Photo Credit: Frustration, by Peter Alfred Hess, via Flickr, Attribution Generic 2.0 (CC by 2.0) License
There is no question that the number one time waster when researching is slogging through large numbers of irrelevant or bad “hits.” This is especially true if you are looking for a specific detail. Here are techniques you can use to get more targeted search results, that are of high quality, regardless if you are using Google or a commercial for-fee database.
Relax. Successful research is about careful reading and attention to detail. Once you relax and start reading, your mind will automatically start making connections between what you need and what you are reading.
Restrict by date. This helps in eliminating old and out-of-date material.
Know how your results are sorted. The common default is set to relevance. Sometimes relevance is not the best way to sort – say for company financials and medical developments, which should be sorted by most recent first. If you want a timeline or chronology of events, sorting from oldest to newest is the best option.
The Find command is your best friend. Quickly looking at where and how many times the highlighted keywords appear saves you from having to read the entire article/document to determine if it will be useful for your research.
Document your work as you go. It is much more efficient to document a possible source before moving on to the next one than it is to relocate that source later. This is especially true at the beginning of your search efforts.
Learn about and use the limiting features available in commercial research databases like LexisNexis, Factiva, BvD, (and even Google). These features allow you to get higher quality, fewer results. The interfaces might be different but they all have basically the same functionality. In all of these resources, look for the “advanced search” option. Usually the default is set on the basic search feature which retrieves results without much refining or restricting being done.
The advanced feature allows you to place search terms in any field you desire, such as in the title field, meaning only articles with those terms appearing in the title will be shown. In all databases, you can adjust the date parameters to get current, fewer results.
A very important rule when researching is – Get the terminology right. Using the wrong terminology or keywords when searching is one of the primary factors leading to poor or irrelevant results. Brainstorm and identify various keywords and terms that can be used before starting to search – and consider using a pen and paper to do it.
When you are in the process of building out your terminology, use glossaries, introductory material, and background documents or books. For example think of all the terms you can use for “contingent workforce” – temporary labor, temporary contract workers, independent professionals, independent contractors, consultants, seasonal workers, freelancers.
Boolean commands And, Or. Boolean logic is a way of embedding context in your research. You will save yourself considerable time and heartache if you can use the Booleans to improve your results. The “and” command narrows results. Many databases and search engines already assume the “and” command. If you are not sure, go ahead and use it.
The “or” command, which expands results, is also important because there are many ways to enter a term, such as IBM or International Business Machines. This command allows you string out all the alternatives for a comprehensive search.
Here are other symbols to use:
The asterisk allows you to find all forms of a search term. For example, a search for “hack*” will find hacks, hacker, hacked, and hacking. Google does automatically truncate for you. However, many commercial databases do not. In these cases you have no way of knowing how an author is using a word – in what tense, plural or singular. This ensures that all forms of the word are considered.
Quotation marks in a search string indicate that you want results that contain the entire, exact phrase. For example, searching for “market share” with quotation marks will find results that discuss the market share of a company rather than results that contain both words individually – not connected. Why is this important? Without quotes, you may one find one term in the first sentence of a 500 word document and the next in the last sentence – and they have nothing to do with other. Bad hits will result.
Google Advanced Search is a fantastic resource and helps instill advanced research thinking.
Here are a few search options available through Google:
- You can do Comparison searching by using “vs” after a product or company name. For example, “NetSuite vs” will return alternatives to NetSuite.
- You can assign Number ranges to see results that contain numbers in a given range of things like dates, prices, and lists such as this search term: “top 50..100 companies”
- The Site command allows you to use google to search one specific website. This approach is particularly helpful when you know a site is a good resource but has lousy embedded search functionality. An example: site:linkedin.com “contract manager”
- Word exclusion: Placing a minus sign right before the term you want to exclude, will remove those results from what is returned.
Here are related posts that cover Google search tips: