Top Rules of Online Research

Photo of a woman sitting in a booth, using a laptop computer.

If you want to write first-rate online content for your clients, one of the most important skills you can teach yourself is how to do good research. For online content, research generally doesn’t mean going to the library or delving into the gilded pages of an encyclopedia—it means tracking down the right websites. If you’re anything like most people, however, you probably haven’t spent much time considering what the fastest and most effective ways are to find those websites—let alone how to use them to find the information you need.

Fortunately, the ability to become a solid online researcher is well within the reach of anybody with an internet connection. All you need to know is what you should look for—and what to steer clear of! These are some useful rules to remember as you start researching your first articles:

Start with a Google search.

While there are other prominent search engines, Google remains the speediest and most efficient way to obtain information quickly. That’s why doing a fast search there is the easiest way to start any research project. As a rule, the results that come up on the first few search results pages are generally the best. That’s why, if you’re not finding the results you want right away, you’re better off adjusting your search terms than you are digging through results pages.

Learn Google’s search commands.

In order to do good research, you should go beyond simply typing key terms or questions into the search box. Learning Google’s search operators will allow you to exclude certain terms from your search, confine your search to a certain time period, or find pages that have been linked to using a certain term. It can take some time to master these operators, but they will help you become a faster researcher.

Use Wikipedia sparingly.

As the world’s most widely read encyclopedia, Wikipedia is far and away the single most comprehensive source of information on the internet. Since Wikipedia is the work of many different writers and editors, however, not all of the articles are as accurate or up to date as you might hope. Many of the site’s articles also tend to be overly detailed, which can make them dense and difficult to glean important information from. However, Wikipedia articles do tend to link to authoritative sources, which makes them a useful starting-place for learning about subjects you are unfamiliar with. In other words, Wikipedia should be where your search begins—not where it ends.

Don’t forget about Google Books.

Google is a remarkable resource, not least because the company has digitized millions of books, making their contents instantly accessible to anybody. If you’re not finding the information you need through a general Web search, try doing a search on Google Books. Often, this is a great way to track down an elusive quote or verify a fact that you’re not able to find on a credible website. Many of the in-print books on Google Books are not fully viewable, but you can often still do a “snippet” search to find the quote you’re looking for.

Learn to identify authoritative sources.

Anybody who writes online content should know how to identify authoritative websites. Not only will these sites provide you with better information, but linking to them is also good for your SEO. In general, Google will give prominence to websites that have showed signs of being trustworthy, such as being linked to by other relevant pages. Sites that end with the domains .edu or .gov are generally reliable sites, as are articles from industry journals and pages at medical institutions. As you become a more frequent researcher, you’ll get a better sense of how to tell when a site is reliable.

Learn to spot unreliable websites.

As you learn how to find more credible sites, you’ll simultaneously get better at identifying sites that are not as reliable. Amateurishly designed websites, poorly written content, and signs of obvious bias are all red flags that indicate that a site is probably not credible. Other websites might once have been reliable, but may contain outdated information. Still other websites—such as personal blogs written by industry professionals—might be useful to a certain extent. If you are uncertain about a piece of information you gleaned from a site that may not be fully credible, try to verify it using better sources.

Teach yourself to skim.

Do you read every single word on the page? While this might work for reading a novel, it’s generally not the best tactic when you’re looking through different websites for information you can use. Instead, it’s best to skim and focus on finding information that will be relevant to your immediate interests. After you’ve determined whether a site is worth using, look for section headers and images that will help you find the most useful parts of the site. While you will want to slow down and read the important sections closely, it’s time-consuming and unhelpful to try to read the ones that won’t be helpful to you.

When in doubt, verify.

If you’re ever in doubt about a fact that you’re including in your content, try to track down a credible source for it. After all, it’s much better to spend a little extra time trying to verify something than it is to have to run a correction later. If you’re using a certain statistic or a particular study in your content, include a hyperlink to a high-quality source, such as a university website. When possible, link to the original study when posting statistics or referring to scientific research. The more tightly researched your content is, the more appealing it will be to your clients.

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