Finding it Online: Internet Research Made Simpler

By: Philippa Gamse

This article was originally published in Insights - the journal of the Northeast Human Resources Association.


The Web can be an incredible tool for professional development - for finding resources and information, latest practices, for participating in discussions with colleagues and independent experts, and for mentoring opportunities.

But the rapid pace of change online makes the amount of available information quite bewildering. This article offers some suggestions for good research techniques, and for evaluating the credibility of the results.

Researching on the Web

Various tools exist to help you to find information on the Web:

1. catalog-style directories, which are maintained by human editors who index Web pages and reference them under categories that are offered to you on the screen, such as "business", "social sciences", or "computers".

The best known example of this type of Web site is currently Yahoo!, at:

These directories are useful if you are looking for information under a broad heading, such as "distance learning", or "resume services". If you are interested in an area covered by one of the categories, this is a great way to begin finding sites on the Web. And each page that you visit may in turn refer you to other relevant sites.

However, directories will only return search results based on the title and brief descriptions of each site, and they will often only take you to the home page of any site. Therefore they tend to be less effective tools for in-depth content queries.

2. "spider-based" search engines, are fed by automated "spider" programs that constantly patrol the Web, indexing URL's and individual pages. Unlike the directories, they index every significant word of every page, allowing you to enter much more detailed searches. The first few lines, or a description of each page are shown on the screen, together with its URL, and if you want to go to that site, you just click on the underlined link.

There are a number of these sites too. My personal favorite is Alta Vista - it's the fastest, seems to index the most Web sites, and allows the most complex searches. Alta Vista's Web address is:

These sites vary widely in the number of pages they index, and the complexity of search criteria they allow. It is well worth trying the same query using several different engines, and comparing the results.

Often, you may find that you get too much information from your search. It is important to think very clearly about exactly what you are looking for, and to put in specific search criteria that will really narrow down the results.

For instance, entering "distance learning" to Alta Vista returns 254,698 references. However, adding the term "software" reduces that to around 600 pages that can then be further broken down.

Each search engine has slightly different rules for specifying selection criteria, so you need to check the instructions for each one (click on the "Help" button).

Tips for using search tools

These tools vary widely in the number of pages they index, and the complexity of search criteria they allow. It is well worth trying the same query using several different engines, and comparing the results.

If you are unsure of the timeliness of the Web page that you retrieve, most of the major engines now include the date of the pages that they return. If not, your browser may allow you to view some information about the document. This should include the date on which the page was last updated.

Many of my clients complain that they get too much information from their searches. It is important to think very clearly about exactly what you are looking for, and to put in search criteria that will really narrow down the results.

For instance, entering "consumer reports" will return about 300,000 references. However, adding the terms "coffee", and "Chicago", returns just nine pages that tell me specifically about local gourmet coffee suppliers.

Each search engine has slightly different rules for specifying selection criteria, so you need to check the instructions for each one (click on the "Help" button). Or, for your more complex research you may want to seek professional assistance.

Obstacles in searching

There are a few common problems that you may encounter:

1. Missing links

Web sites tend to change very frequently, and you may often encounter referrals to pages that no longer exist, or that no longer contain your search term.

The spiders visit each page on an average of once a month, so they cannot be absolutely up to date at any time.

If you think that the site you are looking for should still exist, try clicking into the Location box in your browser, and delete the last section of the URL (after the last / ). Then press Enter. This will take you up a level to the referring page, and you may be able to follow the links it contains to find your subject.

2. Domain name not found

If you get this error, try clicking on the link again immediately. This particular domain name may not have been referenced by anyone before at your Internet provider, and is therefore not in their indexes, which is as far as their server looks on the first request. But if you request the domain a second time, their server will do a lookup beyond its own indexes. Often, you will then be able to access the page.

3. Foreign languages

If the search engine gives you a page where the first few sentences seem to be in strange characters, that site is probably in a foreign language such as Japanese or Korean. Unless you have special software, your browser will not be able to display it.

Using bookmarks

Every Web browser should contain a "bookmark" (or favorite places) function. This allows you to record the URL of the page that you are currently visiting in your own personal directory with one click of the mouse. You can then return to that page later by calling up your bookmarks menu, and clicking on the name of the page that you wish to revisit.

Using master list sites

Because the Web changes so much, it is a constant chore to ensure that all your bookmarks are current. Instead of trying to maintain your own exhaustive list of links around a particular subject, check for a master resource site that is updated by a reputable institution such as a library. The Argus Clearinghouse is an example:

Printing and saving information from the Web

Your browser should allow you to print out any Web page currently on the screen. The command to do this will probably be found in a button on the toolbar, or under the File menu. However, remember that the printed page length will depend on your printer setup, and may not be exactly as it appears on the screen.

You can also save Web pages to your hard disk for subsequent use in a word processor, spreadsheet, or database. Pages can normally be saved either in their tagged HTML version, or in plain text (known as ASCII). This option should be offered to you in the "Save As" dialog box on your screen. You will probably want to save documents as ASCII text unless you are studying HTML, and specifically wish to see the source code for a particular page.

Remember that you will only save the text of the page by using the File menu "Save As" command. Images that you see within the Web page actually come from separate files. However, many browsers will also allow you to capture these graphics files. In Netscape for Windows this is done by pointing to the graphic and clicking on the right mouse button. Check your own browser manual for specific instructions.

Copyright issues

Much of the information that is available on the Web is in the public domain - that is, free to be used by you after you download it. However, if you see a copyright notice you should certainly respect it. And if you are intending to quote someone, it is courteous to request their permission first-use the e-mail address given on the Web page.

Using mailing lists and newsgroups

Many people forget that there is more to the Internet than the World Wide Web! I strongly encourage my clients to explore electronic discussion lists and newsgroups. These exist for an incredibly diverse list of subjects, both of professional and recreational interest. Subscribing to them can give you access to a group of worldwide experts that you probably could not find by any other means. Of course, as with all forms of research, you need to exercise your own judgement as to the quality of information-there are also many people masquerading as experts!

The main difference between the two is that messages posted to an electronic mailing list will automatically come to your online in-box every time you collect your e-mail. An active list will generate a good deal of traffic, and your in-box can quickly overflow. If you decide to subscribe to one of these groups, check whether it has a "digest" version. This sends out messages in batches under a contents list which can be quickly scanned for items of interest, and then deleted.

A newsgroup is essentially a bulletin board, which you have to remember to check for new postings. Most Web browsers now incorporate a newsgroup reader-if yours does not, your Internet provider should be able to supply you with one of the freely available programs.

Often there will be both a list and a newsgroup devoted to the same, or similar subjects. Whichever you decide to use will depend on whether you like to have the material "in your face" from the mailing lists (my personal preference), or whether you would rather leave your mailbox clear, and go search the newsgroups when you are ready. Of course, you can do both!

Finding mailing lists or newsgroups

You can search for mailing lists and newsgroups on particular subjects by using one of two World Wide Web sites:

gives you a Searchable Directory of E-Mail Discussion Groups, and:

will refer you to the Deja News Research Service that allows you to search for newsgroups.

For both of these sites, you supply your subject of interest. The sites will then return a list of relevant mailing groups, with instructions on how to subscribe, or obtain further information on each one, or a list of newsgroups with recent postings on your topic.

Some of the search engines can also be set to look for newsgroup postings that contain your keywords. In Alta Vista, this is done by changing the Search box from "the Web" to "Usenet". Scanning the results of your inquiry will give you a good idea of newsgroups that might be useful to you.

If you join one of these discussions, you need to follow some basic (but unwritten!) rules, known as "Netiquette", which tell you how to behave on the 'Net. The two most important of these are:

1. Don't blatantly advertise!!

Unsolicited commercials are very much frowned upon in these areas of the Internet. However, if you respond to questions, or offer advice, you can achieve great recognition for yourself as an expert, and work in some subtle references to your services at the same time!

2. Ask specific questions

If you ask a question, make it easy for people to reply. Queries such as "Does anyone know anything about widgets?" are unlikely to attract any (polite) answers. Make your posting short, and very clear as to what you need.

Commercial services

Commercial services such as America Online and CompuServe can also be great sources for research if they have forums that meet your needs. CompuServe has real online librarians who can answer your questions, as well as extensive searchable databases (which are really not yet available on the Internet) around a whole range of subjects from cars through health, finance and the law. It can also produce clippings from a number of local newspapers. America Online has a wealth of information about Chicago, both recreational and business-oriented, including Crain's Chicago Business, and Crain's Small Business. Both services also offer resources and forums where members can discuss issues relating to small and home-based businesses. They provide listings of, and clickable links to Web sites for categories such as company and stock research. I do recommend that you check them out.

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Conclusion: "Nirvana or Nemesis?"

I used to call one of my presentations "Nirvana or Nemesis", because that's really how it is when you are researching on the Internet. Sometimes you can strike gold, and find exactly what you need, and other times your search will result in a lot of dead ends and frustration. And there's no one to complain to on the Internet, because, unlike the commercial services, no one is in charge!

However, if you don't find what you need, it's worth trying again after a couple of weeks. The 'Net is constantly changing - over 3,000 Web pages are added every day, and you never know what you might find on a return visit.

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