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How do I use keywords in a search?

Coming up with effective search terms can be a hurdle, especially for more complex research questions. It’s important to understand that databases don’t process information like people do, so phrases using everyday speech may be unproductive and could actually limit your search results. Instead, you will want to break your research questions into key concepts, find possible synonyms, and use database techniques like near searching and subject searching.  

Example Research Question: How are women represented in the movie hunger games? 

If we were to break this research question into key concepts and search terms, we would remove unnecessary terms that are not key to your topic. Nouns are preferred over verbs, and broad conceptual terms like representation, impact, effect, influence, relevance, role, advantage, etc. should also be avoided. Instead, name the representation, impact, effect, etc.

How are women represented in the movie hunger games? With women, movie, and hunger games circled.

From our research question, we have pulled three terms “women,” “movie,” and “hunger games.”

Then, we can look for synonyms, subject/keyword terms, and related terms of our key concepts. You may want to consider what terms experts in the field might use. You can find subject/keyword terms by conducting a few preliminary searches to see what relevant subject terms and keyword headings are listed.

Example article from Academic Search Ultimate


Example list of Synonyms, Subject./Keyword Terms, and Related terms

Key Concepts Synonyms, subject terms, keyword headings, and related terms

Synonyms: Female, Girl, Wom?n (“?” Includes Women & Woman)

Narrower terms: Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence

Subject terms/Keywords headings: Women, Women in motion pictures, Women superheroes, Women in Popular Culture

Related concepts: Gender, Gender stereotypes, Gender differences, Feminism, Feminist theory

Synonyms: Film, motion pictures, cinema

Subject terms: Motion Pictures

Broader term: Motion Picture Industry
Hunger Games

Keyword headings: Hunger Games, The (Film)

Narrower keyword headings: Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Hunger Games: Mockingjay

Once you have your keywords, you can start playing around with search techniques to narrow, broaden, and improve the relevancy of searches.


Brainstorming and mind mapping are great tools to come up with possible keywords.

To brainstorm, write down every word you can think of related to your topic, without editing your ideas. Just write them all down and see what you have!

To create a mind map, write down your main topic and related terms, connected to each other with lines to demonstrate relationships between words. It might look like this:

Main idea in center circle with related terms branching out, and further related terms branching from them

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