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Information Skills: 4: Search methods

Search methods

When you start searching, you might first type in a few words to see whether you can find interesting information quickly. We call this search method the ‘quick & dirty’ method, or the ‘best match’ method. It often gets you a long way, but there also other ways to search for information.

In addition to using suitable search terms in your search, your search process and result will benefit if you carry out systematic searches using defined methods. Working systematically and using search methods helps you control your search.

There are several search methods that can help you search systematically. We describe the four most common methods below.
1. Best match method (quick & dirty)
2. Building blocks method
3. Snowball method 
4. Searching citations

Best match method

When using this method, you type as many relevant terms as you can in the search bar, one after another. This is how many search engines work.

The best match method is most effective when you type in lots of terms. When you haven’t yet begun to search systematically, it is an easy way to get some search results. Make your search terms as specific as possible.

The best match method is a good method to use in the orientation phase.

Tip: Various catalogues (including PiCarta and the HAN Study and Multimedia Centres catalogue) give you the option of narrowing down your search result.

Building blocks method

With the building blocks method, you divide your search query into elements.  You then define catchwords for each element (keyword).  You should come up with related terms, broader and narrower terms, synonyms, wildcards, etc. You then put the elements in a box diagram.

This makes it clear at a glance how AND and OR operators can be combined in your search, because terms that are on the same horizontal line can be combined with AND, and terms that are vertical (in the same column) can be combined with OR.

For example: “What are the effects of using social media in higher education on student learning behaviour?”

The snowball method and citation method

Snowball method

With the snowball method, you use the references in the literature. You use the reference list in a text to further your search. The references that you find in the text are used to find new articles, books, etc. One disadvantage of this method can be that the information that you find is increasingly out of date.

Citation method

When you turn the snowball method around, you search for citations. Say that you’ve found a good article; you then search for sources that cite this good article. This way, your information becomes increasingly more up-to-date. When displaying search results, the search engine Google Scholar and the database Web of Science tell you which other information sources cite the source in question.