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RA Survival Guide: Advanced Searching

Boolean Search Terms

Boolean searching is defined by the use of its terms and connectors.  Some of the most important words for Boolean searching are the connectors AND, OR, and NOT.  Using these three terms to connect various search terms helps the search engine target what is truly important to the researcher.

Table of Terms & Connectors

You can revisit the RA Bootcamp Advanced Searching Handout for reminders on Boolean connectors and how each of the major legal databases likes to use them.

For connectors in other databases use their advanced search functions or help pages to see which connectors are supported.

And here are resources for using these operators by preferred search engine:

More Search Tips!

Visit our Legal Research Tips for your Summer Work guide for more of our favorite research tips!

Boolean vs. Natural Language Searching

You may have heard the terms Boolean and Natural Language searching before, but did not know what they truly meant.  In short, natural language searching is when you type a question or query into a search bar and expect the machine working on the request to know what you intend to find.  Boolean searching, on the other hand, instructs the engine on exactly what to look for, what variations are acceptable, and how frequently a term should appear for a result to be considered a "hit" and shown to you.

Boolean searching is much more powerful and targeted, and as such, is a better tool for a researcher.  However, there's a cliché about power and responsibility that's worth revisiting here.  If you're not thoughtful in your Boolean searching you can easily end up with way too many results, way too little results, or results that look good but miss key components of your research topic.

This page will give you some basics on Boolean searching and how to best utilize it and other advanced searching techniques.  We also have a Boolean Basics video that is quite helpful as well.

Advanced Searching

Aside from using terms and connectors searching another critical but often overlooked search tool is the advanced search function available on most websites.

Advanced search helps narrow searches and occasionally offers reminders on the terms and connectors that a given search engine uses.  Even better, most databases, websites, and research tools often have an advanced search feature.  Look for it near a search bar the next time you use any of these services.

Advanced search often works to refine your search.  For example, look at how Google structures their advanced search page here

See how Google wants you to refine the search terms in a useful way in the first part of its advanced search page.  Once you’ve done that to the best of your ability, the page encourages you to preemptively narrow your results to certain websites, languages, etc.  The end result is a much more targeted search that should be more useful for the researcher.

More targeted research engines make even better use of the Advanced Search page.  Look at this screengrab from Westlaw:

You’ll see that in addition to the encouraged narrowing of search terms you’ll get the added functionality of running a search exclusively within certain parts of the document you’re looking for.  This is called “Field and Segment Searching.”  Here you can enter terms and ask Westlaw or Lexis to find only hits that have a certain term within certain fields or segments of a legal document.  As a helpful tip, the fields and segments change depending on the type of legal document you’re looking at.  To get the most out of this type of advanced searching, be sure to narrow your search just to a specific type of legal document that best fits your search needs (i.e. cases, statutes, regs, etc.).