Annette Demers, Associate Dean, Law Library and Legal Research Services, University of Windsor


I work with online databases at least 8-9 hours a day, and I always smile when people try to help me come up with search terms.  When I’m doing a search, I always use the most unique words from the problem.  When a search comes up short, the person will often suggest that I add more search terms to the equation – which is actually not helpful, if you understand how a database works.


As a starting point, think about Google, Amazon, and any other site that you use to purchase products or to find information.






Basic Structure

At a very basic level, a database consists of two main parts:  the database itself and the database management system.  The database itself contains all of the raw pieces of data. The database management system (DBMS) is the user interface where we get useful information from the data.


What Data?

In an online shopping context, the data itself is information about the product that is being sold. For example, the author and title of a book; the artist and album name for music; movie name, director and actors for movies.  The database also includes things like the price, the ratings and the customer reviews.  Price ranges or categories can also be helpful.


What Else?

All raw data is generally organized in a table.  For example:


Music Database

Artist Name Album Title Price Format Genre
Drake More Life 12.88 CD Pop
Michael Jackson Thriller 29.26 Vinyl Rock


Each row in the table is also known as a record and each column is called a field. The fields will be different depending on the kind of info you are working with. For example, describing a GPS system is different than describing sofas.  The interface allows you to use these fields to filter your results.  For example, shopping sites will allow you to view products by price range, by colour or manufacturer, by genre, etc.


Once you have the basics in place, there are a few other things to consider.


How to Search?


In order to pull up exactly what you need in a database, you need to query the database.  For most people, this means “enter some search terms”.  In the back end, a query is actually an incredibly sophisticated mathematical equation derived from your search terms that is called an algorithm.


It’s always a good idea to take the time to describe the unique elements of what you need. I can do a search for headphones, or I can do a search for noise-cancelling earbuds with Bluetooth – one is a very general search, so you should get more results, because anything defined as a headphone will show up in your results.  The other one is much more specific, so you’ll have fewer relevant results.


If you’re on a site that doesn’t sell headphones, then you won’t have success retrying your search using “noise cancelling earbuds with Bluetooth”.  It won’t help to add more search terms.


Bottom line – use unique terms as much as possible, but if that’s not helping, use more general search terms.  Maximize the results filters, and remember, adding more search terms might not always be helpful.


Happy searching!


Annette Demers
Associate Dean
Law Library and Legal Research Services
University of Windsor