Skip to Main Content

Education: Subject and Keyword Searching

Subject and Keyword Searching

Subject Searching:
Every item in a database is assigned at least one subject heading. (In some databases, the word "descriptor" is used instead of "subject heading.") These subject headings (or descriptors) come from a predetermined list of possible terms and reflect the content of the item. This means that someone actually reviewed an item to determine its contents, and then selected one or more subject headings/descriptors to describe it. Additionally, a subject search is a very specific kind of search, looking in only one field of each record -- the subject field.

If you know the subject heading/descriptor which matches your topic, try a subject search. You'll be guaranteed to find a list of items whose content matches your topic.  If you don't know the specific subject heading/descriptor, searching by subject becomes trickier. In these cases, trying a word search is a better strategy.

Keyword Searching:
Word searching, sometimes called full-text searching or keyword searching, looks for your search term or terms in many parts of an item record. A word search often looks at words in an item's title, abstract or notes, and subject field. (This is much different from a subject search which looks at only one field-- the subject/descriptor field.)

Word searching is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it is extremely helpful if the subject/descriptor is unknown. Using your own search terms, you can retrieve lists of materials on a topic without having to know that specific subject/descriptor heading. On the other hand, it often brings back many useless materials, which are sometimes called "false hits." Since the word search looks for your terms in so many fields, it can pick up the term in the title, abstract, notes, or other fields. An examination of the subject heading may reveal that an item is not useful for your research

Research Hint:
Often, a successful search strategy uses both word searching and subject searching:

    1. Do a word search to find materials on your topic.

    2. Examine the list of materials to locate one whose content seems to match your topic.

    3. Once you have this one item on the computer screen, look at the subject/descriptor field to determine which subject/descriptor heading best matches your topic.

    4. Do a new search for material on your topic. This time, try a subject search for the subject/descriptor heading that looked promising.


      If you need further assistance please contact: