Make Your Keyword Search Just Right

Forest path

HeinOnline recently announced a simplified syntax for proximity searching. Instead of using parentheses and the tilde symbol, a complicated construction that no one could remember, you can now use “w/n” (where w means within and n is a number) to specify how close together you want your search terms to appear.

For example, to search for “construction” within 5 words of “defect”, type “construction w/5 defect”.

This is good news. HeinOnline’s new proximity search option brings it closer in line with the standard convention used on Westlaw, Lexis and CanLII. All three use a “/n” for finding search terms in proximity. Making the connectors simpler is important because proximity searching is really the key to productive online searching.

Let’s apply the Goldilocks principle to some common keyword search strategies:

Too narrow

Searching by phrase, done by enclosing your terms in parentheses, is often too narrow. For example, searching for the phrase “punitive damages” in a case law database will likely yield relevant results. But by locking your terms together, you’re blind to a host of other potentially useful decisions where the court may have discussed “punitive and aggravated damages”.

Use phrase searching selectively and with caution.

Too broad

Using Boolean operators, AND, OR, NOT between your search terms often results in a search that’s too broad or loose. The documents you find may only include sporadic occurrences of your terms or your terms may be too far apart to be relevant.

Just right!

Making effective use of proximity connectors, and combining proximity searching with other keyword search strategies, can make your search just right. Proximity connectors are flexible. Through trial and error, you can adjust how close you need your terms to be to find relevant information.

Here are the basic proximity connectors available to you on the major legal online services:

 Product  Connector  Explanation
WestlawNext /p, /s,  /n within the same paragraph (/p), sentence (/s), or n terms (/n)
Lexis Advance Quicklaw /p, /s,  /n within the same paragraph (/p), sentence (/s), or n terms (/n)
CanLII /p, /s,  /n within the same paragraph (/p), sentence (/s), or n terms (/n)
HeinOnline w/n within n terms (/n)