Database Searching Techniques
Effectively finding information in a large digital database is an art as well as a science. Once you have loaded your database with information, it doesn’t do any good if you can’t find it when you need it. But database searching doesn’t need to be difficult. If you found this page through a search engine, like Google, you just performed a database search. In fact, you probably use search skills everyday without even realizing it. For example, if you went to the grocery store this week, and picked up some bananas, you already performed a search. You knew you had to go to the fruits and vegetables part of the store, and you had to find a bin that contained bananas. Finding information in a database is no different. You need to search the right part of the database and retrieve the records that you need.
And don’t get discouraged if you first attempt at database searching doesn’t yield the results you were expecting! Getting good at search requires trial and error and lots of practice.
Database Search Boolean Operators
Boolean operators are used to define relationships between words in a search string. Three basic operators include AND, OR, and NOT:
- AND - you want the returned results to include the terms on either side of the “AND” operator. Please note that in some database searches “AND” is implied. For example, if you search for terms in Google, they are assumed to be joined by the “AND” operator.
- OR - you want the returned results to include the term on left side or the right side of the “OR” operator.
- NOT – you don’t want the result to contain the term followed by the “NOT” operator. Sometimes you can also put the “- “ symbol before a word or phrase to indicate “NOT”.
You can typically combine the above operators to create more complex search terms. If you do combine operators “AND” takes precedence over “OR” (i.e., “AND” is evaluated first, then “OR”). You can also add multiple terms to a search query to further refine your results.
Most databases also let you put quotes around a phrase, if are only looking for results that contain the exact phrase. Most databases also support parentheses around search terms. If you put parentheses around a search term, it will be evaluated first.
Subjects vs. Keyword Searches
If you are doing a “Keyword” search, results will be returned for any documents that contain the keywords. Obviously, this can result in a huge number of matches, some of which may be irrelevant. If you want to narrow down your search, you can sometimes do a “Subject” search. With a subject search only records with matched subject headings will be returned. This could narrow down search results, and make them much more relevant.
Truncation Search Wildcards
Truncation (or stemming) is the process of inserting wildcards into a string. Wildcards are used to represent any string of characters in a search. They can also be used to search for variant spellings. A wildcard can be placed anywhere in a string. For example, if you used as asterisks to represent a wildcard in the search term “computer*”, any results containing the words “computer”, “computers”, “computerized” or “computerphile” would be returned.
Database Search Pitfalls
Several factors can lead to an ineffective database search. First if your search term, or the information stored in your database has a spelling mistake, this could lead to missing search results. It’s important to make sure that you spell check all information.
If you are searching an international database, you may also need to be aware of different valid spellings for the same word. For example, in the United States we use the world “labor”. In the United Kingdom or Canada, the same world is spelled “labour”. If you are searching a Canadian or British database and are looking for labor related articles you would need to search for “labour” instead of “labor”.
If you try and search for information that is too specific, your search may fail to yield results. If you can do so without effecting the quality of your search, you should always try and generalize, and use a broader search term or concept to get the most results.
If you are still unable to find results you can try looking in a thesaurus for other search terms that have the same meaning.
What Happens if you are Finding Too Many Results?
If you search terms are too broad or not specific enough, you might get overwhelmed by the returned results. In this case you should try and make your terms more specific. For example, instead of searching for “car” if you are looking for a new electric car, you may search for “Tesla”, or “electric car”.
Geographic Proximity Searches
When you perform a proximity search you are looking for an address in a database record that is close to your query address. Proximity searches will only work on databases that support geographic look ups. Internally the computer will need to match addresses with GPS coordinates and calculate distances.
Database Searching in Bioinformatics
There are also host of other specialized searches that subject specific databases may support. For example, a “bioinformatics” search will search for matching nucleotides or protein sequences in a bioinformatics database. If you require this type of specialized search functionality, we may be able to custom program solutions for you. Please contact us for details.
Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri
Many companies offer online assistants. Amazon has Alexa, Apple has Siri and Google offers its own Google Assistant. In the background all of these services are simply searching databases for the answers to your questions. They take your spoken words and using natural language recognition techniques, they convert your words into database queries. They then return the top results in audible format. As these types of services continue to improve, they will make database searching even easier!
Tracker Ten Searches
Our Tracker Ten database system simplifies the search process by providing a visual user interface where you can build multiple Boolean search terms in a single query. In Tracker Ten you can also save search terms for future use.