Online research is a crucial skill, whether you’re working on an academic paper, writing a blog post, or just trying to learn something new about your houseplants. But it’s not always easy when you’re tackling a complicated or niche topic.
Organize Your Information Early On
Organizing your information can help you save time, and it can save you from forgetting or misremembering anything that you’ve learned from your research. You should keep a link to every webpage that you visit from the start to the very end of your research. It’s best to write down a little bit of information for each link so that you remember why you saved them and what kind of information that you could take from them. You should also save any PDF’s or images related to your research because you can use them as valuable primary sources.
If you need to organize a lot of data across multiple devices, consider using a note-taking app like Evernote, OneNote, or Google Keep. They’re all great for keeping track of web pages, PDF’s, photos, and whatever else you need for your big project.
If you’re just trying to knock out a short essay or learn something about DIY woodworking, then you probably don’t need to grab a dedicated note-taking app unless you already use one. You might find it easier to cut and paste web pages into a Word or Google Doc file and save any PDFs or images to your local or cloud storage drive. Just make sure that you keep your files organized and take notes for all of your sources.
In the end, you’ll probably only use a handful of the links that you save. But if you’re publishing a blog post or writing an essay, you need to be able to double-check and cite all of your sources. Otherwise, you might end up creating a lot of extra work for yourself later.
Start Broad and Collect a Lot of Information
When researching, it’s tempting to dive straight into the first exciting thing that you find. But you should try to start as broad as possible. Otherwise, you might miss out on some fascinating pieces of information and end up with a poor understanding of your topic.
That’s why you should try to find a lot of information on your topic, more than you think that you’ll need. A good way to start broad is to search Google for general terms related to your topic. If you’re researching the difference between sunflowers and tulips, then you should learn a bit of information about each flower before going deeper.
Of course, Wikipedia is also a fantastic place to begin your research. You can use Wikipedia to find a lot of general information on your topic, and you can use it to find related topics or primary sources that may be useful as you go deeper into your research.
Decide What’s Important, and Narrow Things Down
Once you’ve collected a broad swath of data, you need to review everything and decide on what to focus. Don’t just go for the first thing that sounds interesting to you. Try to find any new relationships between the different pieces of information that you’ve gathered.
Let’s say that you’re researching an author, like Mark Twain. You found in your broad research that he was in the Civil War and that some of his stories take place in the antebellum south. On their own, those two pieces of information are boring and hard to care about. But when you put them together, it’s clear that there may be a tantalizing relationship that’s worth some in-depth research.
It’s okay to research a relationship that seems obvious or well-known, especially if you’re writing a blog, doing personal research, or doing a rudimentary history paper. But if you want to find something unique, then you need to think about how to narrow your research.
Optimize Your Google Search
Okay, you’re ready to do some more in-depth research. Now what? If you’re looking into something that’s kind of unique, then you may have trouble finding some good search results on Google.
That’s why you need to use some Google Search Operators to get the most out of your Google searches. There are a lot of search operators that you can use, and they’re all pretty straightforward. But there are a few that are especially useful for doing online research.
If you need to look up exact phrases or names on Google, then you can put them in quotation marks. For example, if you search the phrase “mole people” on Google, then you’ll only find pages that contain the word “mole” followed by the word “people.”
The idea of starting broad and then narrowing your search applies to searching the web, too.
For example, if your search for “mole people” include too many results related to New York, then you could use a minus sign to exclude those results. This is what it would look like:
"Mole people" -"New York"
Note that we also used quotation marks around “New York” in that search because we want the whole phrase excluded.
If you hit a point in your research where you can’t find any new websites to visit, then you should try to switch up your Google search. Try using variations on the same search terms, and change which Search Operators you’re using. Sometimes the slightest change in your search will give you wildly different results.
Go Further Than Google
Sometimes Google’s expertise won’t be enough for you. If you’re working on a full academic paper or writing a deep-dive blog post, then you may need to look through some magazines, academic papers, or old books. You know, “primary sources.”
Some websites, like Project Muse and JSTOR, are an excellent resource for periodicals, academic papers, and other primary sources. You can usually access them through your University or public library. There’s also some free alternatives to these websites, like Google Scholar and SSRN.
But if you’re writing a deep-dive on dairy advertisements, then you’re going to need to find some old catalogs, magazines, periodicals, and posters. Google Books is an excellent resource for this kind of material.
You can also use Wikipedia to find some primary sources. At the end of every Wikipedia article, there’s a “References” table. This table tells you the sources for all of the information in the article. If you come across a juicy bit of information while reading a Wikipedia article, then there’s usually a small number that links to the reference table.
It’s good to look into all of these resources because they usually come up with different results for the same search. They also tend to have built-in advanced search functions, which are useful for topics that are unique or niche.
Double-Check Your Research
Once you’ve completed your research, you need to make sure that all of your information is accurate. You can save yourself a lot of heartbreak by double-checking all of your research before doing any writing.
Go and reread all of your sources, because there’s a chance that you misinterpreted what they’re saying. Of course, you’re not the only person that can misread a source, so it’s good to check any citations that you find on a website.
You should also consider how you used Google to research your topic. If you included any bias in your search terms, then there’s a chance that the information that you gathered will reflect that bias. Try searching Google with a variety of search terms and Google Search Operators.
There are also fact-checking websites that you can use to make sure that your information is accurate. Websites like Factcheck.org or Snopes are pretty fantastic; just don’t use them as your only fact-checking resource.
What if You Find Conflicting Information?
Sometimes you’ll spend a lot of time double-checking all of your research, and you’ll realize that things don’t seem to line up. In this situation, it’s tempting to stand behind some information that may not be entirely factual. After all, it’s a lot easier to go along with inaccurate information than to redo your entire research process.
But you should never write or publish any information unless you’re confident that it’s accurate. If you run into conflicting information while researching a topic, go back to the drawing board or try to spin the pieces of contradictory information in your favor.
For example, if you find a lot of conflicting eyewitness accounts while researching the Titanic, then you can quickly turn those conflicting accounts into an exciting piece of information. You could even go back and do some in-depth research into who made those eyewitness accounts, and how they shaped the public’s opinion on the sinking of the Titanic. Hey, that could be a book.
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