useful, including: “home safety,” “universal design,” “accessible housing,” “older adults,” and so on. These can become helpful keywords for you to use when building a new search.

Find the essential concepts

Another way to find keywords is to break your topic into its essential concepts. Our example could be split up like this:

  • Concept 1: home design
  • Concept 2: safe and comfortable
  • Concept 3: elderly

Once you have these concepts, you can search for them in a thesaurus, a tool that suggests synonyms based on the term you use. Be aware that some terms in the thesaurus may match your intended meaning better than others, for example, the word “benefit” could have several different meanings. Below, we’ve listed some potential keywords from both our Google search and the thesaurus, alongside the original concepts they relate to:

  • home design: universal design, design for aging, elder-friendly design, housing design, architecture, architectural design, design features, supportive design, design
  • safe and comfortable: home safety, accessibility, barrier-free
  • elderly: senior citizens, seniors, old, older adults, older people, aging, aged, elderly people, elder

Use your keywords effectively

Now that we’ve identified keywords for our concepts, we can bring them together to build a search, such as:

  • home design and safety and elderly
  • universal design and safety and older people
  • housing design and accessibility and senior citizens

In your search, you want to include keywords for each of the concepts. This will reduce the number of extra results that are partly off-topic. In our example, a search for the two concepts “safety and home design” could also find articles on making homes safe for babies and children instead of for senior citizens. Mix and match the keywords and try out different combinations to see which strategies produce the most relevant results. Are some terms or strategies more successful? Save useful searches and try them out in other search tools as well.

Need some more practice? Take a look at this How to Generate Keywords tutorial, from the University of Texas at Austin. It will take you through the steps of brainstorming synonyms for the topic of your choice. You can experiment with searching for these terms using the ISU Library website.

Sometimes the topic you’re researching is so new to you that you don’t know whether you’re using the right keywords. When that’s the case, finding background information can help. Background information can lead you to new concepts and keywords related to your topic. Believe it or not, Wikipedia can be a good source for this type of information.

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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.