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A Guide to Sensible Internet Research

Here we are, decades after the advent of the Internet. It is perhaps the most profound and fundamental influence on the sharing of human knowledge since Gutenberg printed the first mass-published Bible. Prior to the invention of the printing press, each copy of a manuscript had to be painstakingly duplicated by hand. Prior to the invention of the Internet, physical copies of books, magazines, newspapers and other printed materials had to be directly consulted for their knowledge and wisdom. Today, the world is a much different place.

The Internet allows access from locations around the world, allowing writers in the United States to share knowledge and ideas with people from Taiwan, India, France, etc. almost instantaneously. Anyone who wants to can publish information on literally any topic imaginable. This is also the Internet’s biggest weakness.

There is no single authority overseeing the quality and reliability of information resources on the Internet, nor is there a single means to index or locate the existing resources. With so many unqualified resources and search means, researchers must carefully plan their research strategy, understand the nature and limits of the search tools available, and to critically consider the quality and reliability of any information they draw from the Internet.

Developing a Research Strategy

In developing a research strategy, it is crucial that you first understand the questions to which you are seeking answers. Breaking down your topic into its component parts will allow you to analyze the details and to determine what information you need, why you need it, and how it relates to your research topic. Once you have this understanding, your information search will go a lot smoother. It will allow you to select research media and avenues more appropriate to the types of information you need. You also must identify what form of information you need. Do you need raw statistical data or would a summarization of the data suffice? Do you need bibliographic data on books or magazines that will allow you to locate those resources for you research? Does a notable figure in the subject you are researching have a blog containing relevant information? The questions go on and on without end.

In the conducting of your research, the websites of scholarly, academic or industry journals may be prime sources of information. Additionally, the sites of educational, governmental and nonprofit organizations are considered, for the most part, reliable sources on their specific subjects as well. However, caution is advised regarding the use of blog and Wikipedia-like sources. These are often unreliable collaborations or interpretations of other, more reliable resources.

Identifying Your Strategy’s Structure

To begin your Internet research, it is necessary to identify the keywords, relevant phrases, and general subject categories the information you seek may be hiding under. In this process, it is necessary to also identify synonyms, distinctive related terms, and alternate spellings of your topics. For example, in America we use the word honor, but in Great Britain, it is spelled honour.

Using a search engine like Ask.com can be another valuable resource in developing your list of keywords and phrases. Ask.com will offer search suggestions as you type in your subject and will give options to narrow or expand your search on the search results page. This feature can be extremely helpful. Another is Kartoo.com which shows search results in a graphic format, will display common keywords of the sites displayed, and will even indicate which displayed site contains what keywords. Again, this is extremely helpful.

Search Mechanism

Another thing to be aware of when using search engines is their internal search mechanisms. Some search engines support the use of Boolean logic. Boolean logic use search operators such as “and”, “or”, and “not” to qualify the search parameters. These allow the searcher to force the inclusion or exclusion of websites based upon their containing relevant keywords.

Search engines that do not use Boolean logic will typically operate on a “relevancy searching” or “relevancy ranking” basis. This technique as first used by the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS), but has been popularized by search engines such as Google. These search engines base the presentation of relevant web pages based on a variety of factors, mostly revolving around popularity of a given site and its inclusion of keywords in the text of the web page. Truncation is another search option that many of the most powerful search engines support. This allows you to input a partial word such as “soci” and end up with a search that includes sociology, social, socioeconomic, sociopolitical, socialist, socialism, and several others that escape me at the moment. Still others allow the use of wildcards, a special symbol embedded in the search word similar to Window’s use of * to represent missing letters. This can come in quite handy if you know the first few letters of a word and the last one or two, but not how to spell the word precisely.

Search engines also have rather serious limitations on their usefulness. More often than not, any particular search will turn up websites having little or no usable information on them, or worse, little or no relationship to your original search. Let us use an extreme example of this for the moment. Type in the words “adolescent sexuality” (referring to teenage sex conduct) or “breastfeeding” (referring to the actual feeding of a baby) and see what results are located. More often than not, the search results will be polluted with websites containing pornography instead of relevant information, making the search for real information on the subject difficult, if not impossible, to locate.

One possible answer to this is to utilize Internet directories. Internet directories are lists of pre-screened websites on specific topics. They are usually organized into category-based selection systems, allowing you a variety of options to limit or refine which website groups you are actually interested in. Although not listed in its usual option screens, Google has a directory of this type at http://www.google.com/dirhp that I personally use frequently.

Picking Your Poison

As you can see, there are many ways of searching for information on the Internet, each with advantages and disadvantages. The primary key to finding information on the Internet is to know what kind of information you are looking for and understanding how each search method works in bringing you that information. With this understanding you can better select which search engine and technique will have a better chance of locating the information you need. This includes knowing what part of the document the search tool scans.

How the search engine gathers its information and how frequently it is updated are also important considerations. One of the best methods is monthly “spider crawls” where a software robot combs the website in detail, cataloging and grading each page based on its keywords and relevancy of the content to those keywords. Some search engines also take into account how many other websites contain links to the website or page it is examining.

Lastly, do not rely on any one source or search tool. I personally use at least three (Google.com, Ask.com, and Kartoo.com) when conducting research. Although you may get duplicate sources among your search results, using multiple search engines (each of which catalog websites using different parameters) will give you better overall results. Also, pay close attention to the results themselves. Some resulting websites either may be specialized directories covering your topic or may contain a webpage of related or interesting links that can lead you to relevant information.

Considering the Source

As mentioned earlier, almost anyone can publish information on the Internet. With no true qualifying authority to judge the validity or relevance of a given source, a critical viewpoint of the information you locate is advisable. Do not accept your findings as gospel unless you can find confirming sources or interview a corroborating expert. If something seems suspicious to you, dig deeper.

Four basic questions can assist you in this, addressing the reliability, authority, objectivity, and relevance of the information found. Resources that fail one or more of these questions should be considered suspect, at very least. First, where did the information come from? Information from academic, scientific, and governmental websites is considered far more reliable that information obtained from a commercial or special-interest group website. Exceptions to this do exist, but must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Second, who posted the information and what are their credentials? Postings by industry experts may or may not be authoritative whereas postings by college and university professors are considered such. Third, why was the information made available? Is the company or organization purely sharing unbiased data or do they have other agendas? Is the information objective or is it slanted in a particular direction? Does the information appear well-researched and developed with reputable citations? Emails to the providers of questionable materials requesting identification of their sources may clarify many of these objectivity issues.

Lastly, how old is the information. When was it first available? Interviewing a librarian a few years ago, I was told they have a rule of thumb. Ten years good, twenty years suspect, thirty years archive. The philosophy reflected here is even more true when it comes to Internet resources. Also, do not rely on the “copyright” notice at the bottom of the web page. Often times these are linked to JavaScripts that change the year to the current year, making it seem the web page is new when it could, in fact, be a decade (or more) old. Some point to this practice as an effective negation of the intent behind copyrights.

Final Thoughts

Researchers of all types find the Internet a true challenge for many of the reasons I have mentioned here. Many of them end up thumping their heads on the desk in frustration. Others give up altogether. This frustration does not have to be tolerated. Our company employs hundreds of fully qualified professional writers who are highly experienced in both Internet and offline research techniques. All it takes to tap their expertise is a simple order that will probably take you less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee.

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