Five Essential Research Tips for Journalists Using Google

Jun 172016

In the age of digital journalism, advanced online search techniques are becoming requisite skills for successful careers in journalism. With hundreds of millions of sites indexed, Google is undoubtedly the most powerful search engine, but it’s easy to miss out on a lot of that power if we don't know the best techniques for asking questions. Although Google will almost always have answers, the goal is to find the relevant ones.

Fortunately, there are a number of search techniques that journalists (and researchers in general) can use to dramatically improve search results. Like everything in life, it requires a bit of tenacity, but it's not hard to learn. This guide is intended to help professional and citizen journalists better understand how Google works. It explains how to use a variety of search operators and techniques to narrow down search results. Let’s get started.

1. Consider Exact Phrases

Looking for a needle in a haystack? One of the most basic techniques in searching Google is to explicitly declare what you’re looking for by entering phrases in quotation marks. This is especially relevant when the phrases have three or more words in them. If you just enter a bunch of words, Google will assume those words could be in any order. But if you put quotation marks around them, then Google knows you're looking for that phrase in the exact word order, and returns results that potentially bring you closer to the right answer.

So, for example, if we are interested in searching for "lagos farmers market," and we're looking for results that exactly match our query, putting the search words in quotes gives us fewer, and invariably more targeted results. In the screenshots below, searching without quotation marks returned 254,000 results, whereas the use of quotation marks reduced the results to 323, eliminating a whopping 253,677 irrelevant results.

2. Do Word Exclusion

Now, 323 results is a lot of improvement from 254,000 results. However, if we examine the results page, the first result – which is in most cases the most relevant – seems to be referring to a Lagos in Portugal. Assuming we are interested in Lagos, Nigeria, we need to find a way of excluding Portugal from our results list. To do this, we simply "minus" Portugal from the returned results by adding "-Portugal" to our search query. From the screenshot below, you can see we are able to get the returned results down by 182, to 141 results. The first result is also now a Yellow Pages link, which is most likely what we’re looking for.

3. Use Site Operators (site:)

Assuming we know for sure that the information we need is on Yellow Pages, we can further narrow our search to the specific site by using a unique operator called site. The site operator allows us to restrict search results to specified sites. In the lagos farmers market example, we can reduce the results to two by specifying that Google restrict its search to yellowpages.net.ng.

4. Use Filetype Operators (filetype:)

Sometimes we are more interested in specific file types such as PDF, Word Document, Excel Spreadsheet, etc. Google gives us the power to filter search results to file types by using the filetype keyword. Using the lagos farmers market example, we can narrow down to results in PDF as shown below.

Replacing filetype:pdf with filetype:xls returns results in Microsoft Excel formats, and filetype:doc returns results in Microsoft Word.

5. Choose your words, carefully

This is non-technical but very crucial. Understanding the jargon used in the targeted field will lead to better results. For example, search queries like "mortality rate" will likely return more relevant results than "death rate."

This list contains some of the most frequently used advanced search techniques. It was designed to whet your appetite and get you to rethink how you approach searching on Google. It is therefore far from exhaustive. Have a look at Google's own advanced search page and additional resources at googleguide.com by Nancy Blachman and Jerry Peek, two experts who are not affiliated with Google. Once you get your head around these techniques, try a combination of any or all to take the best advantage of this powerful search engine.

This post was also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Neon Tommy.