10 tips for effective keyword searches

Knowing how to formulate effective searches can be a big help to your OSINT or verification efforts

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Despite the ubiquity of visual media, text is still arguably the backbone of the internet. Even sites that are primarily visual, such as YouTube, depend on it to keep organised. When searching for information or content — whether on a breaking incident or in an effort to debunk or verify — effective use of keywords is crucial to effectiveness and efficiency. These tips should help you formulate better searches.

1. Be specific, and vary

All content will not be described in the same way. Try to put yourself in the position of multiple uploaders. As well as “bushfire”, try fire, wildfire, blaze, burning… and as many as you can think of.

2. Use different parts of speech

As well as “flood”, use floods, flooding, flooded etc.

3. Placenames

If you know the relevant location, use the name of the town, street, square and so on. Are there variations on the names people use? Berlin’s Kottbusser Tor area, for example, is commonly referred to as “Kotti”.

​4. Don’t go too broad

If an incident takes place in Times Square, searching for “New York” is likely to cause you to be inundated with irrelevant content. * Take into account also factors such as population density and level of development to get an idea of how much content may be uploaded from an area.

4. Acronyms and abbreviations

Are there groups or organisations involved that are commonly referred to by shortened versions e.g. ESMAD, PKK

​5. Hashtags

Hashtags — e.g. #FridaysForFuture or #BlackLivesMatter — are commonly used to organise information and content related to events. Tip: When searching for a hashtag on Twitter, leave out the # symbol. When you do this, your results include all instances of the phrase, with and without the #, in case someone has omitted it. If you include it, you will miss instances where it hasn’t been used.

6. Slang and jargon

Did you know that in Chile, a water cannon truck is commonly referred to as a “guanaco”? Or that the French word for demonstration — manifestation — is often shortened to “manif”? Watch out for such variations, or you may be missing out.

​7. Try common misspellings

How often have you seen the word “lightning” misspelled as “lightening”? Don’t depend on people having perfect spelling, especially at times of excitement.

​8. The personal touch

During breaking incidents, try combining keywords with words such as me, my or mine — this may increase your chances of getting firsthand descriptions or original content.

9. Negative keywords

Exclude words using the — symbol to reduce false positives e.g. if looking for information or content related to an avalanche, set “Colorado” or their opposition as negative keywords so you don’t get a whole lot of ice hockey. This can also help if you notice that someone is trying to take advantage of a trending keyword to promote their unrelated posts.

10. Test, modify and iterate

Keep an eye on which terms are proving effective. twXplorer from Knight Lab is a helpful tool — enter a term and it searches Twitter and tells you what other words are most commonly appearing in the same tweets as it. Use tools such as Tweetdeck to organise your searches, and save lists of effective terms where you can find them when a similar situation arises.

* Try to get into the head of the poster or uploader — what words would you use?

* Be stubborn and creative.

Happy hunting!

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