Choosing keywords for your search

What are keywords?

Keywords define your topic and are the words you use to search for information in online search engines and our Library Search.

Identifying keywords

If you are searching for information for an essay question or project, you'll need to identify the keywords in your essay question.

If there are any words you're unsure of in your essay question, make sure you check them in a dictionary.

More help on identifying keywords can be found on our Understanding essay questions page.

Different meanings in different contexts

Sometimes the context of a word may change its meaning, for example 'icon' could refer to a graphic on a computer desktop or to religious art.

Some words may have different meanings in American and British English, for example 'crisps' are 'chips' in American English.

Search engines and electronic resources do not take account of these different meanings, so if the resource you are searching covers a range of subjects, you may get search results that are nothing to do with your topic.

Using synonyms as alternative keywords

As well as using the keywords in your essay question, think of some synonyms you can use as alternative keywords.

Synonyms are words that have the same meaning, eg 'car' and 'automobile'.

Using synonyms as alternative keywords will help you find information that is about your topic, but that may use different words to describe it.

A thesaurus is a list of synonyms and can help you identify alternative keywords. Many electronic resources include their own thesaurus. For example, you might be told to use the word "building "instead of "structure". Many thesauri are published as reference books, for example Roget's Thesaurus. You can find copies of published thesauri in the libraries or online.

Alternative spellings and names

Remember that some words have different possible spellings, for example ‘organisation’ and ‘organization’.

There may also be differences between American and British English spelling, for example ‘color’ or ‘colour’.

If you are looking for information about a person, remember that they may be known by other names, for example 'Cherie Blair' or 'Cherie Booth'.

If you are searching for older information about a place or organisation, remember to account for name changes. For example, if you are searching for information about Russia, you may need to search for both 'Russia' and 'USSR'. If you are searching for information about the European Union you may also need to search for 'European Economic Community'.

Names may also be abbreviated. For example, if you are searching for information about the European Union, you may also need to search for 'EU'.

Changes in terminology

If you are searching for older material, think of how terminology may have changed.

This could be due to social changes, for example ‘flight attendant’ instead of ‘air hostess’, or changes to what is considered to be appropriate language, for example ‘visually impaired’ rather than ‘blind’.

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