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Research on the Web: finding the right sources
and the right tools.
by Nicole Bishop
There are two basic things that I guess any
researcher will always need to get in order before s/he can be
effective -the right sources, and the right tools.
Finding the right sources - the reliable and trustworthy ones - is not
always straightforward on the Web. The usual indicators of reliability
that we find in print and other media are not always there, or when they
are there, they can be misleading. As for finding the right tools, the
"traditional" search engines that many Web-researchers have come to
rely upon are becoming less and less effective (according to a recent
estimate, they now cover only around 30% of Web-based content).
Here are a few basic tips that you may find useful in guiding your quest for the
right tools and the right sources on the Web (assuming, of course,
that you have not already sorted this particular challenge out for yourself).
FINDING THE RIGHT SOURCES
It is easy to confuse form and content anywhere, but even more so on the Web.
With WYSIWYG html editors freely available now, anyone can easily make their
content look highly professional. It’s cheap and easy to publish and the
entry barriers are very low. This means that it can be very easy to
be deceived by a professional looking site into believing that the content and
information is just as professionally produced.
So, here are some questions you may well ask yourself when visiting a Web
site for research purposes:
Is the author an authority on
Does he/she have the experience
or educational background needed?
Is the author involved in
research? If so, which institutions is he/she associated with? Are
they reputable ones?
(Note: Paul Gilster is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of research
on the Web, and I’m using his recent book, Digital Literacy - see below for
full details - as my main source of material here.)
And here are some suggestions on how you could go about answering some of
the above questions:
Check for an email address on
the site, and email the author to find out more.
Check for hyperlinks on the site
which lead to more information about the author.
Check the site itself, which can
present some cues as to quality. For instance, is the site hosted on a
‘free server' or does it have its own domain name? If the
site is clearly hosted at no cost, then the maxim "You get what you pay
for" MAY apply. Check for the ‘last updated on' date on the
site. From this (if it is present, of course) you can get an indication of
how well maintained the site is.
Note the author’s email
address, which can tell you a lot. For instance, the author of an
article or posting on the topic of the latest version of Java is probably more
likely to have authority if his email address is email@example.com than if it is
Web site that goes
with the author’s email address. (For those who are not very au fait
with the way the Web works: the usual procedure is to add a ‘www’
prefix to the top-level domain of the email address - eg for firstname.lastname@example.org, the
web address would be www.java.com )
Internet under the
author’s name to see where else s/he has been posting. You can search
the Web, the newsgroups, and discussion forums. Newsgroups and discussion
forums particularly can yield a lot of useful information. (For newsgroup
searching, check out www.deja.com) For instance, does the author post on the topic mainly to hobby groups or to
professional groups and discussion forums? What is the general ‘tenor’
of the groups to which this author regularly posts? For instance, you find
an article on the Web titled: "Scientific research says astrology is
true", written by John Smith. If you searched the newsgroups
under John Smith’s name, and found postings to newsgroups such as
alt.crystals, alt.ufo, alt.tarot, alt.astrology , alt.palmistry, you
would probably draw different conclusions about this author than you would if
your search told you he regularly posted to newsgroups frequented by scientists
FINDING THE RIGHT TOOLS
A constant problem on the Internet is information overload. Another problem for
researchers is the ‘invisible Web’ - the vast amount of data which does not
appear on the traditional search engines. On one recent estimate, only around
30% of Web sites appear on the search engines; and, in addition to this, the
vast amount of information stored in databases on the Web is not
‘crawled’ by most search engines.
If the traditional search engines are not serving you well, why not try some of
the newer ones? One that has received good reviews is AllTheWeb
" Bots" are also becoming increasingly popular. These are automated
search agents that can do some of the necessary sifting and filtering work for
An excellent place to find information about bots on the Web is BotSpot.
It provides links to around 20 different categories of bots - including
"news-bots" (which search news sites) , government bots (which search
government sources); "update bots" (which track selected Web sites for
A couple of the more well-known and worthwhile commercial search bots are
"Bullseye" and "Copernic’:
Bullseye (www.intelliseek.com) works
with many search engines and databases, and (based on your query) can create
customized results which draw on data from around 300 search engines and
600 databases on both the "visible" and "invisible" Web. It
can also refine the search process -for instance, by removing duplicates and
Copernic (www.copernic.com) is a
"meta" search engine, which searches other major search engines, and
allows focused searching according to subjects which the searcher defines.
Some Sources for Further Reading:
Paul Gilster , Digital Literacy, John Wiley and Sons, 1998, New York
(available through Amazon)
Hal P. Kirkwood, "Bookmark Central", Online, July/Aug 1999
James Rettig and Cheryl LaGuardia "Beyond ‘Beyond Cool’: Reviewing Web
Resources’ Online, July/August 1999
Writerfind Writers’ Research Page,
Nicole Bishop is the publisher of "Writerfind
News", an ezine for professional writers and publishers which focuses on
the internet. Subscribe at http://www.writerfind.com/subscribenews.htm
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