Prevention in Focus

Fall 2011 

Find it on the web: How to map a successful search strategy

By Lauren Plews

Searching on the web is a lot like taking a road trip: Sometimes you know exactly where you want to go and other times it’s more about the journey itself. Either way, if you want to have a good trip, you need to plan ahead and be ready to make some changes along the way to get to your destination. In other words, just like a road trip, when it comes to searching the web, you need a strategy to get where you want to go.

A good search strategy starts before you enter anything into a search box and ends after you get your results. Here are seven basic steps to follow to develop an effective search strategy for the web.

Step 1: Define your topic

Ask yourself what it is that you want to know. Write this down and try to keep it short. Ideally, your topic statement should be no more than one sentence.

Example: I want to know more about PrEP

Step 2: Analyze your topic statement

Now you can break your short topic statement down into parts or keywords to be searched.

One clear part of our topic is PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). Because there are different kinds of PrEP (for example, PrEP to prevent HIV, malaria, tuberculosis or rabies), search engines need us to give them some specifics, so it is important that we let them know that our search relates to PrEP for HIV. Because PrEP for HIV is a form of prevention, we can add the keyword prevention.

Search terms: PrEP, HIV, prevention

Step 3: Develop a search strategy

Now that we have our main search terms, we are ready to put them into a search phrase or query. We want to search for everything on the web that talks about PrEP, HIV and prevention and there are tricks to make sure that a search engine does this.

Search Tips
(Note: The following tips can all be used for a search using Google and most can also be used with other search engines.)

Search Tip

For Example

Use quotes around a phrase to search all the words in the correct order.

“pre-exposure prophylaxis”

Use the tilde to search for synonyms or  other words like your search term.

(This will get other terms like HIV/AIDS.)

Use the asterisk to get all forms of a word.

(This will search for prevention as well as prevent, preventing, preventative...)

Use this to indicate that you would like to search for either one of several words. This will expand your results.

HIV OR “pre-exposure prophylaxis”
(This will search for everything about HIV or pre-exposure prophylaxis or both.)

Use the minus symbol to exclude a term from your search.

HIV -“pre-exposure prophylaxis”
(This will narrow your search to everything about HIV that does not mention pre-exposure prophylaxis.)

( )
Use brackets to combine items you want to search for that are part of a larger search.

(PrEP or “pre-exposure prophylaxis”) HIV
(This will search for everything that contains PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis or both as well as HIV.)

Use this to limit your search to a specific web address or URL.

(This will search for everything at that also has HIV.)

Use this to limit your search to only web addresses containing a certain word or identifier in the URL.

HIV inurl:catie
(This will search all web addresses that contain “catie” and return pages that contain “HIV.”)

Use two periods to select a range for your results (for example, a date range).

HIV 2009..2011
(This will return results between the years you have identified.)

Let’s string the keywords we’ve identified together:

1: PrEP

PrEP is also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, so we want our search to pick up information that uses either or both of those terms. We can use the OR command to tell Google to do this.

As pre-exposure prophylaxis is a two-word phrase, we want to look for the words in that order. We can use quotations to look for the phrase pre-exposure prophylaxis:

PrEP OR “pre-exposure prophylaxis”

2: HIV

Next we have HIV. There are several synonyms and related terms for this, so let’s add a tilde to tell the search engine to look for them too.


3: Prevention

Finally, we have prevention. There may also be relevant materials that contain the word preventing, so we’ll use the asterisk to look for words with either ending.


Pulling the parts together

We want the search engine to bring back anything that contains all three parts or keywords. We want PrEP and pre-exposure prophylaxis searched together so we need to put brackets around them. Our final strategy looks like this:

(PrEP OR “pre-exposure prophylaxis”) ~HIV prevent*

Step 4: Determine where you want to search

While it is important to know how to develop a search strategy, knowing where to search can make a huge difference in finding what you are looking for. If you want to find scholarly health-related articles, then a database like PubMed may be the best choice. If you are just trying to get the an idea of what is out there, then Google would be your better bet. For the purposes of our example, we will use Google.

Step 5: Search

Now that we have thought about what we want to know, we have put it into a search phrase that will make sense to a search engine, and we have selected Google as our place to search, we can try our search.

Looks like there is some relevant material there—much more relevant than if we had simply typed our original topic statement into Google.

Step 6: Review and assess your results

Look at what was found. Have your information needs been met?  Do you think you can trust what you found? If you are not happy with the results, move on to the final step.

Step 7: Revise and try again

A search that did not bring you what you want may mean that you need to try your search again in a different way. Learn from what didn’t work the first time and adjust your strategy. Think back to that idea of a search being like a road trip—you are simply changing your route as you go along.

For example, after seeing the results from your first search, you may want to narrow the results. To continue with our example, after learning more about PrEP from your first search, you may want to know if CATIE has anything related to PrEP. Let’s revise our search to look only for results with “CATIE” in the URL. We can do this by taking our original search strategy and adding the Google command inurl:catie. This will look for any results that meet all of our original requirements but also have “CATIE” in the the URL or web address. This is our revised search strategy:

(PrEP OR “pre-exposure prophylaxis”) ~HIV prevent* inurl: catie

Follow these steps and you will become a better searcher, which in turn means that you will be able to access even more of the information now available to us via the web.


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  6. Anon. Recommended search strategy: Analyze your topic and search with peripheral vision. Available at: Accessed March 24, 2011.
  7. Anon. The 8-fold path to web searching power. Available at: Accessed March 24, 2011.
  8. Anon. YouTube—Power searching with Google. Available at: Accessed March 24, 2011.

About the author(s)

Lauren Plews is the Information Specialist at CATIE. A certified bookworm, Lauren earned her Masters of Science in Information with a specialization in Library Sciences from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before coming to CATIE, she worked in a Public Library and also assisted faculty and researchers at the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario.