Keyword Or Subject Searching: The Keys To Unlocking Database Searching

Claus de la Ciutat, segle XVII, museu Històric Municipal de València
By Joanbanjo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We know that many of you have questions about the difference between a keyword search and a subject search. It can be confusing, but we are going to give you the key to unlocking which will work best for your search. First of all, let’s look at how the two differ before we examine some specifics.

Keyword—uses natural language, just like you would use in a Google search
Subject—uses language that is controlled by the database to describe your topic

Keyword—more flexible. You can combine terms in many ways
Subject—less flexible. You need to know the exact term used in the database

Keyword—looks for keywords anywhere in the document
Subject—only looks for term(s) in the subject heading field

Keyword—can return too many or too few results
Subject—if too many results are received, you can add subheadings

Keyword—may retrieve irrelevant results
Subject—results are usually highly relevant

How do you know when to use what?

Do you want to combine terms? Use a keyword search.
Do you know the appropriate subject? Use a subject search.
Is there little information about your topic? Use a keyword search.
Does your subject search return no results found? Use a keyword search.

Here’s what it looks like in action. If you want to perform a search for information about LED light bulbs, simply perform a keyword search for LED light bulbs. In contrast, the subject search may require that you use the term Light-emitting diodes.


The bottom line is this. To find the subject heading for your topic, perform a keyword search. Examine the results and find two or three that are relevant. Take a look at how those relevant articles are subject-tagged, and then perform a new search using the term(s) and changing from Keyword to Subject. Your results will be much more precise than your initial keyword search.

Once you know which option works best for your search, you will unlock the door to finding the best sources for your topic. As always, your Brandman librarians are here to help.