Keyword vs. Subject
By Lori Annesi, Pam Czaja, Alice Harrington,
Stephanie Hranjec and Michael McCullough
Monroe Community College 2007
By the end of this tutorial, you will be able to:
Define a keyword and subject heading.
Understand when to use keywords and subject
Know the advantages of keyword and subject searches.
Know the disadvantages of keyword and subject
What is a keyword?
Keywords describe the main ideas of your topic.
Keywords are significant word(s) from a title or part of
A keyword search may be one or more words.
Keywords may be a phrase (two or more words-
sometimes searched using quotation marks, such as
“freedom of information”).
Example of keywords:
Topic: Does the death penalty lower the murder rate?
Keywords may be: death penalty, capital punishment,
murder prevention, homicide rates, criminal statistics and
Depending on the database used, it may be helpful to have
quotes around some terms, such as, “death penalty” or
When to use keywords?
When just beginning your search process.
To search for a phrase.
When you don’t know subject headings for your topic.
Advantages of keyword searches:
A keyword search usually looks for the word(s)
anywhere in the document.
You do not need to know specialized, technical
You usually receive a larger number of results than if
you did a subject search.
Disadvantages of keyword searches:
A keyword search may retrieve too many results,
including ones that aren’t relevant to your topic.
If searching with two or more words they may be
found anywhere within the document, in any order.
What is a subject heading?
Subject headings are a standardized set of terms
within a database or research text used to identify
In an MCC library database, all books about the death
penalty will use the subject heading “capital
punishment”. You can find all materials related to this
topic with one search, instead of having to use many
Example of a book record from the MCC
Advantages of subject heading searches:
Subject heading searches usually find fewer articles or
books, but the ones found may be more useful to your
The computer matches your search term against an
organized list of subjects, instead of randomly looking
for a word throughout a record or article.
Subject heading searching is useful for finding personal
and geographic names.
Disadvantages of subject heading searches:
The database only looks for your search term in the
Guessing the subject heading term usually doesn’t
work. You must know the exact word or phrase used by
the database you are searching.
Find synonyms (different words that mean the same
thing) using a thesaurus if necessary, to broaden or
narrow your search (example: juveniles, teenagers,
adolescents, children, youth).
Look for keywords in an on-line or print encyclopedia.
Put the most important word first.
Search a library book catalog to find subject headings.
Helpful hints continued:
Use truncation to expand the search (terror* will retrieve
terror, terrorism, terrorist, terrorize, etc).
Spelling counts; not all databases will correct your
If you are not finding any useful articles or books, check
the help screen to find out exactly how words are
searched in the database.
Ask a Librarian.
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