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Some secret strategies for serious searchers

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 8.18.32 AMI designed and currently teach a course called Search and the Information Landscape.  What I love about the course is getting my graduate students to think about their search habits and recognize what works. I also introduce a few classic strategies that have been around in the literature about online searching since the pre-web days.

What I am finding is having names for these things kinda matters. So does understanding that you have a fuller bag of tricks than you realize. This bag of tricks would be useful not just for my graduate students but for most students grades 7 through 12.

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 9.36.20 AMIn fact, the inspiration for the poster came from a composite of my most serious high school students.  The more courageous among them shared,

“Dr. Valenza, we’ve met these databases hundreds of times; we know how to build an argument and credit our sources. What else have you got?  What strategies do YOU use?” 

When I think about those students, I began to think of them as an important persona to address. I call that persona Adam.  The original Adam discovered the importance of naming what he saw in his environment.  Giving something a name makes it real and allows us to think and talk about it.

I started pulling my favorite strategies together, using their names, in the form of a poster.  I hope this is of some help when you work with your own Adams.

Here’s goes:

Imagining your dream doc: Beyond the terms you might instinctively enter in a search box, what are the words and phrases you are likely to actually find in a truly relevant dream document?

Predicting the file type and knowing where to start: Is that dream document more likely to be a book, a PDF report or white-paper, a film, a popular journal, a blog, a website, etc.?  After you try an initial search in a database, you can use the facets that appear to filter for file type or format.  If you are searching Google, knowing when it is best to start with Google Books, Google Scholar or Google News, or that you can search filetype: or used the Advanced Search, could make all the difference.

Pearl growing: Like making a beautiful pearl from small bits of sand, this is the classic term for using one information discovery to find others. That one “killer” item might reveal leads in terms of vocabulary, subject headings, authors, journals, etc.

Citation chaining / snowball searching  Citation chaining are the processes by which you identify one solid information source, such as an article relevant to your topic, and mine its list of references for additional useful resources. Backward chaining or snowball searching is looking for the cited articles that came before the one you are examining. (Some may be critical; others may be obsolete.

Forward chaining is locating the more recent writing of others who have cited the article. The moving backward and forward creates a chain of linked relevant literature. This is simple to do in Google Scholar. You can also personalize Google Scholar to link to articles to which the library has access.

Journal run: Should a particular journal or magazine appear frequently in your results with relevant content, it likely has more! It’s useful to scan multiple issues of the journal in the database. Bonus: You may even discover a super-relevant theme issue.

Leveraging controlled vocabulary: Databases are structured around hierarchical subject terms and used an agreed-up controlled vocabulary. Some have a thesaurus for you to consult. You may discover these terms in the beginning of your articles as well as on your results list.

Peripheral vision (search like a bird): Birds have a wider field of vision than humans. In addition to seeing straight ahead, they have side vision. We can train ourselves to look for surprises, not just precisely what we initially entered the search looking for. This allows us to discover unexpected terms and names and concepts and be able to incorporate these ideas into future searches.

Building blocks and facets: After brainstorming search terms and synonyms, it helps to consider your important concepts as facets, to be iteratively combined in a variety of different ways using Boolean operators OR and AND.

Author search: When you discover a particular author who regularly writes in your area of interest, you may benefit from searching the author’s other works. In addition to subscription databases, clicking on an author’s name in Google Scholar will lead to their Google Scholar Profile as well as other writings.

Trusted friends: When you have no real subject knowledge and/or a limited understanding of the vocabulary of your search, it can be best to start by consulting a few trusted friends. (Markey calls this “getting a little help from your friends.” p. 193-196.)  This can include reading introductory articles in databases, starting in reference sources or Web subject directories or the cluster topic finders that appear in many student databases.

And, of course, there are some very useful tricks across databases and search engines, like:

  • Control F for finding text within pages or documents
  • Using quotes for “phrase searching”
  • Using Google Advanced Search when precision mattersScreen Shot 2017-10-29 at 7.52.58 PM

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Mary Reilley Clark says


    I love reading Dan Russell’s blog, Search ReSearch . He poses a question, and asks his readers to share their answers and search strategies. He then does a follow-up post detailing how he would construct a search. I’ve learned so much from his blog over the years. Many of your strategies are right in line with his. Your poster will be a great addition to our library! Thank you.


  1. […] Joyce Valenza had some great tips in her article and a fantastic visual.  I am encouraged to use Google Scholar with my HS and college-bound students.  Like my student, I am quick to do a regular Google search and neglect to use that powerful tool.  Through a Google Scholar search, you can easily see who has quoted a specific article you’re looking at and quickly locate related articles.   Search Smarter: 30+ Google Search Tricks You Might Not Already Know is definitely an article I want to share in an upcoming newsletter.  (Just adding it here so I remember to go back to it in the future.) There were also some great ideas of how to use the Wayback Machine in various subject areas.  In searching the Wayback Machine, I realized that this tool is going to be the “microfilm/microfiche” equivalent to this generation! […]

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