Methods of Effective Internet Research
By Prof. Eric Popkoff, Business Program, Brooklyn College
Whenever you have surfed the net chances are you either clicked here and there or followed a trail of what interested you. Have you at times had your search seem like a scavenger hunt consumed with finding facts in different spots? If so, learning to use the Internet for research can be among the most useful skills that an individual can develop. To a beginner the Internet seems to be a large desert where it is difficult to find anything useful; however Internet Research can find an oasis on the desert. Once correctly utilized, Internet research can be used for a myriad of purposes such as: company research, research for a term paper or just getting essential information such as a weather forecast or local news. This article will outline some of the methods necessary to conduct an efficient, internet search quickly, and get the information you need.
The first step to an effective internet search is being familiar with the terms you are searching for. You search term should be as concise as possible, while still covering the area you would like to find. You should attempt to form keywords (main topic of research), phrases (avoid common phrases unless they are placed in quotes) and terms that describe your topic. The search should use nouns and pronouns as keywords when possible with the most important terms being placed first. Many search engines operate by Boolean operators which are set theory based and include the terms and, or and but among other terms. For example, if you would like to find the current price of oil in the United States a search term of “Oil” would come up with too many responses, such as baby oil, many of which would be totally unusable. A good search should be stated in the terms that you are looking for. In this case “oil prices in the United States” would be a better search term. Placing the search term in quotes asks the search engine for a match ONLY based on the terms within the quotes. Unless the search engine selected can accept plain English (which a growing number of search engines can) searching a search term not placed in quotes would result in a search for EVERY term in the search box. This obviously would not lead to an efficient search.
A good starting point for effective internet research is finding an effective search engine. Many different types of search engines are available such as a standard search engine such as www.google.com , an invisible web search engine such as www.incywincy.com , a Meta search engine such as www.ez2find.com , or a specialized search engine such as www.firstgov.gov .
A standard search engine such as Google, Yahoo and other popular search engines perform many functions. It may in addition to conducting searches look up phone numbers, create maps, give local news and other functions. In this sense this is type of search engine is the “Swiss army knife” of internet. As a rule the standard search engine performs searching at a poor to fair level. With a standard search engine you get searching capability from one source without any “bells and whistles” that are present from the more specialized search engines. A true professional researcher would avoid using this type of search engine and instead would use a more suitable search mechanism. In general searches using this type of search engine yield many results that are not particularly well organized, meaning if you don’t find what you need in the first few pages of results you will not have the time to go through hundreds of pages of results.
A Meta search engine such as ez2find or vivisimo differs greatly in both capability and usability from a general search engine. Although these search engines cannot perform all the functions of the “Swiss army knife” general search engine, what this type of search engine does do is conduct efficient searches. Instead of using a single search engine a Meta search engine uses several search engines and a filter to come up with the best results using ALL of the search engines. To illustrate some of the fundamental differences between www.Google.com and my top rated search engine www.ez2find.com I entered into both the same term “New York State tax increases” Google returned a whopping 525,000 hits for this topic many of which were off topic. www.ez2find.com with its superior filtering system returned 61 hits which were very much on topic. Obviously analyzing 525,000 hits would be a time consuming unnecessary task. In addition some Meta search engines such as www.ez2find.com and www.vivisimo.com have an important feature built in called clustering. In addition to filtering the results of the search these search engines show the exact subcategories of the search. In the example above if I only wanted New York City tax increases I could see there were 19 results out of the 61 total. This is a great time saver since I can use this method to zero in on my intended result quickly. In addition to clustering many Meta search engines also have relevancy rankings based on the accuracy of the source found to the question asked. For example if I asked “why does a dog bark” and the first hit was “cat meowing problems” the relevancy ranking for this answer is zero. This is a very helpful feature. Google does not have relevancy or clustering in their search engine.
Some search engines will search a space called the invisible web. The web itself is like an iceberg. Only 10% of the web is visible to most search engines. A full 90% is invisible to most search engines. An invisible web search engine such as www.incywincy.com searches both the visible web (this part is searched by large mainframes called bots) and the invisible web which is a non bot visible part of the web that tends to be unknown to most search mechanisms. Invisible web search engines are a bit quirky in there results. When they are effective they are unparalled in the quality of there searches. However when they are not effective the search results may seen totally off point. It turns out that most of the best sites for business based research are invisible web based. A good Meta search engine such as www.ez2find.com has some invisible web capability. Google and other standard search engines DO NOT have any type of invisible web capability.
In summary I will recommend when using search engines a good Meta search engine such as www.ez2find.com or www.vivisimo.com in conjunction with a good invisible web search engine such as www.incywincy.com. This should achieve the best overall search results in the least time possible.
Not all the useful information on the web is available through standard search engines. A large amount of useful information is available through specialized search mechanisms such as the US government search engine www.firstgov.gov . This search engine is the gateway to all of the websites that are operated by the U.S. Government. This underutilized gateway offers complete access to a myriad of free, easily available, and comprehensive government resources. I have found U.S. Government databases to be extremely useful. Among the recommended databases that can be reached through www.firstgov.gov are the following
1- The Library of Congress at www.loc.gov is a gateway into the one of the largest collections of data that varies from historical to governmental and economic material. Another excellent resource is www.fedstats.gov. A portal into over 100 Federal agencies that compile and release statistics on a variety of topics. Many of the statistics available on this database are unavailable on any other free resource.
2- The Gateway to the U.S. Department of Commerce at www.commerce.gov has proven to be extremely useful.
3- The U.S. Census Department at www.census.gov has a link to American Fact finder which gives the viewer the ability to get micro-based statistics such as demographic data by zip code. This data can prove extremely valuable to the small business owner who needs to know the demographics of an area before they consider opening up a business.
4- Also available to the small business owner is the site at the Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov. This site is full of excellent resources related to small businesses. A definite top tier site for people who are interested in starting or maintaining a small business.
5- The gateway into the Federal Job Center at www.usajobs.opm.gov is an excellent site which has a listing of almost all of the openings with the federal government. Jobs are posted here first before they are released to any other source.
6- The gateway into the Central Intelligence Agency at www.cia.gov . The CIA is not just for spies it seems. At this site the CIA publishes the excellent World Fact book which as a comprehensive summary of the declassified data on every nation in the world. This resource is an excellent source of data for information on other nations.
This list of sites is by no way totally inclusive but I believe the government has something on their sites to suit any researcher’s needs. I would also recommend a look at your State and Local sites for further data.
Another problem that internet researchers have is finding material on companies. It is at times difficult to know where to go to get good usable company information. The first point that must be considered is whether or not the company is publicly or privately held. If the company is privately held then it is extremely difficult to find reliable data on the company. A possible answer to the problem is the database Reference USA. This pay database has some information on most private companies and can be a good starting point for research. This database is available for FREE at www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org for all card holders. (A discussion of library resources will be included later in this paper).
For publicly held companies the research is much easier. ALL public companies except those on the Pink Sheets must file regular reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. These reports that are the foundation of all company research are available at www.sec.gov. However the SEC site has these reports in there original format, totally unsummarized or commented on. I have found that unless you are a CPA or a SEC attorney you may have trouble reading these reports. I have put together a list of good sites that help to interpret and add to the data generated by the SEC.
1- The home site of MSN Money central at http://moneycentral.msn.com. This site not only has links to the SEC website but additionally has INDEPTH data on almost every public company. By going to the stock tab on the top of the site such data as a company report, financial data and insider trading can be seen. I have found this site an excellent source of data on publicly held companies.
2- The Business Week guide to company research at http://bwnt.businessweek.com/company/search.asp. This site which has information on about 4000 stocks not only draws from the business week database, but also draws from several other sites on the web.
3- The Multex Investor Homepage at www.multexinvestor.com. This site which was recently purchased by Reuters has an excellent company research area under the stock tab on the home page of the site. The data here is comprehensive and extremely helpful.
4- Hoovers Online at www.hoovers.com. Even though the best data on this site is pay only there is enough free data including some competitive analysis that makes this site worthwhile as a potential research vehicle.
5- The home site of SEC info at www.secinfo.com. This site not only has a listing of ALL SEC filings but they have included filings by type insider trading and other important data. ALL of the SEC reports are broken down into their subcategories so you do not have to read the entire document to get the data that you need. In addition the SEC file itself is cross referenced to allow for additional research. Possibly the best site for SEC info on the web.
6- The site of Mergent FIS Online. This pay site is the home of the Moody’s Investment Service; an extremely comprehensive and useful site. This site is also available through the home site of the Brooklyn Public Library at www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org. To all cardholders. A HIGHLY recommended site.
I will now describe some other search pages that can be of great assistance during your quest for information.
1- Magportal at www.magportal.com This is one of the most useful and versatile search pages on Internet. Magportal is a magazine search engine that allows a great number of sources to be searched. Magportal will search most magazines (including pay and obscure ones) for any topic and rank the results by relevancy. This first class resource finds information on topic when most other types of searches have failed. The results of the search may be examined and the article chosen can be printed out in its original full text form. A MUST HAVE resource.
2- The Business Publication Search Engine at www.bpubs.com. Have you ever needed to find an article in an obscure business publication? Bpubs searches these business publications for material that is unavailable in other locations. This is a good search engine for relatively hard to find research sources.
3- CEO Express at www.ceoexpress.com. Have you ever had NO IDEA what to look for and had no idea of how to start your search? CEO Express is a search page that is loaded with very useful links to other resources. Using this page you are bound to find a link that will either find the information you are looking for or at least put you in the right direction. This page is also a great resource for links to important websites.
4- If you need to follow news topics or a company you can get a free customized news service at www.individual.com. This full featured news clipping service, takes news items that interest you and collates them in a newspaper-like format. This format can be examined at either your page at the site at www.individual.com or the results can be e-mailed to you on a daily basis. As a rule news clipping services on Internet are very costly. This free site is as good as the pay sites and can be easily customized to meet your needs. Using www.individual.com is a snap. By using www.individual.com it is simple to follow any industry, company or trend.
5- Have you ever been in need of local information on an obscure country? At times it is necessary in order to get high quality information to have access to a locally based search engine. The website at www.searchenginecolossus.com has a listing of most major search engines organized by the nation of there origin. Many of these search engines are in English. This is a valuable source for difficult to find locally based information.
Another problem that plagues researchers is how do we find pay based databases for free? A few years ago everything on Internet was free and “ad based”. Now unfortunately, almost every commercial database is pay based. However there is a way to get high quality commercial pay databases for free. The “secret” is to get a local library card. Local libraries routinely subscribe to expensive, excellent pay databases that can be used online from home, for free by their patrons. Your library card number can then be used as a key to unlock the databases licensed to the library for home use. The bar-code on the bottom of the library card is the key that unlocks these databases (you thought it was only good for getting you to pay the $2 overtime fine you owed the library from last year). In fact many tens of thousands of dollars of commercial databases are offered for free by local library systems. As a sampling the following pay commercial databases are offered for at the Brooklyn Public Library site which is located at www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org.
1- ABI/Inform Dateline- This database has regional business news coverage of companies both large and small. This database is comprehensive and provides information not usually available elsewhere.
2- ABI/Inform Research- This database has a FULL text business periodical database of over 800 magazines and newspapers including the Wall St. Journal. AN EXCELLENT DATABASE.
3- Academic Search Premier-A FULL text, scholarly collection covering information in nearly every area of academic study. VERY USEFUL.
4- Accunet/AP Photo Archive- This database has in its library over 700,000 photos from the civil war to present.
5- Associations Unlimited- This is an online directory that covers over 400,000 worldwide not for profit associations in ALL fields.
6- Business Source Premier- This is a FULL TEXT resource of over 2470 scholarly business journals.
7- Corporate Resource Net- This is a database of FULL TEXT articles from more than 1,300 magazines and journals such as Fortune and Money. This database also includes detailed data for the worlds 5,000 largest companies.
8- Custom Newspapers- You can search a collection of over 150 newspapers from around the world.
9- Encyclopedia Britannica- This is the FULL pay version of the encyclopedia including continual updating. A FAVORITE DATABASE.
10- Ethnic Newswatch- A full collection of newspapers, magazines and journals related to ethic communities. May be searched in English or Spanish.
11- Learning Express Library- This provides preparation for texts in the academic, college prep, civil service and other fields. VERY USEFUL.
12- Masterfile Premier- This is a FULL TEXT database of over 2000 general periodicals in many disciplines.
13- Mergent/FIS Online- This groundbreaking database (which was mentioned previously in this article) gives full access to detailed information on more than 10,000 U.S. Companies covered by Moody’s Financial Services.
14- Newspaper Source- This database provides FULL text coverage of over 240 newspapers and other news sources.
15- New York State Newspapers- A database of 10 major newspapers published in New York State including the New York Times and the New York Post.
16- Proquest- A FULL TEXT searchable database of several newspapers including the New York Times that goes back about 2 years. Several other libraries subscribe to Proquest Historic Newspapers which gives FULLTEXT access to the New York Times back to 1850. AN EXCELLENT DATABASE.
17- Reference USA- Yet another excellent database (this database was also profiled earlier in this article) that has basic business and residential listings. Covers over 12 million U.S. Businesses. VERY USEFUL and COMPLETE.
18- Regional Business News- A database covering 75 business journals and newswires.
19- SIRS Researcher- This database has citations for thousands of FULL TEXT articles on a number of issues selected from over 1200 sources.
These are just some of the databases available at the Brooklyn Public Library site under electronic resources. I estimate the value of these resources to be in excess of $25,000 a year. In addition, the Queens Library at www.queenslibrary.org has some of these databases with one notable addition: bigchalk/eLibrary. This database which has several billion citations in many categories such as newspapers, books and TV shows is FULL TEXT. It is also searchable by plain English searching (a growing trend). In the past, I have found that this database can get information that is hard or impossible to find in other locations. Even though at times, results with this database tend to be strange, it is a MUST HAVE resource.
As a resident of certain areas you can apply for and receive one or more library cards. In New York City, a resident can apply for up to 3 library cards (Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan) and receive access to all of these library systems. Since the available resources differ somewhat from library system to library system I STRONGLY encourage readers to get ALL of the library cards that they are entitled to including any college or other systems they may be enrolled in.
In addition to all of the aforementioned resources there are other tools available that can provide assistance to an internet researcher. One of my favorite tools is Newsnose, available for download at www.bangstudios.com. This fantastic resource, once installed, provides FULL TEXT access to news stories around the world. The program, which is easy to use, allows search by up to 3 parameters. This MUST HAVE program is an excellent way to get current news articles on ANY subject. Another excellent tool is the Vivisimo Internet Explorer toolbar available at www.vivisimo.com. There has been a proliferation of toolbars available for Internet Explorer. This one at least, is backed by an excellent search engine and it performs the same functions as other toolbars such as pop-up blocking. Another useful internet explorer toolbar is Alexa available at www.alexa.com. This toolbar allows the user to see sites that are related to the one you are looking at. This allows for search webbing which in essence allows for the building of related searches based on your original web search. A MUST HAVE RESOURCE. Another available resource is the Copernic metasearch which is available for download at www.copernic.com. This clever little tool which resides in the user’s toolbar on the bottom of the screen allows the user to conduct a full high quality metasearch directly from the toolbar. This allows for search capability while performing any task on Internet even playing a game. Copernic is still one of the best search mechanisms available on Internet.
Even though I have a bias against paying for information I would like to recommend a pay database which gives you your money’s worth. This database available at www.questia.com (it costs $120 a year prepaid) is a one of a kind library of over 47,000 books and other sources that is not available anywhere else on the Internet. Questia allows for the searching and full text printing of the entire book. Questia will also search for, and highlight the section of the book that pertains to your search. Questia also adds to the search all the journals, magazines and newspapers that relate to your search term. The addition of these invisible web resources makes Questia a MUST HAVE database.
Finally I would also like to recommend two browsers that can be used instead of Internet Explorer to search the Internet. I have recently fielded many complaints about the speed, reliability and usability of Internet Explorer. It has become important to recommend potential alternative browsers that are more reliable than Internet Explorer. I will recommend two excellent alternative browsers both of which are available at www.download.com. The first Avant Browser is a full featured browser that is easy to use and is not a resource hog. This browser looks and feels like Internet Explorer. The second browser Myie2 is another excellent alternative browser that also looks and feels like Internet Explorer and is very easy to use.
Any questions on this article may be sent to the author Prof. Eric Popkoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or I may also be contacted at the Economics Department of Brooklyn College at 718-951-5000. Until then I hope all your searches are fruitful ones.