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Subject: Web Research FAQ v.1.1
This article was archived around: 21 May 2006 04:23:35 GMT
Copyright: (c) 2000 David Novak
Maintainer: David Novak <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Web Research FAQ
Welcome. This FAQ introduces the concepts and tools of web research.
Attention is focussed on how web research fits into the larger field of
information research, but web research has many peculiarities all its
own, quite obscure to the new user.
This FAQ resides at SpireProject.com/webfaq.txt
SpireProject.co.uk/webfaq.txt and http://cn.net.au/webfaq.txt
This FAQ is just a small part of a much larger effort to help you with
information research. The Spire Project is available as 3 website,
mirrors, zip-file, and 3 other faqs (See our larger Information Research
FAQ - http://spireproject.com/faq.txt) I have included here text
versions of relevant webpages and sections of our other faqs.
David Novak - email@example.com
The Spire Project : SpireProject.com, SpireProject.co.uk, Cn.net.au
Web research starts with a vision.
Don't Try to Search Everything
Internet Information Theory
----- Articles from The Spire Project
Finding A Webpage
----- Excerpt from the Information Research FAQ
What is Information Research?
Web research starts with a vision.
The web is at the heart of a dramatic change to the information we
receive. Even if we never touch the web, it will still affect what we
read on account of how radically it permits new voices and new
competition to the established ways we receive information. Web
research, for those who wish to learn, is about finding more
information, better information, & better answers from what exists on
There is a great deal of research about the relative strengths and
techniques to maximize the use of search-engines. I do not follow this
discourse closely. Concider reading the reviews offered by
SearchEngineWatch (www.searchenginewatch.com) for this. My interest and
excitement comes with developing and transplanting search techniques of
a stronger nature. This FAQ covers topics like:
- Boolean & field searches,
- Anticipate what exists,
- Judge webpage quality quickly,
- Move to relevant nexus points,
- An awareness of larger structures in the web,
- Ask for directions,
- Discussion archives as a search tool,
- Information Clumps, so seek the clumps,
- Information Research & its similarities.
Before the web, we all had our private library, supplemented by the
local public library, corporate library and perhaps local bookstore to
provide our information needs. Add our daily paper and perhaps a
magazine or two (and our 30 minutes of news broadcast on TV) and you
have the sum total of most of our research needs. There were other
sources available, but these were muted on account of the popularity and
strength of these resources.
Today, with the web, we have a vast new tool at our disposal. We can
chose instead to follow the stockmarket live, read news direct from the
newswires, browse our local library AND the British Library
concurrently. We can read widely divergent views on an incident or
activity. Perhaps best, we now have a vast slew of people and
organizations to assist us in getting the information we seek. Each has
different aims and focus and experience and bias.
Navigation of the Internet is not simple. Those who tell you so are
selling you something. Navigation (and research, a close cousin,)
depends on your experience & practical understanding of how information
is distributed on the Internet. Let's start with some theory.
Don't Try to Search Everything
If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?
This is so relevant to the web. If a webpage exists, but no-one visits,
does it really exist?
This is more the norm for information on the web. People enjoy the
publishing of information - but for most webpages, promotion is minimal
at best. I may inform a search-engine or two, or tell a relative, a
forum or another relevant website. Lets look at what this means for
I inform a search-engine, so someone skilled in searching search-engines
could find my webpage - provided they search for the right words.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of a publisher, this is not a
useful way to find readers. There are simply too many webpages and too
few skilled researchers. If your webpage is fortunate enough to appear
first on a popular search term, the search-engine may drive significant
readers your way. Otherwise, you can expect very few visitors. From the
researcher's point of view, the search-engine does not give you a clue
which of the many webpages will be useful to you. The usual practise is
to look for the top 30 and leave the rest. Thus, finding a particular
webpage, lets say the best webpage on travelling Western Australia,
depends a bit on luck (being in the top 30) and a bit on the skill of
the reader (in choosing words which accurately describe the better
When a writer informs a relative, they may tell a few other relatives,
and some of this may snowball to a few more relatives or workmates.
Again, it depends on the popularity of the webpage, but you should not
expect considerable traffic. From the researchers perspective, to find
this webpage you must either speak/write to one of the relatives, or
look for a link in a relative's webpage (provided one of them added a
Mentioning a webpage to a forum works similarly, but increases the
likelihood a fine webpage will be linked into a collection of relevant
webpages with existing traffic (perhaps some of the historically
important documents - which we will explain later) and this in turn may
snowball some. From the researcher's perspective, we could find my
webpage by asking the forum, searching past forum messages, or by
looking at those relevant webpages which link to fine webpages (nexus
points - again explained later).
Obviously there are more ways to promote that this. If you have money,
you can purchase a top position in most of the search-engines. There is
banner advertising. Promote away from the Internet too. But just from
this rather lengthy example, can you see, no single tool will ensure you
find a webpage, no single technique is enough. Many webpages will just
never be found.
Defeatist you say? No, its realism. Just as you can, theoretically find
out everyone's first name with a telephone, in practise, you can't. So,
to one of the first myths of internet research: You are not searching
the web when you search AltaVista, Yahoo or AllTheWeb. You are only
searching a database/directory - an incomplete tool that does a poor job
selecting the best from the rest.
The purpose of this narrative is to set the picture. In web research, we
do not attempt to search everything. There is simply no good way to do
this - and if we attempt to, we lose all hope of isolating the best
information. No. We search the web in ways which provide good coverage
AND link to quality information. We are, after all, search the web FOR
Technically speaking, it is unwise to formulate your question as "search
the web for everything about..."
Oh, we will remain flexible and use blunt techniques when valuable or
expedient, but our focus is on quality & depth. And this focus opens up
a vast range of search techniques taking advantage of internet
structures like nexus points and historically important documents. This
focus vastly improves results.
Lets turn our attention now to understanding structure on the web.
Internet Information Theory
Lets agree the Internet is great fun to surf, but less valuable when you
have a specific question in mind.
To improve our search skills, we begin by understanding how information
is arranged on the Internet. Contrary to myth, information is not
disorganized but rather organized very carefully along clear patterns.
Many patterns are specific to the information format (text document,
webpage, email message, printed article). Further patterns match the way
we become aware of information, or are specific to the information
systems (mailing list, faq, peer-reviewed journal). Your understanding
of the strengths and weaknesses of each pattern, each format, each
system, guides your search for information. We shall start by shattering
the Internet, and commenting on the many pieces.
__ 32.1 three definitions of the Internet
Let us be careful when we use the word 'Internet'.
1_ The Internet is a physical network; more than a million computers
continuously exchanging information. The Internet allows us to transfer
information around the world.
2_ The Internet is a landscape of information available on almost every
topic imaginable. This information appears almost chaotically
distributed to the world, but holds clear patterns. For instance,
linking information together are various structures like government web
links, search engines and FAQ documents.
3_ The Internet is a community of 100+ million individuals. These are
real people who chose to interact, discuss and share information online.
What we learn here is not so important as the technique - break the
large seemingly chaotic system into smaller pieces: pieces that
hopefully make more sense. Eventually, when we've made sense of the
little bits, perhaps we can comment astutely on the big-picture.
In this example, let me just draw your attention to the way most of our
research effort focuses on the second definition: a landscape of
information. Much of the best information originates in the third
definition: the Internet is a community. Sometimes it is far more
effective to ask real people than search the information cyberspace.
Let us now illuminate more important facets of the Internet.
__ 32.2 information, transaction, entertainment
There is a triad of functions to all online activity:
Function - Activity - Unit
Information - Research - The Fact or Conclusion
Exchange - Business - The Transaction
Entertainment - Play - The Experience
Each Internet function grows at a different rate and moves in a
different direction. The development of forums is firmly in the smallest
segment dealing with information. This segment is quite poorly organized
and confusing. The entertainment function in contrast is well financed
and graphically innovative with clear, profitable opportunities.
Much of the web is prepared with Exchange or Entertainment in mind.
"Brochureware" (purely promotional webpages) is rarely required for
research, but is critical to securing a transaction. Entertainment
related, or just entertaining, websites abound. Let us recognize just
how few webpages are information & research related.
My own experience suggests we are just beginning to see the movements
towards profiting from providing information. Direct sales of
information is still chaotic and unrewarding.
__ 32.3 information formats
The way information is packaged has a great bearing on the content,
quality and use of the information. This theme is evident throughout the
work of The Spire Project, and is particularly applicable to Internet
information. Webpages, text files, software, email and database entries
each have particular qualities. Each shapes, constrains and restricts
the informative content. These particular qualities apply irrespective
of the information involved.
Books are dense, factual, a little old. Articles are short, sharp, more
recent. News is puff, introductory, immediate. Each way the information
is packaged, each format, presents the information to set standards.
Information formats on the Internet are the same. Webpages are
graphical, technical to produce, and not easily updated. FAQs are easier
to maintain, text only, and attract more peer review. Mailing lists are
simpler still, text, short, immediate, very peer-reviewed, characterized
by discussion and resource discovery. Newsgroups are characterized by
extremely low costs, vulnerable to trashing, poorly managed. Email is
simple use, one-to-one discussion.
Lets look at books more closely. Books are created by authors who have
something to write. Books are printed and marketed by Publishers to the
bookstores that then provide it to the readers. Each facet of this
process defines the resource. Books have quality, editorial vetting but
minimal peer-review, marketable value and a potentially lengthy
When it comes to research, why look for a book when investigating
digital money? Books would just have the wrong qualities - would present
the information poorly. We need a more current format (digital money is
a fast moving topic), and a more peer-reviewed format (books have
editorial vetting, but not intrinsic peer-review). Why not search for a
mailing list, an FAQ, or an association website. These formats have
qualities more appropriate to our question.
__ 32.4 information preparation
Information flows also impress patterns on Internet information. Most
information is transplanted to the web - first created elsewhere. The
source of information imparts as much pattern as the eventual format the
Information may appear as a webpage, and conform to our expectations for
all webpages, but the information may have been prepared from the
discussion on a mailing list - and thus enjoy a more topical, specific,
timely and peer-reviewed quality.
Lets look at FAQs. The best resource in the world on copyright law is
the musings of a group of copyright lawyers who form the copyright
mailing list. The copyright FAQ supported by this group is a logical
document summarizing much of the discussion of this mailing list. FAQs
are vetted by the news.answers team, then automatically mirrored around
the world. From its origins in the mailing list, the FAQ is a
peer-reviewed document, often full of links to further resources,
topical, knowledgeable and factual. As an FAQ, the document is not
immediate, graphical or financially rewarding (some FAQs stagnate).
Only some Internet information is created within the Internet
environment. The concept of 'brochureware' describes the common traits
to promotional webpages directly prepared from paper promotional
One of the more exciting trends is the movement of information from the
dusty shelves of government offices and association libraries to their
more accessible websites. The quality of information retained in your
average government agency, from quality research reports, to detailed
studies, to current industry monitoring is very high. These qualities
are then brought over to the web format. Such web-documents tend to be
isolated (not linked to other related resources) and perhaps a little
behind the time line, but of a generally high quality.
An exciting holistic view of the Internet information landscape is based
on these descriptions. Imagine, for a moment, information flowing
through a collection of systems. At certain points, information groups
together, and generates new, perhaps higher quality information, which
then flows in a different system, a different direction, to different
The flow of information from one person to another, from one format to
another, imprints qualities to the information along the way. Each
organization, or subsequent re-organization, imparts specific styles and
conventions and quality to the result.
__ 32.5 publishing motivation
Let us proceed to a third set of patterns. Information appears on the
Internet for one very specific reason. Someone Publishes (DUH). The
motivation behind publishing colours the information. Patterns we will
use to better search for answers on the web.
Ask yourself who is publishing, and why.
One of the biggest publishing segment a year ago were individuals
publishing documents derived from their personal expertise. A typical
document would be one with minimal peer review, a list of aging links to
further resources, simple graphics, variable to short length, prone to
bias, but moderately reliable because the publisher knows their topic
well. These pages are often located on web pages with private
sub-directories (usually starting /~name/).
Commercial sites publish mainly for the promotional value. Their
secondary purpose is to provide sales information to prospective
clients. Rarely do commercial sites go beyond this. Commercial webpages
often reside on their own domain name, as a .com, or in sub-directories
- without the tilde symbol. Commercial sites also tend to age badly.
They are very noticeable from their front page.
Government agencies are emerging as valued publishers. Slowly their
dormant information becomes available through this new medium. Currently
almost all government documents on the Internet also appear in print,
meaning they are factual, exhaustively reviewed, tend to be a little old
(but age well), and come from highly paid knowledgeable people who
believe it is their duty to inform others. Such documents are lengthy
and appear on .gov domains.
These patterns are simple to see.
Grant-funded projects create brilliant research resources and hold much
promise in pushing the limits of this technology. I am eager to see the
results of the US Patents project, and appreciate the value of having
Supreme Court rulings on the Internet. Often such projects are short on
money but deeply focused on content. Most projects reside on educational
servers and are widely discussed within knowledgeable groups.
Associations, publish association-kind-of-things. Most are initially
just like the commercial webpages, but with time become much more
factual and research-worthy. Most associations are dedicated to
developing awareness of their chosen topic, albeit coloured by their
chosen bias. Few associations are significant publishers yet, but this
segment will begin to liberate dormant information within associations.
Let's summarize. The key is to always watch who is the publisher. We can
assume a great deal, quickly. We are unlikely to find the latest changes
to patent law from government or commercial publishers. Such
organizations are simply not motivated to present such information.
__ 32.6 promoting information
Publishing is one achievement, but you and I will never read any
information until we learn it exists. This simple fact creates even more
patterns to Internet information. Knowledge of information moves through
set routes on its way from writer to reader.
Promotion is not simple. It is a process that takes time, effort and
perhaps money. Information without serious promotion tends not to be
promoted far from the source. Another way to phrase this; you must
search close to the source to find poorly promoted information.
A search engine indexes pages relatively indiscriminately. This also
means a site of quality is not likely to reach your attention. The odds
are not good, and from a promotion point of view, search engines
generate minimal traffic to your webpage. Search engines drop you rather
randomly into a website. It is often necessary to move up a directory to
understand the purpose and motivation of a site you find interesting.
Information published through advertising tends to have a financial
payoff for the promoter. This kind of information tends to be
promotional information. Brochureware.
The alternatives are to promote a webpage or website through one of the
referral tools. Each such tool accepts links on some criterion. Each
tool you use to locate information also selects particular types of
information for your attention.
If you arrive at a document by recommendation through a mailing list,
the document is likely to be recent, on-topic, and specific to the
purpose of the mailing list. Alternatively, (for poor mailing lists) it
will be wildly off topic and trash. You are unlikely to see referrals to
old documents or documents of historical importance. These are the
qualities most acceptable to the mailing list environment.
Directory trees, FAQs, guidebooks and related promotion tools all work
as historically important documents. In the past, such resources list,
describe and alert people to relevant information for the field. Slowly,
over time, this function becomes acknowledged, reinforced and promoted.
Time is the essence of this fame.
Webpages or websites found through historically important documents, by
their nature, tend to be long lasting websites with lasting importance
in the field. Such documents point to other similar documents or
websites that have achieved a long-lasting importance. You are unlikely
to find specific documents, but rather sites that focus or bring
together information. In short, there is little motivation to link to
specific webpages, when a link to important websites is considered just
Similar generations can be made of each type of promotional tool, and
become important in rapidly seeking our information which matches our
intention, as well as summarizing the likely motivation - and bias - of
webpages we are interested in.
__ 32.7 information clumps
Information Clumps. Information is created, nurtured, develops, gets
transplanted, gets arranged and then becomes visible through a process
which brings similar information together.
As we have discussed, there are factors deeply affecting all information
on the Internet. Motivation, Preparation, Format and Promotion defines
the quality and content of any given item of information. With so many
influences, we should not be surprised to learn information naturally
groups together. In reality, there is nothing natural involved - it is a
social phenomenon reinforced each time you and I visit or read one
resource but not another.
History can explain some aspects of Internet development. As a small
collection of sites become dominant in particular fields, by collecting
and delivering better content to more people, new sites find it
progressively more difficult to capture attention. This dynamic works
for websites reaching out for visitors, and discussion groups reaching
out for subscribers. In each case, seniority counts.
Seniority counts in several ways too. Promotion is directly related to
quality, interest, traffic and time. The longer a site is active, the
better the footpath develops, the more people visit. Secondly, quality
content is directly related to access to quality content, peer review,
and time/money. Important existing sites gain in every way.
This results in a grand system where the first-in, best-dressed, can
capture the high ground and secure a grand lead in awareness and
footpath over competitors who follow. Yahoo is a prime example of a
directory tree, not even the best in most areas, which has achieved
unparalleled traffic & awareness.
This competition is equally evident where no money is involved. Perhaps
your association wishes to create a new referral website, or an open
mailing list, or an informative guide. All sound concepts, effective
projects. However, if older, established resources exist, the work will
be long and arduous.
Despite the marketing message, the Internet is not a world where the
best information floats to the top. The Internet will not let you to
reach millions. You must compete for the attention, participation,
devotion and assistance in a manner very similar to building a business.
In concrete terms, information clumps on the Internet. The best resource
could appear on any Internet system (webpages, email mailing lists,
ftp-archives, faqs, online databases, newsgroups...) but we can be
fairly certain the best information will congregate in just one or two.
Consider our article "Searching the Web" (http://cn.net.au/webpage.htm).
We progressively search different web tools, looking for the most
worthy. Searching the Internet is the same. You must touch each system
to see which system is dominant, where the information is congregating
for your topic.
__ 32.8 bringing this together
In summary, we have broken down and discussed various qualities of
published information and promoted information. We have made sweeping
generalizations and educated guesses about information on the Internet.
When a painter begins to paint, they have already visualized some of the
image. They already have a concept of the finished result. Internet
research is no different. We start by building a vision of the
information we seek. Who would publish it? Where would I find it? What
is its motivation? How would we find it? We now have a practical vision.
The address is the key. The url for any item of information gives us a
surprising amount of information - particularly now we are making
generalizations about information patterns. We can guess if information
resides on a personal webpage, a funded university project, or a
commercial project. The information resides on a .gov website? - the
quality is likely to be higher and conform to our expectations of
We use this new-found experience in three ways. First, we restrict our
searches to the most likely sources. Second, we quickly jump through
lists of resources (such as those generated by search engines) to the
sources that match our expectations. Third, your understanding of the
relative qualities of information guides your judgement of information
Internet newcomers often expect to have instant access to the latest
information at the touch of the button in beautiful colour and peer
reviewed quality prose. Who is publishing this? Where is this
information coming from? Who would help us find this? Such a vision is
fantasy. If we were instead to look for an association website,
dedicated to a certain type of research, or an informed newsgroup,
maintained by people passionate about sharing this technology, then we
have made four steps forward. We are clear about where to look for the
answers we seek, and we will know quickly if the answers are online.
Two relevant webpages from The Spire Project, as text.
Searching the Web
Webpages are often of unknown age, of only guessed at quality and
potentially the easiest information to retrieve. There are many points
of entry to web resources, but search tools differ. Try to match your
search tool to your question. To start, you will need to learn something
of the different tools - this is described below - and four basic search
techniques: Boolean, Proximity, Field Searches & Truncation.
Global Search Engines
 Altavista, among other tools, has a very large, fast search
engine. Allows for Basic Boolean AND + NOT - OR | Proximity " " ~
(near - within 10 words of each other.) Several Fields: title:"Spire
Project" domain:gov url:edu link:cn.net.au and Truncation/Wildcard
(*) Of import, Capitals matter with Altavista. Read more here and
 All-the-Web is important because it is large - really large -
with a flexible search facility. Allows Partial Boolean + - Simple
Proximity " " and Several Fields a title field search
normal.title:spire url field url.all:.au link text and link url fields
normal.atext:spire link.all:cn.net.au All-the-Web is not case sensitive.
Read more here.
When searching for a topic with precise descriptive terms, use a broad
search engines. Always place the Boolean +symbol before each search word
(like this: +word1 +word2) to insist all words appear in the results.
Quotes keep words together ("word1 word2"). These two simple steps
dramatically improve results. Keep adding words and search limits until
the number of hits is reasonable.
 Inktomi provides its substantial web directory through other
companies, in this case, Yahoo. You may need to select "Web Page
Matches". Accepts Partial Boolean + - Simple Proximity " " and Two
Fields title: and an index-date field through this form.
 Lycos is a rapid search engine, again, one of the larger ones
on the web. Accepts Partial Boolean + - Simple Proximity " " and
Several Fields through their advanced search form.
For more global search engines, consider visiting the W3 Search
Engines page at the University of Geneva. The Industry Research Desk
also has a good search engines page as does this site by Paul
Hopper and this page from Search Engine Watch.
Meta-Search Engines & Google
If you know something of the destination already, like a title or
company name or full name, try using a search tool which excels in
finding named websites. There should be little difficulty in finding
such sites with either Google or a Meta-Search engine, but don't get
excited and use these on other occassions.
 Debriefing is our meta-search engine of choice. Use this to find
names & named websites. Accepts Partial Boolean + - Simple
Proximity " ". Capitals matter.
 Google is a new style of search engine which ranks sites with
more care and concern. This works well for sites you know a little about
in advance. Allows Partial Boolean + - Simple Proximity " ".
Unfortunately, No Truncation not even for plurals! Read more
When searching for information which lends itself to a particular
category or topic, start with resources which group information in
categories. With few exceptions, these resources index websites, not
webpages. Also, keep your search words simple as these are small
 Yahoo is the largest of this type of directory tree; the
definitive site. Accepts Partial Boolean + - Simple Proximity " "
Truncation * and Several Field t: (for titles) u: (for urls) and
a date field through a form. Read more here.
 The Open Directory Project is a Netscape effort to, presumably,
mute the strength of Yahoo. It is very good, and very similar to Yahoo.
 Infoseek gets my vote for the next best directory tree.
 For an alternative, try the World Wide Web Virtual Library: Subject
Catalogue, a distributed network of subject lists, not nearly as
dominant as Yahoo, but far more "scholarly" shall we say. This virtual
directory has been around many years, previously famous from www.w3.org.
When seeking specific fields of study, when topics are clouded with many
similar, low quality sites, start with resources with a greater degree
of personal attention. Peer review and vetting produce resources with
more quality but limited coverage, better suited to this situation.
Also, keep your search words simple.
 The Scout Report is one of the oldest and most highly regarded
e-newsletters introducing new Internet resources. Residing at the
University of Wisconsin, the Scout Report describes research, education
& topical sites. The Scout Report Signpost provides a quick
search of previously featured sites:
 BUBL is a British site which reviews Internet resources
then indexes by dewey decimal number. I prefer their dewey
presentation, but the collection is not large (though the largest of the
library projects I have seen). Here is their keyword search:
 The Argus Clearinghouse is a vast collection of Internet
guidebooks. We can search the titles & descriptions, but then click on
the highlighted keywords to find related guides. I suspect Argus is not
successfully keeping pace with Internet development.
 AlphaSearch is similar to Argus. This one indexes important
nexus sites and should be browsed.
 The Britannica.com (as in Encyclopedia Britannica) has been
remolded as a free guide to books, periodicals, web and their
encyclopedia. This encyclopedia is perhaps the best. Search from their
 FAQs can be searched from an FAQ database like this one at
Oxford University. See also our Discussion Groups article.
 WebRings list sites by topic. Each webring is maintained by
a volunteer at an uninvolved site using standard software. The search
here is of Webring.com, which lists the most, though there are other
webring sites including bomis.com.
For issues with a particular government, url or language origin,
consider using tools designed with this in mind.
 Altavista can be limited to specific domains (gov edu au) with
their "domain:domainname" field search. "url:url-segment" is also
useful. Read the Altavista Fancy Features for Typical Searches.
 GovBot, as developed by The Center for Intelligent Information
Retrieval (CIIR) is a search engine which indexes exclusively a great
number of government webpages, a unique resource. This is the CIIR
gateway (there have been others).
Accepts Simple Proximity "" but not Boolean. Field searches are
optional, so just enter search terms in title box for a title search.
 Altavista also allows for a field search by language.
Searching for a Japanese site? Consider searching only webpages in
An alternative approach may be to search purely regional resources.
Aussie.com.au, for example, is a search engine indexing only
Yahoo maintains a moderate regional list of indexes and search
engines, but the list maintained by SearchEngineWatch - Regional Search
Engines is better.  Two further (but graphically intensive)
lists: Search Engines WorldWide and SearchEngineCollossus.
On a separate page, I have collected various entry points for Australia
including search engines and government entry points.
There are commercial resources applicable to the study of the Internet.
More are described separately in the topic brief: Software & IT
NetFirst, is produced by OCLC, and delivers bibliographic data to
Internet resources. Further descriptions can be found from
3 Second Summary:
Search the web with several tools in succession.
No search will find everything.
Different tools suit different questions.
For many of us, searching the web is simply typing words into a search
engine. This works until it doesn't, in which case we need something
Contrary to myth, global search engines are not the best place to start
most of the time - just some of the time. On other occasions, start with
a directory, a meta-search engine, a guide, an faq... We should start
thinking what tools excel at locating what kinds of webpages. (There is
no simple search of everything.) The links on this page are arranged to
follow this insight.
There are more insights into effective Internet research. Information
clumps; Information is not established in isolation but instead develops
in context, is reinforced, and becomes a trend. The publishing
motivation & promotion purpose can help us rapidly judge the content of
a website. The webpage address can tell us a great deal about both the
website structure and the type of publisher. These topics are covered in
greater detail in Section 31 of the Information Research FAQ.
Once skilled, you can segment and search the most promising areas of the
web quickly and efficiently. If you do not quickly find your answers
there may be other, more appropriate resources. Consider asking for help
in an appropriate discussion group, or reviewing printed literature
instead. The Web is only one resource among many.
If your primary interest is Search Engines, consider reading A Higher
Signal - To - Noise Ratio: Effective Use Of Web Search Engines by
Bob Bocher & Kay Ihlenfeldt, Sink or Swim: Internet Search Tools &
Techniques by Ross Tyner (alternative site) and the recent The
Search is Over by Adam Page. For even more, read Searching the
Internet a publication in the Scout Toolkit and browse Search
Searching the web is more a skill than most of us acknowledge. The web
is a manifestation of the demon professional researchers work with all
the time in the commercial information market. There is constantly the
fear you have missed that single important site with everything.
Consider the researchers motto:
Someone, somewhere, probably knows the answer.
But how long do we search for gems, and where do we look? To decide, we
must learn about Internet structure and organization. Why is information
published on the web? Why is it promoted? Lets review the reasoning
behind effective Internet research. There is so much more than putting
words into search engines.
We can make some very astute generalizations about a webpage very
quickly if we can judge the reason it was published. Not only is this an
important step in analyzing any information, but this tells us a great
deal about the contents of the webpage.
Yes, merely determining a site belongs to an association actually
specifies the quality, motivation and type of information we will find.
Associations either publish what is termed 'brochureware' (promotional
material), or if well advanced, present research work previously
restricted to the association library: important research studies & the
like. Commercial interests have much more difficulty delivering
useful resources. The importance of projecting a corporate image comes
first (lots of 'brochureware'), and service descriptions come second. On
occasion, commercial interests will support a worthwhile service tied
closely to their own service - thus banks present interest rates -
bookstores present their book database.
The certainty with which we can make these judgments will astound you.
Corporate websites never publish "changes to patent law". They simply
don't have the motivation. Only an individual would publish this, most
likely not on the web but though a mailing list.
Information is not distributed randomly. Consider Format, Preparation,
Motivation and Promotion. Consider this, then Visualizethe information
We can make further snap judgments about web information from the way
you get there. Promotion is very difficult on the web, and it is hard to
find poorly promoted information. The tools you use to reach information
pre-determines the type and quality of information you will find.
Search engines index webpages indiscriminately. Advertised websites must
have a pay-off. Directories focus on established websites (not
webpages). Link pages also link to established websites but put more
thought into the selection of resources. Both usually focus on general
sites. For specific or current resources, we need to move to mailing
lists or active nexus point.
Yes, when we find a webpage through the Scout Report (a prominent
resource discovery newsletter), we can assume the webpage has a high
quality of information, is reasonably current and has a general appeal
(within the interest of the newsletter readers).
Lets put this in reverse. If we are looking for a recent document by a
prominent library committee, we will not find it through AltaVista,
Yahoo, or normal link pages (except accidentally). We may find it
through specialist newsletters, active nexus points, or through mailing
This discussion continues in Section 32
of the Information Research FAQ.
When an artist begins to paint, they visualize the image. They already
have a concept of the finished result. Internet research is no
different. We start by building a vision of the information we seek. Who
would publish it. What is their motivation. Who would promote it. Where
would I find it.
Information Clumps. Information is created, nurtured, develops, gets
transplanted, gets arranged and becomes visible through a process which
brings similar information together. Your understanding of this process,
including motivation and promotion, must guide your search of the web.
Only then will we will know where to look, and quickly know if the
answers are on the web.
This article comes from The Spire Project.
Advice welcome : email firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailing Lists, Newsgroups, Associations - each are focal points of
discussion, exchange of information and professional development.
Collectively called Special Interest Groups (SIGs), these are the
original sources of many fine research resources. Brilliant research
sites in their own right, a mailing list, newsgroup or association can
also be a fine contact point for experts, or the site of focused,
The copyright mailing list is a group of more than 100 lawyers who focus
on copyright. This list, and their Copyright FAQ, are the best resources
on copyright law in the world; current, factual, and peer-reviewed. This
is not unusual for a mailing list. As a source of experts, I once found
an accomplished but poorly published scientist from an old message in a
mailing list archive.
Locating Mailing Lists
 Tile.Net/Lists (tile.net/lists) has both a searchable and
directory style index to mailing lists. This has overtaken others to
become the best, most helpful place to start. Here is an abrieviated
 Liszt is the second place to look, perhaps the more definitive.
Again, there is a database and a subject directory.
 The Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences, known
also as the Kovacs Lists, is a long standing service in the world.
Again, a fine subject-based listing.
 The Argus Clearinghouse indexes subject guides and webpages,
but almost all refer to relevant mailing lists.
Search several list directories for more rewarding results. Also keep in
mind some lists have too little or too much traffic for your purpose.
Find a list with a manageable number of messages and a wide enough
membership. This takes a little effort in interrogating the list
management software for the number of forum members, a look at past
discussion, perhaps a look for supporting websites.
Complete information on list commands can be found below in the
The FAQ may be a brilliant informative document in itself, or the
definitive pointer to further tools and resources. By virtue of its
public origin, FAQs are far more likely to attract the peer review often
very lacking from other resources. They are also open invitations to
communicate with the knowledgeable FAQ maintainers.
Searching FAQs by Name
 Search for FAQs from an official FAQ archive like this FAQ
database at Oxford University.
 Alternatively, the Universiteit Utrecht (Netherlands) expressly
provides a search of FAQs and PIPs.
 If you know the newsgroup, consider visiting an html faq archive
like this one at www.faqs.org
Newsgroups, (also known as Usenet Discussion or Network News), are large
discussion grounds where resources and ideas are shared, and sometimes
discussed. Messages are archived, available for searching or sifting. As
a public notice board, non-commercial queries/briefs are often welcome.
Internet Newsgroups (Usenet) (Network News)
 You can get a good list of newsgroups from your own computer
(search for news.rc - it should be in your newsreader directory).
Perhaps wiser, undertake a word search of current newsgroup discussion
with AltaVista or Deja.com (below), then focus on matching newsgroups.
 Newsgroups are not carried everywhere; This webpage at Duke
University will help you find additional newsgroups. Approach your
Internet Service Provider to bring it in (a simple task). For low volume
newsgroups there is an email alternative.
 Liszt.com also maintains a searchable list of newsgroups.
Searching Newsgroup Discussion can be very rewarding, but also can be a
shortcut method to find newsgroup of interests you. Digital's Altavista
allows searches of recent newsgroup messages. Deja.com has an even
larger archive (to before March '95).
 Deja.com Search of Usenet Discussion
Deja.com's Power Search form is a must-see, and allows for author
profiles and field searches and more.
 Altavista Search of Usenet Discussion.
Associations are more involved than their Internet companion.
Associations are also more into paper publishing, conferencing and
colating specialist statistics. As an example, the Australian
Booksellers Association publishes the best benchmark statistics on this
topic. When approaching an association, consider asking for their
Directory of Associations
The definitive way to find an association is through certain large
national directories. Internet alternatives are not nearly as valuable,
but are more immediate.
The [US] Encyclopedia of Associations, produced by Gale Research, is the
definitive source for addressing and contact numbers to American
Associations. All the primary libraries will certainly have a copy, as
will many smaller libraries. Further description can be found for the
database format thanks to SilverPlatter, Dialog.
The Directory of Australian Associations is the definitive Australian
source for addressing and contact numbers. All the primary libraries
will certainly have a copy, as will many smaller libraries.
National Association Directories exist for many countries:
Directory of Associations in Canada (further description thanks to
Directory of Association of Asia 1997/1998 by Bing Chang.
Finding Associations Online
A Directory of the American Society of Association Executives is
online. Unfortunately, the database is small & americanocentric. A
search for 'book' did get me the address of the American Booksellers
Association, but not others.
 Of course, if you have a name, use a large search engine to find an
address. We recommend a meta-search engine called Debriefing
(www.debriefing.com), as it also suggests a home-site.
The last online source is a bit of work, but involves searching for
associations which have published, by searching the large national
libraries. The Library of Congress experimental search system allows
us to search for "association" as an author, and book as a keyword.
Incidentally, this process is similar to searching for theses - search
normally but add 'theses' to the query.
Another prominent source are the local service directories, such as
InfoLink in Western Australia. Most communities have a public directory
of local associations and government authorities. If in doubt, ask a
local librarian for directions to such a directory.
3 Second Summary:
Easily search past discussion via archives & FAQs.
For value, search for the private, moderated forums.
Associations are listed in national print directories.
There are three important research applications for mailing lists.1)
Research through past discussion,
2) Directly ask members for assistance,
3) Become a participative member to pick up and exchange information. On
a personal side, mailing lists are easy to use and a minimal investment
in time (the information comes to you). However, mailing lists are
difficult to develop and maintain. Few reach the potential brilliance of
this form of communication, so many of the forums you come across will
be non-existent or on their death-bed.
Mailing lists depend on four vital ingredients - Content, Participation,
IT-support, and Management. Often, one of these go wrong and the forum
dies. As a member, there are important obligations starting with
participation, and ending with forum etiquette.
The better forums are private. Membership is not automatic, the list
manager has more control, and often, more control and effort is expended
developing interesting content and discussion. If you find a closed or
private forum, persevere.
When a group of like-minded individuals come together to achieve an aim,
they often create an association. What better place to research. Even
better, associations often interpret their purpose as a place to pool
and distribute information. Larger associations often maintain a small
library of their own and many associations publish documents about their
area of interest. Furthermore, if you are seeking an expert in a given
field, associations are sure to have one, or two, or many. For the
smaller associations, be polite but firm in describing your interest and
be ready to buy whatever small book they do publish in your quest for
An FAQ is created to enhance the discussion of a newsgroup. After a
time, the initial members of a newsgroup would have discussed many of
the standard topics to death, which newcomers will still find
interesting. To prevent only discussing introductory topics (and
annoying long-term members) an FAQ is created to record answers to
Because one of the primary functions of a special interest group is
resource discovery - and because FAQs are collectively created, they are
valuable and generally reliable. I consider the Official Copyright
FAQ the best document in the world on copyright law.
As an aside, many FAQs are also available as web pages. Trouble is,
without an system to vet true newsgroup FAQs, you are far more likely to
encounter FAQs which have not been vetted by the news.answers team. The
Official Copyright FAQ is 70+ pages of topical and factual detail with
links to further information. There are several other copyright FAQs
with less than 10 pages, (and not particularly concerned with providing
information). Access an established FAQ archive for your FAQs.
www.faqs.org has a small list (but is elegant as a source of
FAQs). Another longer list resides midway down this document.
Discussing the mailing list, I thought long and hard on how to simplify
the task of communicating with list software. Not only are there five
prominent list software packages, but each package allows us to
accomplish different things. The email interface predates popular use of
hypertext, and is a little clumsy at first - especially if you are
interacting with different mailing lists as a researcher will.
Our solution is threefold:
Firstly, James Milles of the Saint Louis University Law Library has
graciously permitted us to include his grand table of Mailing List
Commands divided by list package. Very comprehensive and easy to use
lookup file. Also found online.
Secondly, hypertext allows us to add information into the subject of an
email message. With this in mind, we have added shortcut email links to
our articles for the more common tasks. You must move the subject
information into the body of the message, then post.
Here are two examples:
BusLib-l (Business Librarians' Electronic Discussion List)
subscribe | post to Buslib-l | index the archive | retrieve
from archive | subscribers list | digest | cancel digest
* Access also available as the newsgroup bit.listserv.buslib-l(see
Deja.com's usenet archive).
Libref-l (Government Documents List)
subscribe | post to Buslib-l | index the archive | retrieve
from archive | subscribers list | digest | cancel digest
These are usually willing to field polite focused questions about your
For your convenience, this form will create the html used above for
mailing lists of your choice. Save the file this generates for
convenient use later.
Thirdly, retrieve the technical help files for the list software.
Listserv - send help, info refcard, & info database to
Listproc - send help & help listproc to email@example.com
Majordomo - send help to firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailserv - send help to email@example.com
Mailbase - send help to firstname.lastname@example.org
This article comes from The Spire Project.
Advice welcome : email email@example.com
  mailto:LISTSERV@KENTVM.KENT.EDU
Excerpt from the Information Research FAQ
1. What is Information Research?
I prefer to think of Information Research as an effort to locate
answers, efficiently. Information Research is not vague browsing of
available information for something that interests you, browsing the
library bookshelf, reading the newspaper, nor is it Internet Surfing.
Information Research is research with a purpose ... and it is hard work.
Information Research is also an art form. The skills, tools, and
resources we work with are only the canvass and paints of an artist. It
extends from commercial, legal, reporting, through the skills of
interviewing, database searching, and research analysis using books,
articles, experts, patents. Research is so large a field, involving so
many skills, tools and resources, you will quickly find you do not wish
to learn it all.
At the heart of Information Research lies a simple motto: "Someone,
somewhere, probably knows the answer."
To quote The Information Broker's Handbook (Sue Rugge and Alfred
Glossbrenner): "As information brokers, we shouldn't consider ourselves
capable of providing solutions... What we 'can' provide, and what sets a
really good information broker apart from the rest, are resources. We
can provide the client with the kinds of information he or she needs ...
that make it possible for individuals to solve their problems."
In this FAQ, I will try to inform you about this exciting field most
people do occasionally, and occasionally do well. We include articles
excerpts from The Spire Project to add depth and distinguish this field
from the more general task, research.
3. A Quick Introduction to Information Research
Let us start with the four tenets of information research:
1) Researchers work hard to properly frame the question,
2) Researchers know the technology and know where to look,
3) Researchers drink coffee, and
4) Researchers ask for help.
__ 3.1 properly frame the question
Your question is critical. There is a galaxy of difference between a
young student asking, "I am interested in trees", and a specific,
attainable question like "Where would I find a tree surgeon I could talk
The information sphere is very large, and rather confusing. Each item of
information has aspects of authenticity, accuracy, reliability, and
bias. Information comes in many formats: interviews, books, articles,
statistics. We learn about information from many sources: literature,
discussion, resource lists, experience. There are also personal issues:
budget, time, depth and purpose.
With all this to think about, we must be very careful about each
question we ask. This issue is vital once we start an article search,
and can easily mean the difference between 5 concise articles, and
hundreds of general articles. The essence of research is the manner with
which we approach the information sphere.
Research is an art, much like painting or photography. The true mark of
an artist, and the primary step wanna-be artists miss, is visualizing
what you want, before you begin.
It is the same with research. Sit down and visualize what a successful
search would look like in this situation. How many pages? How many
documents? What kind of authors and what kind of quality of document? Go
through the whole gamut of different types of research tools and
describe it. Would a simple three-line newspaper article be a success?
Would a 20-year-old dissertation be acceptable? Would a short
conversation with an expert suffice? Would all three together suffice?
(This approach works exceptionally well with internet research too.)
If you can phrase a question in a way that lends itself to your
resource, you are far more likely to get the answers desired. Oddly,
this often means you are asking for places where the information resides
rather than asking directly for the information.
"Where do I find a definitive list of associations?" (or a search for
"+association +directory") works much better than, "What association
works with exceptional children?" What about, "Who would know of
associations for exception children?" and, "Are there pamphlets of
advice to exceptional children?" and, "What umbrella
organizations/specialist libraries exist for exceptional children?".
Questions are not right or wrong, just better or worse at illuminating
certain aspects of the answer. Make sure your questions illuminate
There are ways to frame questions for commercial databases, for research
assistance, for interviews, for getting the truth from to your children.
Your skill in phrasing the question has a lot to do with the result.
Poor questions tend to come back and haunt us later when we miss
relevant information. Try to set aside time to refresh and reframe your
__ 3.2 know where to look
Information Research rests on understanding the technology and an
awareness of the resources. In the example above, a directory of
associations does exist. Here in Australia it is the "Directory of
Australian Associations", found in most important Australian libraries.
The Australian "Department of Education" has a major interest in
promoting exceptional students. In Western Australia, Infolink, a
community information service, should have a record of major community
groups for exceptional students. I have no direct knowledge of umbrella
organizations or specialist libraries, though I expect both the
education department and Infolink would. A quick search of some large
libraries may help us find some of the pamphlets but certainly not all
Knowing of specific resources is helpful. Knowing the tools to help you
find resources, the meta-resources, is vital. So what if we do not know
exceptional students come under the Department of Education. Do we know
who to ask to find the government department involved? If you do not
know of the directory of associations, who or where would you look for
one? Being unfamiliar with meta-resources is a serious handicap - you
will find yourself searching hours for something a professional would do
on the phone while drinking coffee.
Keep in mind this website is dedicated to providing you some of this
experience. Our research articles should suggest directions to look.
This FAQ should help, but there are limits to what we can accomplish. At
some point you simply must sit down with the Kompass Directory, or the
Gale Directory of Databases, or browse the Australian Bureau of
Statistics library, and become familiar with getting to all the relevant
A researcher also needs much experience with searching electronic
databases with complex research queries - a difficult task only made
better with practice. As a general rule, if you don't use boolean search
terms, you are doing it wrong.
__ 3.3 drink coffee
Researchers Drink Coffee. Internet connections work better at odd times
of the day. As some information comes from international resources, and
the internet is cheaper than direct dialing, researchers drink coffee.
We also work too much on computers and have bad eyesight.
__ 3.4 ask for help
There is very little mystery about professional research. Lots of people
are experienced in different aspects of this field. My personal weak
point is in direct interviewing where as I am a pioneer in secondary
resource research - and this is OK. In fact I use this liberally to
determine the skill of professional researchers - do they know their own
limits? The field is much too large to be an expert in all its aspects.
The positive site to this is many many people welcome requests for help.
I enjoy asking librarians questions. I also ask my customers, my
suppliers and other professional researchers. Never get caught in the
trap of feeling you know what to do. The joy in this profession is that
most people do not expect you to be an expert in their field, just an
expert in your particular field: particularly the meta-resources. Even
if it requires a polite reminder, customers will appreciate you asking
them for likely keywords in difficult searches. I always make a habit of
asking librarians if I am missing something. A librarian is always
fluent in their collections and I frequently locate real gems this way.
(As an example, my state library arranges computer books in two sets,
one dewey and another in an alternative structure. Without asking a
librarian I would miss so much.)
Even if you are just a student, always keep your ears open. You will
frequently find yourself in the presence of someone expert in some facet
of research telling you something you already know. Consider carefully
before you interject... your expert may be about to explain something
new to you.
In summary, information research is a dedication to learning. At its
heart is a collection of specific research skills, an awareness of
research tools, and a gifted mind. - Oh, and a large amount of coffee.
Without knowledge of and access to relevant research-worthy resources,
your research will be severely limited and doubtful. This is why much of
your work becoming an effective researcher involves learning about the
resources and meta-resources for your field. Much of our work in The
Spire Project is drawing your attention to relevant resources. A large
list of resources comes next.
I would like to thank my wife Fiona, whom I love and cherish.
The spire project is the culmination of several years bridging
information research and internet development. We trust this guide to
web research enriches your efforts on the web. The spire project
(http://cn.net.au), including this faq, forms the most advanced
information guide today. Thanks to the many readers who assist in
building and refining this information.
Legalities: Information and data put forward here are supplied in good
faith and entirely without expressed or implied warranty or fitness for
use. The content of this FAQ is simply a collection of information
intended but not promised to be correct and useful, gathered from many
sources with limited editorial checking. Further, included articles are
the thoughts of the authors alone and may not represent the beliefs of
Community Networking or any sponsoring organization. If you find a
mistake or claim copyright infringement, contact David.
Copyright (c) 1998 by David Novak, all rights reserved.
This FAQ may be posted to any USENET newsgroup, on-line service,
website, or BBS as long as it is posted unaltered in its entirety
including this copyright statement. This FAQ may not be included in
commercial collections or compilations without express permission from
the author. Please post permission requests to firstname.lastname@example.org
David Novak - email@example.com