The NZ E-Discovery Blog  Facilitating proportionate and efficient e-discovery

Improving the effectiveness of keyword search terms

November 11th, 2021

As I mentioned previously, keyword search terms still can be an effective method of isolating important information, but they do have limitations and need to be carefully crafted. If they are not, then they will not find what you are searching for.

Anyone that has read any of my material or heard me speak will recognise my scepticism in how keyword searches are often applied.

This is not to say keyword search terms cannot be part of your toolkit. The problem is not using a search term approach, but the method in which they are applied.

Like all aspects of any approach – investing the time at the outset of a matter devising appropriate search terms, involving testing, sampling and potentially refining will give you a much better chance of finding what you are searching for.

These practical steps may assist in making a keyword search approach more effective.

Talk to your custodians

Use the knowledge of individuals involved to identify any specific language, terminology or abbreviations that may be specific to the matter.

Construct initial keyword search terms

This should be a combination of the terms from individuals involved in the matter and the legal team.

You have to start somewhere.

Test and sample the initial search terms

Run your intended search terms !

Identify the hit counts for each search term. Have they produced the results you were seeking? What is being captured and what is being missed?

Be aware of spelling mistakes, or different words that may refer to the same thing. The ability to quickly see the terms in their context is a powerful way to analyse if the terms need further revision.

When testing and sampling the results, it is important to:

  • ensure the keywords are comprehensively searching all file types;
  • be aware if one party has scanned paper documents that are not 100% searchable – their search terms will not capture the documents you are seeking [previously I have worked on matters where the other party had many of their documents as scanned images, which were far from 100% accurate as far as searchability, thus they missed many discoverable documents in their keyword search approach]; and
  • confirm the tool(s) being used to search for documents are capable of running the searches you require.

Refine keyword search terms

Often it is not until you run the search terms that you start to see the potential issues and what needs refining.

Are there variables of the search terms that should be run?

Applying search terms should be an iterative process. Often you may refine your search terms many times.

This may include co-operating with the other side until all parties can agree on the keywords that will be effective in locating the information you require. Again, it is important to do this early, rather than later and after considerable work has been undertaken.

Don’t go it alone

Seek help if you need it, as a trusted advisor can be invaluable in navigating you through the search process, helping you and your client to save time and money. They can assist you to test and sample the results, providing clarity of what the search terms may deliver and suggest potential variations that help you find what you are searching for.

This is usually a considerable advantage to get this help at an early stage. All this work early in the process will be a considerable advantage to substantiate your approach, as you seek to agree a proportionate approach with the other side.

Just one of many options in your toolkit

As I have highlighted, keyword search terms can still be an effective method in your discovery toolkit. However, to do so effectively it is essential to invest the time devising appropriate search terms, involving testing, sampling and potentially refining will give you a much better chance of finding what you are searching for.

Let me know if I can assist with helping you improve the effectiveness of your search terms, or with your eDiscovery generally.



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