Oh, how times have changed. Not too long ago, in order to do research for that college term paper, you had to get off your butt and go down to the local library, only to spend most of your time flipping through endless volumes of encyclopedia to find some snippets of information about your topic. Or maybe you got to know the card catalog, an ancient system of keeping the books of the library in some kind of order, only to usually find the one book you need to be either misplaced or not in the actual library. How about the wonderful microfiche machine, which you could use to view barely readable slides of old magazines and newspapers?
Yes, there was a time when this was our main method of locating valuable information, other than interviewing trusted sources themselves. Yet, as technology has changed so rapidly in the past 20 years, so have our means to study and research. In the past, students and professionals had to spend many hours and jump through many hoops to acquire information that today can be obtained in seconds with the power of the Internet. No other aspect of life has changed more than our ability to gather and organize our knowledge of things, and of anyone's ability to retrieve that knowledge.
However, because of the dynamics of how we locate information change at such a rapid rate, researchers have to be on top of the latest technology if they want to earn a reputation among their peers. Resources that were used yesterday may no longer be applicable today. Knowing where to look, and more importantly, how to look is invaluable.
Anybody can type a word into a search box and push a button. Many are aware that search engines such as Google and Yahoo! have created complex algorithms to retrieve and index information on the web. However, just because we have the ability to search for information on any topic that we can think of doesn't mean we necessarily will find the information we are looking for. The key is understanding how to utilize the power these search engines possess and how to use that power to your advantage.
Next time you're is sitting if front of a computer screen, visit Google.com. Type a research topic in the search box, and run the search. Now, pay close attention to the following aspects of the search results.
Sponsored Links - These results occur because an advertiser paid to have their link appear for this specific search result. For research purposes, it is never smart to use a sponsored result as a research tool; the intention of these pages is usually to sell a product or service. Unless the website in question has lots of genuine content regarding the subject matter, stay away.
Titles - Notice the keywords you search, highlighted in blue? These are the page titles of each web page Google has ranked as relevant to the search result. You may want to pay attention to these; if you see a trusted brand or authority name in a title, you may want to reference them instead of a similar result. The same applies for the url of the result listed. Remember, just because information is available online, doesn't mean that it's true. Stick with trusted sources when studying relevant information.
Descriptions - The descriptions are usually part of a "meta" tag of the website, and are usually not seen on an actual web page. Be wary as many write their descriptions to seem like authorities on a subject; do not base a website's authority on their Google description.
The "Cached" Link - Instead of taking you directly to the web page, the "cached" link will open the page in a special window, with the keyword text you entered highlighted. This enables you to quickly locate the page's relevance to the topic you are searching for. This feature is often overlooked by everyday searchers but is an important feature to use.
Now let's do the search again, this time using Google's "Advanced Search" options. You'll find there are many different ways to look up information in a search engine other than just typing in a few words.
"All of the words" - Just an ordinary search function, which searches for a word or words in no particular order.
"With the exact phrase" - Searches for only the phrase that you type in, with one word followed by another. This can also be achieved by using quotes in the regular Google search bar.
"With at least one of the words" - This will search for any of the words typed in, but may return results that don't contain one of the words. The shortcut here is to use the word OR in the regular search box.
"Without the words" - By using this function (or by using the "minus" key in regular search), you can tell Google to return results that don't contain a specific word.
As you can see, there is far more to locating information in a search engine than entering text into a box. By using the special search functions, you have the ability to drill down in the search engine's results far deeper and find more relevant information. One more important thing to also consider here are the actual words being used. Be aware of them and make sure that what you're looking for and what you're searching for are the same thing. Too many times people become frustrated with their research only to find they were misspelling a phrase or searching for the wrong thing.
Don't think that the power of search stops there. Many new services have popped up over the past few years that enable the user to search within different parameters of the search engine results. Each of these services are great ways to not only find up to date relevant information, but also to be constantly updated with new information as soon as becomes available.
Google News - When it comes to research, up to date information is a must. Sure you could by every newspaper on the planet or watch every news broadcast filmed every day to find that breaking news story you are looking for. Or, you could search Google News and find up-to-the-minute information from all over the world.
Google Blog Search - The blogosphere has literally changed the way the world receives news and information. Because of the ease of creating and maintaining a blog these days, millions have popped up in just a few short years. How does anybody sift through millions of blog posts and find any relevant information? Cue Google's Blog Search, which applies Google's complex algorithm to the millions of blogs that exist on the web (often referred to as the "blogosphere") and ranks them according to authority and relevance. Do be slightly cautions when using a blog as research; make sure the blogger is an obvious expert by checking his/her "about page" for credentials, testimonials, and references.
Google Alerts - Here's a cool idea. You tell Google what topics you are doing research on. When Google finds news, blog posts, or other information, it emails this information to you. That's the concept behind Google Alerts. The process saves you from manually searching for the same thing over and over again, automating the process.
Yahoo! Answers - Sometimes you want to hear what actual people talk about a subject, and avenues such as blogs are a great way to hear those voices. A more direct method exists that let's you just come out and ask a question. Yahoo! Answers let's you pose a question to its army of users, who can respond to your queries. This can be a great tool for those off the wall questions that can't be answered with regular search. Be mindful of what you're asking and more importantly who's answering them.
Social Media Networks
You most likely stumbled upon (no pun intended) this article using a social network or social media site. Good news, then, because you're already on your way to researching better! These networks have already changed the way we organize and share the world's information in just a few short years. Social networking and media sites work like a search engine in that people vouch for a website through votes, tags, and links. These sites differ because they are democratic, as in no algorithm makes a decision on what's relevant and what's not; the people decide. And that can be a very powerful thing when it comes to locating information. Let's take a look at how each of these destinations are doing it.
Digg - One of the most popular social media sites, Digg allows its users to to submit news stories for an online community to vote on. As stories get more votes, they get pushed closer to the front page where thousands of people visit every day. Many useful resources pop up, usually in the form of lists, to assist in your studies. Next time you're looking for information, use Digg's advance search and find stories that were "dugg" the most; you have the option of searching recent articles as well as the most popular articles of all time.
Delicious - Users of the social bookmarking site Delicious use "tags" to organize their favorite web pages. For example, someone might find a great article about sushi, and tag that article in delicious using the word "sushi". As more and more people tag that same article, the more of a chance it has to either be featured on the delicious home page or featured in the search results. This organization of the people works great, because when you find information that has been tagged over and over again, you just know it's gonna be good stuff.
MySpace - I know your what your thinking... MySpace as a research tool? That's insane! Think about it. There are millions of people and groups on MySpace who are experts in at least one subject. Many share their interests on their profiles, and you can search these interests using MySpace's search function. Find people who work in the industry you're studying and add them to your friends. Send messages, leave comments, and start discussions. You may even be able to get an interview and grab quotes as part of your research. Plus, you might meet some cool people while you're at it. Just stay away from fake profiles and you'll be okay!
LinkedIn - Since we're on the topic of meeting experts, what better place to go then where they all hang out. LinkedIn is a career and job networking site. Again, use it to locate educated people in specific industries. In addition to meeting new people and gathering information, you may also make an important career connection that could blossom in the future.
Technorati - The method of research used with Technorati is going to be very similar to Google Blog Search. It's a blog search engine. However, Technorati also uses some rather tasty tag-based bookmarking system for blog posts, so bloggers and the community have some say as to what's relevant and what's not. Use the same cautions addressed before when searching blog posts about a subject; you don't want to look foolish using an unqualified blogger as a resource.
By now you've probably gotten a much better grasp on how to use Internet applications more constructively. Many go about their day using these services the same way they used them five years ago. So much has changed since then, and so much more information about a topic can be located and used because of the advances of this technology. In order to make your research the best that it can be, make sure to utilize the different resources available online. However, don't completely disregard traditional sources like the library. While aspects may be outdated, getting away from the computer for a little while will make your work seem less monotonous. You'll also have the pleasure of talking to people face to face, which is something we all need as much as possible and something that a computer will never be able to duplicate.