A common approach in content based video information retrieval is to perform automatic shot annotation with semantic labels using pre-trained classifiers. The visual vocabulary of state-of-the-art automatic annotation systems is limited to a few thousand concepts, which creates a semantic gap between the semantic labels and the natural language query. One of the methods to bridge this semantic gap is to expand the original user query using knowledge bases. Both common knowledge bases such as Wikipedia and expert knowledge bases such as a manually created ontology can be used to bridge the semantic gap. Expert knowledge bases have highest performance, but are only available in closed domains. Only in closed domains all necessary information, including structure and disambiguation, can be made available in a knowledge base. Common knowledge bases are often used in open domain, because it covers a lot of general information. In this research, query expansion using common knowledge bases ConceptNet and Wikipedia is compared to an expert description of the topic applied to content-based information retrieval of complex events. We run experiments on the Test Set of TRECVID MED 2014. Results show that 1) Query Expansion can improve performance compared to using no query expansion in the case that the main noun of the query could not be matched to a concept detector; 2) Query expansion using expert knowledge is not necessarily better than query expansion using common knowledge; 3) ConceptNet performs slightly better than Wikipedia; 4) Late fusion can slightly improve performance. To conclude, query expansion has potential in complex event detection. © 2015, The Author(s).