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Subject versus Keyword Searching

Here are some of the key differences between the two kinds of searches.

Keyword Searching
Subject Searching
  • Uses natural language or everyday words to describe your topic - good to start with
  • Uses assigned or "controlled vocabulary" words to describe the content of each item in a database
  • More flexible - can combine multiple terms together in many ways
  • Less flexible - need to search with the exact controlled vocabulary term 
  • database looks for keywords anywhere in the record (title, author, abstract/summary, text of the article or item, subject, etc.)
  • database looks for subjects mainly in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear
  • Usually results in a broader search that may yield too many, too few or irrelevant hits 
  • Usually results in a more focused search with highly relevant and precise hits
Chapter 5 — Page 4