Nonprofit 411: Useful Techniques for Search Engines and Online Databases

Nonprofit 411 MagnusBy Roger Magnus, Roger Magnus Research

Nonprofit workers regularly utilize web search engines and online databases to inform decisions about programming, prepare grant applications, and to achieve many other goals. For these tools, there are many different—and often unknown— ways to search depending on what search features a search engine or online database contains and how they are phrased. One must look at the “Help” menus of each tool to determine the available techniques, and many of these can be combined with others.

Here is a list of quick techniques that nonprofits can start using today to more effectively and efficiently utilize search engines and online databases:

Quotes – Use “ ” for terms with several words to search as a phrase. Without these quotation marks, many websites and databases will search for document hits for each term listed.

  • Example: “Massachusetts business” – returns the exact phrase ONLY

Boolean Searching – Use connectors such as AND, OR, NOT between search terms to narrow or broaden list of results.

  • Business AND Massachusetts – both business and Massachusetts appear in any relevant document
  • Business OR Massachusetts – either business or Massachusetts or both appear in any relevant document
  • Business NOT Massachusetts – business excluding Massachusetts appears in any relevant document

Nested search – There is an order of operations with connectors. Depending on the database or web search engine, AND is usually of higher order than OR or NOT. Use parentheses to search terms correctly or you may not get the results you expect.

  • Massachusetts OR Connecticut AND business – Will retrieve documents with either the term Massachusetts or the terms Connecticut and business together. These concepts are NOT parallel and not likely desired.
  • (Massachusetts OR Connecticut) AND business – Will retrieve documents about Massachusetts and business and/or Connecticut or business. There could be some good articles comparing business in both states.

Proximity Searching – Use connectors such as Within (W) or Near – One term W X (sequence dependent) or Near X (to sequence dependent) number of words of another. These search terms are both more refined versions of AND to retrieve fewer and more relevant documents.

  • Business W (2) Massachusetts Business preceding Massachusetts by two search terms or fewer appear in any relevant document.
  • Business Near (2) Massachusetts– Business within two or fewer search terms of Massachusetts irrespective of order will appear in any relevant document.
  • Business (S) Massachusetts – Business and Massachusetts in the same sentence
  • Business (P) Massachusetts – Business and Massachusetts in the same paragraph

Wildcard or Truncation

  • Wildcard(s) – Place holder(s) in term (beginning, middle, or end) that can be filled in multiple ways
    • Wom?n – to find woman or women
  • Truncation – Word stem that can be filled in at the end multiple ways.
    • Research* – to find research, researches, researching, researcher, etc.

AtLeast – Document will contain X or more references to search term. With this many references, one would expect the focus of most of these articles would be on her and that she would not be mentioned tangentially.

Document segment searching (Such as Title, Title and Lead Paragraph, Author, Text of document, Publication Name, Subject terms of document usually listed at bottom) – Search for terms in particular areas of documents to target search results.

Time frame – Can search for yesterday, a week ago, a certain year, back to the beginning, or a range of dates of coverage for a particular website, database, or publication.

Type of publication – Can specify newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal, report, chart/table etc. to search on.

Number of words – Generally used for longer articles on a subject.

Pages on website – Used to search all files and pages just on that website.

Type of document – Usually for Web search engines (.PDF, .PPT, .XLS, etc.) to search on that type of document ONLY

For further assistance with your organization’s research needs, please contact MNN affiliate member Roger Magnus, Owner of Roger Magnus Research at