Oh, how times have changed. Not too long ago, in order to research a specific topic, you had to get off your butt and go down to the local library, only to spend most of your time flipping through endless encyclopedia volumes to find snippets of information. Maybe you got to know the card catalog, an ancient system of keeping the library books in some kind of order, only to find the one book you needed either misplaced or not in the library all together. How about the wonderful microfiche machine, which you could use to view barley readable slides of old magazine and newspapers?
Yes, there was a time when this was our main method of locating valuable information, other than actually interviewing trusted sources themselves. Yet in the past 20 years as technology has rapidly changed, 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 on the Internet. Perhaps 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 how we locate information changes 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.
Google, Yahoo, & Search
Anybody can type a word into a search box and push the 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 doesn't mean we necessarily will find the information we are looking for. The key is understanding how to use search engines’ power and how to use that power to your advantage.
Next time your bum 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 appear 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 to sell a product or service. Unless the web site in question features a lot 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. 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 - Descriptions are usually part of a "meta" tag of the web site and are usually not seen on an actual web page. Be wary as many people write page descriptions to appear as authorities on a subject; do not base a web site’s authority on their Google description.
The "Cached" Link - Instead of taking you directly to a 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 pages relevant to your search. This feature is often overlooked, but it is an important feature to use.
Now let's do the search again, this time using Google's "Advanced Search" options. You'll find that 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" is an ordinary search function, which searches for a word or words in no particular order.
"With the exact phrase" searches only for 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" searches 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" this function (or by using the "minus" key in regular search) tells Google to return results that don't contain a specific word.
As you can see, there is far more to search engines than just entering text into a box. By using special search functions, you have the ability to drill down into the search engine's results deeper to find more relevant information.
One more important thing to consider is the actual searched words. Be aware of them and make sure that what you're looking for and what you're searching for is the same thing. Often, people become frustrated while researching only to find that they were misspelling a phrase or searching for the wrong thing.
Now, don't think that the search power 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. Not only is each of these services a great way to find up to date, relevant information, but each is also a great way to stay abreast of new information as it becomes available.
Google News - When it comes to research, finding up to date information is a must. Sure, you could buy every newspaper on the planet or watch every daily news broadcast. Or, you could search Google News and find up-to-the-minute information regarding a subject.
Google Blog Search - The blogosphere has literally changed the way the world receives news and information. The ease of creating and maintaining a blog has lead to millions of blogs popping 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. However, do be slightly cautions when using a blog as research; make sure the blogger is an obvious expert by checking his about page for credentials, testimonials, and references. It also doesn't hurt to Google a blogger's name to learn more about his reputation online!
Google Alerts - Here's a cool idea. You tell Google what topics you are researching. 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 regarding a subject. Avenues such as blogs are great ways to hear those voices. Yahoo Answers lets you pose a question to its army of users who respond to your query. This can be a great tool for those off the wall questions that can't be answered with regular search. I have said this before and will say it again: be mindful of what you're asking and more importantly who's answering them.
Social Media Networks
Ten dollars says you stumbled upon this article using a social network or social media site. Good news, then, you're already on your way to researching better! Social media networks have changed the way we organize and share information.
Social networking and media sites work like a search engine; people vouch for a web site through votes, tags, and links. However, these sites differ because they are democratic; the people decide what is relevant. This can be a very powerful thing when it comes to locating information.
Let's take a look at how each of these destinations is doing it.
Digg - Digg is one of the most popular social media sites. It allows its users to submit news stories for the community to vote on. As stories receive more votes, they are pushed closer to the front page where thousands of people visit every day.
Next time you're looking for information, use Digg's advance search to 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. Imagine going to Time magazine and asking for the most popular articles in their history about a subject, and they'd probably laugh at you.
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 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 - Now hold on. I know your what your thinking: MySpace as a research tool? That's insane! Think about it though. There are millions of people and groups on MySpace who are experts on at least one thing. Many share their interests on their profiles, and you can search these interests using MySpaces 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 those fake profiles and you'll be okay!
Linked In - Since were on the topic of meeting experts, what better place to go then where they all hang out. Linked In is the career and job networking site on the web. 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 researching with Technorati is very similar to the 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 as addressed before when searching for blog posts about a subject; you don't want to look foolish using an unqualified blogger as a resource.
RSS (Real Simple Syndication)
If you're new to RSS, then you are truly missing out on a fantastic way to keep up with the web. Without RSS, doing all the things that have been discussed so far would take so much time and would drain you.
RSS automates most of the process of visiting web sites to find information; after you visit once, you can just subscribe to the sites' RSS feed. You are then constantly notified when that site is updated. This technology works well with specific search queries and especially well with blogs. Rather than visiting a blog to see if it has anything new to offer, your RSS reader does the job for you.
Here's how it works: First a web page has to offer a separate "feed" for you to subscribe to. You'll know right off the bat whether or not it's available (if the web designer does his job right!) Look for the universal RSS button (or a variation of it) to denote that RSS is present. Next, you're gonna need a reader to collect your subscriptions. Some of the more popular feed readers out there are the Google Reader and Bloglines. After getting a reader, you can then subscribe to an RSS feed. Any time that site is updated, the feed is updated in your reader and you'll know that new information is present. RSS feed is priceless technology that will save you countless hours and is much more convenient then traditional web browsing.
By now, you've probably gotten a much better grasp on how to use Internet applications more constructively than you may have in the past. 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 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, it's also a note not to completely disregard traditional sources like the library. While aspects of it may be outdated, getting away from the computer for a little while will make your work seem less monotonous and will seem like a change of pace. 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.
In addition, locating professionals in your community is another fantastic way to build your research and interact with others; there's even the possibility you'll teach them something new! Paired with the resources of the 'Net, there's no excuse for you not to have the most educated research around. Remember, research isn't about gathering a bunch of stones; it's about gathering the most educated data out there, and you're gonna have to talk to others and go digging around before you find that special rock. Knowing who to talk to, where you're going, and how to use the map will make your studies just as exciting as they are educational.