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Find it all on the Web

When it comes to finding business information, mere Web surfing isn’t enough. Knowing where to look and how to find what you need can put you ahead of the competition. Get your keywords ready.

It was really hard not to laugh, but it was clear that this man needed help. He’d come up with a pretty good business idea, and was putting together a business plan for it. He knew the ins and outs of the job, and had even amassed some initial financing. So far, so good, but he’d stalled when it came to the piece about researching the market. He couldn’t find anything on the Web, and he figured he must be doing something wrong. Boy, was he right about that! I was encouraged to find from his browser history list that he’d been to one marvelous repository of business information–Hoovers.com. So why was I stifling my laughter? He’d gone there to buy a vacuum cleaner. “What a useless site,” he observed.

There’s a better way to winkle-pick information from the Web than blindly slapping random words in the browser’s Address bar and framing them with www. and .com. And even visiting well-known search sites like the wonderful Google and pretty good Yahoo won’t get good results unless you have a few research skills under your belt. But work your way through this 10-point plan for extracting the good information. It will give you have better data more quickly, so you can concentrate on the business at hand.

1. Pick your site

Information is only as good as its source. Sometimes you’ll want to cast the net wide and get as much relevant information as you can from all across the Web–and sometimes, you’ll want only focused analysis of specific markets. The Googles and Yahoos will serve you well in wider searches, but business sites like Hoovers.com and Yahoo Finance are better for competitive analysis and news about companies and their markets.

The top tier of Web search sites includes Google, Teoma, Fast Search, Transfer’s Alltheweb and AltaVista. Use these and the ace Web directory Yahoo, and ignore AOL and MSN’s search tools. Time is too precious to waste on mediocrities.

If you’re keen on getting as many relevant results as you can, consider a metasearch tool–one that uses a single search to collect results from many sites (Google, AltaVista, and so on). Two handy metasearch sites are Dogpile and Metacrawler, but I prefer to use a downloadable Windows program called Copernic Agent. The free basic version searches lots of sites in various topics, and saves the results on your hard disk so you can revisit them. Hardcore researchers like me will find the $80 Copernic Agent Professional worthwhile. It metasearches more than a thousand sources, automatically weeds out broken links, and lets you organize and manage your results.

2. Pick your words

Two search words are better than one, and three are better still. If you’re looking for the staple English condiment HP Sauce, HP is useless (Hewlett-Packard will dominate the results). HP Sauce is better; and if you add the parent company’s name Danone to the mix, you’ll get the best results of all.

3. Use the phrase that pays

The single most effective search you will ever learn is this: Search for phrases. To exclude most of the irrelevant results from your Web searches, wrap first and last names, fragments of sentences, even whole sentences in quotation marks. This trick works with Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, and many others. If it doesn’t work with a specialized search site you use, look for a “search for phrase” option and use that instead. Search for the three words Web, search, and tips at some sites, and your results will be cluttered with tips on job searches and other irrelevancies. Use “Web search tips” or “Web search” tips and you’ll get more precise hits every time.

4. Lose the irrelevant results

So you’re thinking of starting a fruit farm, but whenever you search for strawberry fields, you get Beatles links? Exclude the Fab Four from your results: Use the same search terms, but stick a minus sign in front of a keyword you don’t want, like this:

“strawberry fields” -Beatles

Some sites use the Boolean term not instead of the minus sign; but try minus first.

5. Question orthography!

If your results just look plain wrong, double-check your spelling. Even though Google, AskJeeves, and others do a good job of suggesting alternative spellings, fans of the singer Harry Nilsson still won’t find him by searching for Harry Nielson. Yep, your grade school teacher was right–spelling is important. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to try different stylings of terms like CD-ROM; include CDROM or CD ROM, for example.

6. Ask for directions

Different sites work in different ways. Some use minus signs to exclude terms, some want you to put not before such words. Some do phrase searching if you use quotation marks; some only provide the option on a separate Advanced Search page. So check out the Help section at any site you use.

7. Don’t stick around

If you don’t find what you’re looking for in the first couple of results screens, either go back and enter a different set of search terms, or move on to another search site.

8. Narrow your focus

Google and AltaVista have a brilliant feature that’s barely known and incredibly useful. You can use them to search a single Web site or only domains that end in, say, .edu (four-year colleges) or .uk (United Kingdom) or .ie (Ireland). It’s called Site in Google and at AltaVista, Host. To search for Windows XP at the ComputerUser site, use this search syntax at Google:

site:computeruser.com “Windows XP”

…or this at AltaVista:

host:computeruser.com “Windows XP”

To search for snakes in Ireland using Google, enter

site:ie snakes

…or at AltaVista, enter

host:ie snakes

Be careful not to enter a space after the colon.

9. Evaluate your sources

Think like a high school student doing a research paper. Is the source you’re reading reliable? There are five quick reality checks for good solid information online. You need to evaluate the author, publisher, the date, the spin, and last but not least, the spelling and grammar. Is the site a serious publishing venture with editorial values? Is it well informed and does it cite its sources? And is the author a recognized name? It’s possible to get bogus information from sites that meet all these criteria (even the New York Times online), but it’s less likely than getting unreliable information from, say, TheOnion.com.

10. Keep track of your information

The single worst part of doing research is knowing something but not knowing where you read it. Is AOL really going down the toilet, or was that just something you read on an investor bulletin board from someone letting off steam? You can’t tell if you don’t file away your information. There are several good strategies for keeping track of information. In descending order of ease, here are my favorites.

— Use Copernic Agent Professional and save the Web pages you like. Copernic Agent saves links to your search results (you can delete the ones you don’t like). And if you like, you can also save the whole text of the documents. This feature is invaluable for serious research.

— Use cut and paste to move important info to a Word document. Copy key paragraphs and copy the URL of each page you quote from. This is another good term paper research habit that works well for non-academic work as well. The only trouble is using Ctrl-Tab to move from open Word document to open browser window; it gets tiring after a while.

— Save links as Favorites or Bookmarks. A quick-and-dirty way to keep an audit trail of your search is to hit Internet Explorer’s “Add to Favorites” menu option or Netscape’s “Bookmark This Page.” You only get a page title this way, so it’s not always easy to find the context–but it’s still there when you need it.

Oh, and if you still think that Hoovers.com is a good site for vacuum cleaner purchase, go this route instead. Subscribe to the Consumer Reports Web site for $24 a year or check out user ratings at Epinions.com. When you’ve researched a model you like, compare prices at MySimon.com. And now that you’ve saved some time and money, get back to the business plan…

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