How To Search: The Art Of Online Research

Do you know how to search specifically for what you want online?

It is no secret that the Internet is now the number one source of information in the world. With new content constantly being pushed out by the second, there are more than enough references to seek if you are searching for specific information related to your research.

From your online libraries, Wikipedia, Google scholar, and even Facebook pages; platforms seem to be growing at a consistent pace. But what most people don’t seem to realize is there is a shift in the flow of information around the Internet.

Most search engines right now are catered towards what it thinks you prefer to see. Check out this TedTalk by Eli Pariser where he talks about online “filter bubbles” here. In the video, Eli shows you how search engines like Google and Facebook filters out information depending on 57 different factors from which computers you are using, to which browser you are surfing from to where you are sitting. I understand the benefits for this when it comes to entertainment, YouTube has recommended and/or related videos, the same would come with gaming websites. But filtering information can be very dangerous when it comes to research, it can lead to biased points of views.

We could say the same thing with news, there is a clear difference when you compare Fox News (American) with Al Jazeera (Middle Eastern), but when you type down a search term like the “Libyan Revolution” on Google, the search engine will feed you results depending on your 57 factors, you might be seeing one of these two results:

Fox News

Al Jazeera

AlJazeeta_Results When you think about it, this is a very scary thing we are facing; the very fact that search engines might be feeding us bias information can affect our perceptions in almost everything. Learning how to search correctly is more important than ever. So what can we do to make sure we get exactly what we are looking for? How can we fight these “Information gate keepers” as Eli would say?

There are two parts to this solution, one would be for the existing search engines to be more transparent about these things and give us more control in what we want to search. The other one is in us and learning the art of the search. Before we get started, I want you to read this guide to Boolean logic if you are unfamiliar with it as it is an important Fundamental in digital search.

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Now that you have a clear idea of Boolean, here are some important rules of thumb you would have to know: – When searching for content, whether it is a book, an academic journal or a blog post, the most significant aspect of the search is the title and proximity.

A title may include author, date range (May 2nd 2010 to January 5th 2011), and sections, they will

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all qualify the information that is placed. The importance of a title is pretty clear. However, proximity is as equally as important because it creates relevance. For example, if you are a Canadian and you want to follow the provincial elections, you need to write Elections AND Ontario, they have to be in close relations. – With a Broad search, you may catch less than more. This is a trap that we very often fall into, especially with media monitoring solutions, your instinct will tell you that you would want to make your search term as broad as can be to catch as much as possible for you to do the filtering yourself.

Here is an example for how the exact opposite might occur: If you want to monitor reports on bullying in high schools, your main search term will be (Bully AND School), that is a good place to start, but it definitely should not stop there, you should also create another search term that says (Violence And School) or (Fight AND School). Precision is key! You have to understand that the computer only understands keywords. If you put a broad topic like bullying, you might miss out on articles about harassment or violence. Even the word School is to broad, are we talking about high schools or secondary schools? Are we talking about teenagers or adolescence? Understanding the term that you use will create a stronger base for your searching strategy.

One source I usually use is www.thesaurus.com to help me find synonyms I may have missed. – Create a concept map: Creating a concept map of thoughts will be very helpful with giving your search strategy direction, it will help you stay consistent with your search because it is easy to diverge, and by doing that, you can affect the quality of results where some dashboards will not fit in and won’t make sense.

A good way to start is to ask yourself questions, especially when choosing terminologies for your concept map, it has to be precise. If you put in Bullying you need to ask yourself, what exactly do I mean? What do I want to know? What is the goal of my research? Asking yourself the right questions is essential for a proper concept map. – Tricks to increase word efficiency: As you may have realized by now, your search term has to be precise to a certain extent because you will be getting exactly what you write. For example, typing “Steve Jobs” will yield results like this:

  • “Just finished reading the Steve Jobs biography. It’s really amazing!” and “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page – Steve Jobs from his biography”

Closer to October 5, 2011 (the date of his death), you will mostly be getting results like this:

  • “RIP Steve Jobs, one of the greatest inventors of our time”

But when you compare (“Steve Jobs” vs Jobs AND Apple AND Stocks) you would get results related to the effect of his death on Apple stocks. Two completely different results! Always ask yourself the proper questions. – The last thing to keep in mind when starting your research is the source.

From Academic Journals, to books, to online news sites to blogs and social media. The nature of your source will heavily influence the key words to put in. Especially when you compare traditional media vs social media; each segment will have its unique methodologies to form techniques; each has it’s own limitations and strategy for refining results. Each of these points can have its own blog, which is what we are going to do. We can really get into details for optimizing your search strategy.

5 replies
    • Mohammad Al Azzouni
      Mohammad Al Azzouni says:

      Good question Janelle. Here are some of the Ranking Factors that I know of:
      1.Location
      2.Web search history
      3.Click history
      4.Bounce history
      5.History of websites you’ve visited
      6.Browser
      7.Type of computer
      8.Social recommendations from “friends”
      9.The users own “likes” or +1’s
      10.Google bookmarks
      11.Google reader subscriptions

      If you figured out any more, feel free to share it!

      • Janelle Zhao
        Janelle Zhao says:

        So I did some digging around the web (hope it wasn’t biased, now I am just paranoid, thanks) and found this awesome plugin by Yoast where you can disable personalized search (http://yoast.com/tools/seo/disable-personalized-search-plugin/)

        I have yet to try it though.

        And I guess I should have known about those factors as they are all elements I see through Google Analytics. Hmm now I am not complaining so much being on the other side. I guess that’s a trade off and being aware of everything is key.

        So thanks for sharing!

        • Mohammad Al Azzouni
          Mohammad Al Azzouni says:

          It is important to understand the impact of these factors. I see it being useful when it comes to entertainment. Like Music, video games, books and even vacation destinations. But when it comes to news and research, you have to be aware of information bias.

          Thanks for the link! There are other ways to remove some of these filters. Logging out of your google account may remove the social filters, another technique is disabling your web history. But like you said, it is a trade off.

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