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Formulate an Effective Search Strategy: Analyse your topic and identify your keywords

Tips and techniques on how to plan and develop an effective search strategy

Analyse your topic and identify your keywords


Spend some time conceptualising and analysing your topic before you start searching. By analysing your research topic, you will be able to break down your topic into individual concepts.

These concepts will later translate into keywords that you will use for your search strategy. Pay attention to the language you use to both conceptualise and accurately describe your research topic, and take time to define the key concepts that will form the basis for your search strategy.

This kind of planning will ensure that you retrieve the most relevant information on your topic.


The first step in analysing your topic is to identify the keywords, or concepts, that make up your topic. Keywords are the core words that describe, and are unique, to your topic. You will use these keywords to develop a search strategy to help you find appropriate literature.

This is an important step because:

  • the keywords form the building blocks of your search strategy
  • the search software of the databases will not understand full sentences or stop words (e.g. the, a, an, etc.)
  • it helps you focus your thoughts on the most important terms of your topic

Let's look at an example of a research topic to see how to break it down into keywords.

Topic : Investigating people's behaviour on social media in South Africa

What are the main concepts or keywords?

There are three main keywords/ concepts in this topic:

  • social media
  • behaviour
  • South Africa

Why do you think the words investigating and people were not included as keywords?

Words like investigating, people, role, impact, identify, and so forth are not used as keywords, as they tend to influence the relevance of the search results negatively.

Why do you think the word in was not used as a keyword?

"In" is a stopword.

Stopwords are such commonly used words that they do not contribute meaningfully to the quality of the search strategy and the search results. The most common stopwords are: of, on, the, a, an, do, in, if, which, etc. Each database has its own list of stopwords which you can find in the help link of the database.

Now it is time for you to examine your own topic and take a few minutes to think about how to break it down into keywords. Remember you are only looking for the core concepts or keywords.



A major problem with searching is that different authors tend to use different keywords to explain the same topic. When you do a keyword search on a database it will only find the specific word you typed in and it will not automatically look for synonyms and related keywords. It is therefore extremely unlikely that your search results will contain all the results of a particular topic and your search results will not be a true reflection of everything published on this topic.

How do you solve this problem?

You need to look further than the keywords that you identified from the title of your topic. Expand your search by including all those keywords which are similar or related to your original keywords. These are called synonyms or related terms and dictionaries and encyclopaedias are a good place to start finding such terms. Another method is to look for important keywords in the articles or books that you have read.


Subject terms are also known as subject headings or subject descriptors, and are standardised terms assigned by the information provider to help you find articles on a topic even though the individual authors might be using different keywords.  The database will assign the different subject headings to each document from its list of subject headings. These subject headings are usually found in the database thesaurus. Using these subject terms increases the relevance of your results.

All is not lost if a database does not have a thesaurus. Searching resources such as subject-related dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopaedias will also assist you to finding subject terms.  If you still have difficulty obtaining relevant subject terms, then try a keyword search as a document might include subject headings provided by the author.


Let's return to our example to find synonyms for our main keywords:

Investigating social media behaviour in South Africa

Synonyms for the phrase social media might include: twitter or social networking or social networks or Facebook

The use of synonyms widens the net of your search strategy in order to retrieve more articles relevant to your research problem.


Be aware of American versus British spelling and uses of words and terms. In South Africa we follow the British mode of spelling words such as  "behaviour" , ‘labour’ or ‘colour’, for example, whereas in America these words are spelled as "behavior", ‘labor’ and ‘color’. Note that in America, they will use the word ‘gas’ for ‘petrol’ or ‘apartment’ for ‘flat’ or ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’. You will also find differences in terminology within a discipline. The discipline of American law, for example, uses the term ‘larceny’ for ‘theft’ and ‘tort’ for ‘delict’, to name just a few of the differences between American and South African terminology.

You will, therefore, need to include the alternative spelling and terminology in your search strategy if you wish to retrieve as much relevant published material as possible.