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Internet search tips

Search programmes have revolutionised finding data on the web. The best known is Google (www.google.com), but there are others, such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and “meta-crawlers” which do the same search on four or five search engines at the same time. The trick to efficient web searches is to choose your search keywords and phrases with enough precision to exclude the masses of results that are irrelevant to what you are interested in.

  • Set your preferences to return the maximum results
  • The Google page has a link marked ‘preferences’. This allows you to set some search preferences (to search only English language pages, for instance) but the most useful preference to change is the number of results shown for each search. The default setting is for 10 results which means you have to refresh the page each time to get the next ten. Set preferences for the maximum 100 results – which allows you to scan much bigger chunks of data to see if it is relevant.
    Keywords provide a simple way of narrowing down your focus, but, often, keywords alone are not enough. Say you are looking for John Smith. Simply typing in John and Smith in the search bar is going to give you every document where both of those names appear: hundreds of thousands of documents. To avoid drowning, you will need to find relatively unique features that identify the John Smith you are looking for.

  • Use quotation marks
  • “John Smith” will return only those results where the words appear together. If you have a middle name you can add that, for example: “John Sylvester Smith”
    You can combine options using the OR command written in capitals, which Google uses to distinguish from the word ‘or’. “John Sylvester Smith” OR “John S Smith” OR “JS Smith”

  • Add facts that you know or suspect
  • Say the John Smith you are interested in is alleged to be involved in drug smuggling and operates out of Zurich. You would add to your search bar: “John Smith” Zurich or perhaps “John Smith” Zurich drugs
    Which would return only pages where all those words occur.

  • Country-specific searches
  • You may not be certain that Smith operates out of Zurich, but you are sure he is based in Switzerland. Using the “site:” command, Google allows you to search only pages with a specific country domain designation. The Swiss domain designation is “.ch” So you might type in the search bar: “John Smith” site:.ch which would return all Swiss pages containing the name John Smith; or “John Smith” drugs site:.ch The domain designation for South Africa is .za, for Britain .uk Not sure of the country designation? Google: “domain by country”

  • Organisation-specific searches
  • Many commercial websites end with .com; many NGO’s, developmental organisations’ sites and activist groups end with .org. So if you are researching wind turbines, and want the companies, you might use “wind turbines site: .com”. If you want to find criticism about wind turbines, you might use “wind turbines site:.org”. If you want data on activist groups in South Africa, you type “wind turbines site: .org.za”.

  • Use the net to find sources
  • Drug smuggler John Smith may never have appeared on the net in that context (as an accused drug smuggler) so the next best thing is to find an expert on the drug trade in Switzerland who might have heard of John Smith and be able to give you more information. “drug smuggling in Switzerland” or “drug smuggling” site:.ch should give you access to newspaper or academic articles giving the names of such experts. You can then google their names to find their telephone numbers or email addresses and make contact.

  • Using automatic translations
  • Your articles from Switzerland may be in German or French. Google results offer an automatically translated version which can give you a good sense of what the article says (click on the note ‘translate this article’ under the result), but note that this is a very inexact process and you may have to struggle to make sense of the machine-generated translation!

  • Using Google cache
  • Web pages change or are shut down. You may get a result on Google and find the page has gone. Then click on the “cached” link on the specific result. Google saves a copy of the pages that it catalogues as it searches the web, and that is the cache version: the snapshot of the page as it was when Google’s computer looked at it. That copy is often still available long after the original page has disappeared from the net. This is very useful for tracking companies and individuals who have ‘disappeared’: they often still exist in caches.

  • Finding databases that are not covered by search engines
  • Many useful databases are not covered by Google. This includes many newspaper archives and municipal property databases and (in some countries, such as the USA) court archives. In looking for traces of John Smith, it might be useful to access Swiss newspaper sites and search their archives. Most archive searches work the same way that Google does. You can also type in the URL of the archive you are searching in the ‘domain’ box that appears when you click on Google Advanced. In that way you can get Google to search that specific archive.

  • Use the internet’s phonebook
  • Nearly every country has an extensive telephone database, usually under the term “white pages” (even many non-Englishspeaking countries list “white pages” of their phone directories in English). So, for example, to try to look up John Smith’s Swiss number, you would Google “white pages” site:.ch and find the sites that offer Swiss telephone directories. Generally, directories require that you specify at least the town/city as well as the name.

  • Download long articles for later reading
  • If you have limited opportunity to go online, then save pages that look useful for background research so you can go through them carefully later.

  • Build up your own database in a structured searchable way
  • When you save documents from the internet, or save transcripts of interviews or notes, do so in a way which will allow you to find information again easily, or your virtual desktop will end up like many journalists’ actual desks: a vast, widely spread pile of assorted data where it is difficult to find anything at all, let alone quickly. There is a great free internet tool, called ‘Google Desktop’, that searches and lists your computer files for you. Simply key in ‘John Smith’ and the tool will give you a list of all the files you have saved, even many years back under you can’t remember what name, with ‘John Smith’ in it.