Research on the Internet can seem convenient, but if you are not careful, you can spend a lot of time looking at irrelevant results without finding the information you need.
The Internet can also be a rabbit hole where you come in with a specific inquiry, but end up pursuing topics until you forget what you were looking for in the first place.
Also remember that Google is a business, so it is more likely to show commercial results than it is to dig up the name of the authoritative source you needed to round out your research. Even if Google doesn’t intend to show commercial results first, companies put time and money in trying to get their websites to rank on the first page organically. Sites are ranked by robots, not humans, based on algorithms.
Filter out irrelevant results
In Google, you can use a Boolean operator to filter out results that are not related to your inquiry. For example, if you are working on a story about the sewer system, in London, Ontario, your inquiry might look something like this:
[london ontario sewer system -UK -Britain –England]
You can also use the word NOT in capital letters.
Can’t remember who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you”? Well, that quote is probably famous enough that Google will jog your memory. However, let’s say your results actually list a bunch of things your country can’t do for you. In that case, you can put it in quotations.
[“ask not what your country can do for you”]
Usually you will come to your research with a specific idea in mind. For example, you don’t want to know everything about the Baroque era. You just want to know about the composers. Or you want to talk about how a particular composer was an artist of the era. Then you might search:
Baroque AND Vivaldi
Limit the types of results by telling Google what you want. For example, you can select news articles, books or scholarly articles.
Often your search results will take you to Google Books, where you can read portions of books for free. If you find them relevant you can buy them, or navigate to your local library site and find them there. You can also start your search at Google Books to get a wider number of recommendations and search the pages of a relevant book.
Skimming a long page or PDF to find out if it has the information you are looking for can be tedious. You can use the Find command to search words on a page. Look under the file menu or just use control + F (Windows) or command + F (Mac OS).
Get more results
What if you have the opposite problem? You’ve searched your topic and returned too many results. Have you ever searched for something and then, frustrated with the results, rephrased your search in the form of a question? For example, you want to find out how much tickets are to an event, but your results to the query just return a bunch of reviews talking about how the cost is too high, or how much it costs to produce the event. Maybe the answer is there, but it’s on the third page. So, instead, you type in “How much are tickets to X event?”
You can apply the opposite philosophy to get more results to your inquiry. Take out “are”, “to” and replace “how much” with “cost” and you will probably get not only the cost of attending the event, but reviews, news stories and other broad information.
Another good practice is to use the root of the word you are researching. For example, instead of searching “flamenco dancing”, search for “flamenco dance”.
If you are researching a novel or film, you may be frustrated by the fact that the search engines don’t recognize words like “the”, “and” and “but”, which are part of the title. Since titles tend to include common words, you may get page full of unrelated results. One solution is to use the + sign. For example, “+the raven” will return results about an Edgar Allan Poe poem rather than results about an actress or a large black bird.
Use the advanced settings. Sometimes you might be annoyed by old results that are no longer relevant. Sometimes, you want a company’s financials and you know that this will likely be in a PDF or Excel sheet. Sometimes you get results from other countries when you are doing a local search. You can customize many different parameters in the “Advanced Search” page, which is located under “Settings.”
The more questions you ask, the more answers you will receive. Sometimes you may struggle to get Google to send you useful results. It can be helpful to find out what other people have asked about the same subject.
For example, if I wanted to know what John F. Kennedy meant, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you”, I might not find out by simply typing in what I can remember about the speech. However, Google has helpfully spit out some suggested queries. One suggested query is, “What is the inaugural address by John F. Kennedy about?” If I scroll down to the bottom of the page, there are some related inquires that are not necessarily in the form of a question, which Google calls “Related searches.” One of these related searches is “ask not what your country can do for you speech analysis.”
Use the tilde (~) in front of a word to get synonyms. Sometimes you may not realize that you are using a limiting search term. For example, you may have heard that a few years ago, a company you are covering dumped some toxic chemicals into a ravine. If you search for ravine, you may not know that everyone in town, including the author of the environmental report, calls it a gully.
If you already know the common synonyms for your search term, you can use the OR operator or the | operator. The difference is OR will return results with both phrases and | will return results with either phrase. For example, you could search for “ravine OR gully toxic spill” or “ravine | gully toxic spill.” Since these results give me a lot of unrelated results about a certain film, I can modify results to “ravine | gully +toxic +spill –ferngully”
Use an asterisk to get results for all the possible word endings related to your search. For example, search for “environment*” and you will get results for both environment and environmental. You can use this asterisk anywhere in a word. For example, search “enviro*” and you will return more search results, such as environmental products, company names, etc.
Try a different search tool. Don’t make the mistake of thinking Google is the ultimate source of all knowledge. Sometimes smaller services will return more accurate or useful results. Even though Google claims spending money won’t boost your position in search, many large companies are right up there for irrelevant search terms. Smaller search engines may be more likely to display less commercial results, or because they get less traffic, they may remember interesting pages from the past, that Google may have forgotten.
It’s also easier to generate non-localized, non-personalized results in search engines that aren’t as capable of tracking your every movement on the web.
Visit your library from home. Most public libraries subscribe to a variety of databases that would be prohibitively costly for you to access on your own. Login to your library’s website to find out what’s available or ask a librarian for recommendations based on your topic.
Gather new story ideas and sources
Not only will related searches help you find more information about the topic, they can also give you new ideas for topics. If I read through the related searches about the Kennedy speech, I find that many people feel he should have given credit for paraphrasing an author named, Khalil Gibran, who said something very similar, except about politicians, not the public.
If I choose to use this information, my essay might go in a very different direction than I originally intended.
Companies and organizations that have been around for a long time have a lot of information on their websites. This could include financials, annual reports, press releases, speech transcripts, strategic plans and more. You may not be able to access this information from the main pages. Let’s say you want to dive deeply into the background of a CEO. You can search the whole site for his or her name using “site:url CEO name”. For example, “site: corporate.exxonmobil.com darren woods” returns page results from the company website, such as biography. You can also search news sites using this same method in order to do background research with third party sources. Try visiting his alma mater, Texas A&M, to see if there is any trace of him there in the back pages of the site. (There isn’t, by the way.)
Use suffixes in your search to find authoritative sites. For example, in the United States, you can search your topic and “edu” to find information on university sites. “Org” is typically used by non-profits. US government departments will often use “gov”, whereas the Canadian government uses “gc.ca”. For example, if you only want to know what non-profits are saying about caribou populations, you can search “site:org caribou population.” Keep in mind that there are no restrictions on “.org”. Anyone can buy a domain with this suffix, so don’t assume that the site you are visiting is non-profit.
Find similar sites. If you are sick of getting a quote from the same people every time, you can look for similar websites. This function is great for beat reporters who want to develop a list of all the groups and organizations they should be following. The phrase you should use is “Related:url”. For example, if I want to be an art reporter in Vancouver, I can use the website of a popular artist, to find other artists I can follow. If I’m a business reporter, I can quickly find out who a company’s main competitors are. If I can’t get a source at the most well known environmental group to talk to me by deadline, I can quickly find a similar organization.
As well, if I find a site that is particularly useful to my research, I can find out if there are other sites that have similar information.
Sometimes you need a passionate “Average Joe or Jane” to give you the layperson’s perspective. Sometimes you are looking for stakeholders to comment on an issue. For example, let’s say a ski resort was about to shut down. You might want to talk to some average skiers about their feelings on this issue. Maybe a comic festival is coming to your town. This would be a great time to have regular fans comment. A good place to find commenters is in forums. You can go to Google Groups to find enthusiasts with interesting perspectives.
Contact your source
Many companies and organizations don’t use email addresses on their websites because they attract spam, but you can still track down your sources. Use an at (@) sign with your search of their name and it might come up somewhere else, for example, a membership list or newsletter for a local club. Use the company name and the (@) sign and you might be able to find out how the company structures their emails. They may use email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, etc.
You can also use the search function within social media. SEO specialists have debated whether or not Google takes social media into consideration in its search results. However you can always search people, follow people and direct message people from right inside the apps.
Of course, you can always just pick up the phone. Companies and organizations aren’t shy with their phone numbers though you might have trouble getting through to the right extension.
Keep your citations organized
Even quoting ideas without attribution can be considered plagiarizing. While you are researching keep track of the pages you visit and what relevant information you would like to include from each page. This could be done in a Word document, or you may want to use software, like Zotero.
You can also use bookmarks to create folders and sort your sources into the folders. For example, if you were reporting on a major infrastructure project, you might want to make folders for environmental issues, financial information, labour issues, etc.
Assess the source
Make sure you are on a credible page. Who is the source? What are their credentials to be writing about the information?
Who are their sources? Do they list or refer to sources? Where are they getting their information? How many sources did they quote? Did they take the time to verify the information given to them by the source?
Is this an objective article or an opinion piece? If the article appears to be objective, are they leaving information out? Are there any areas where the author’s biases shine through?
What kind of site is this? Is it news, academic, entertainment, personal blog, commercial, advocacy?
Are they selling a product or service? Is the product or service kept separate from the research?
Is it original research or simply a summary?
How old is this site? When was it last updated? Who owns this website? Is the writing professional, or is it full of errors?
There are many different ways you can assess the credibility of a site. However, don’t make the mistake of rejecting any information that doesn’t seem to come from a high level authority. In some cases, you may just need to do more research to verify the information being given.
If you do a web search for almost anything, you might find Wikipedia at the top of the heap in organic search results. Your teachers and professors may have already warned you about Wikipedia. Anyone can edit the information on a Wikipedia page. The fact that anyone can correct errors or biases, doesn’t mean that anyone actually will. It’s mainly the high profile pages that get attention from Wikipedia editors. However, Wikipedia authors tend to cite sources. Check out the sources at the bottom of the article. Maybe there is something you can use in your research.
Avoid sites that don’t have a detailed about page. If the site seems to be completely anonymous, that’s a good sign that the person or group behind the site doesn’t stand behind what they are saying. You can always check out “Whois” to look up the name of a person who owns a website. However, most domain hosts offer a privacy plan that hides this information.
The most important thing to remember about research on the Internet is that not everything you need is on the Internet. Get out and talk to people, read books and diversify your sources.
Learn how to do primary and secondary research by picking up your copy of How to Become a Journalist without a Degree.