It is very common to hear people make plans to address their information needs by Googling, that is, using the popular Google search engine or really any general search engine to try to gather data from the World Wide Web.
Is doing a search of the Internet necessarily the best way to get worthwhile information? Is it the most efficient? This article will discuss whether Googling is always the appropriate choice for Internet research and propose alternative sources.
Using a search engine, be it Google, Alta Vista, Teoma or any other given engine, has proven to be an amazingly fast way to plumb the depths of the World Wide Web for information. However, there are two key downsides to using general Internet search engines. One is the problem of efficiency. In spite of the speed at which search engines operate, they still usually generate an enormous collection of results which the researcher must wade through to determine relevance.
Another issue is that of authority. There was a famous cartoon by Peter Steiner that appeared in The New Yorker back in 1993, which features two dogs sitting at a computer. One dog says to the other, On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. This is a humorous illustration of the problem of authority on the Internet: one does not always know the source of the information one is retrieving. If the source is identified, its reliability may be dubious.
In terms of information sources, there are a vast number of dogs out on the Internet; it is a great vanity press, meaning that anyone who has an account with an Internet service provider (ISP) which allows them to publish to the Web (and almost all ISPs do this) can put any and all types of information, misinformation or non-information out there. Googling is generally the best way to retrieve questionable material, because general search engines are designed to troll the entire World Wide Web with little or no discrimination.
What, then, are good sources for finding authoritative information efficiently? What guidelines can one keep in mind?
Back in the 1960s, the slogan, Question Authority was a popular inducement for people to question the authority of the government. Conversely, with Internet research, government sources often serve as prime authorities for various studies and reports, and are naturally a good place to consult for primary legal material.
Other search engines exist which address specific topics; Scirus (www.scirus.com), for example, is restricted to scientific information only, and its search capabilities can be tailored to retrieve journal abstracts and articles.
Other unique search engines concentrate on news or journal articles online, which are worthy sources since they should have an editor or even an editorial board pers and journals already existing in print. The following sites may be used to access articles: Google News (http://news. google.com), Badgerlink (www.badgerlink.org), Findarticles.com (www.findarticles.com) and Google Scholar (http://scholar. google.com).
There are a number of other Internet reference tools which have an existing counterpart in print, produced by an authoritative publisher. Consulting this type of source online unites authority and efficiency at once; the task is reduced to a simple lookup of a term in a web based source such as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (www.m-w.com), or the Columbia Encyclopedia (featured at www.bartleby.com).
Reliable portal-type sites should lead to reliable sites for lookups. Some examples of good portals are:
- For legal professionals:
- For general reference:
These sites are compiled by professional librarians. Librarians are well trained in discerning authority and ease of information access to the end user.
Googling, or Alta Vista-ing, or Teoma-ing, or what have you, is still an incredibly useful way to gather information, especially cursory information when little or nothing is known about a subject. In this way, general search engine results can serve as springboards to other sources of information which may prove more dependable.
They also are helpful for the needle-in-a-haystack search, as the subject matter at hand becomes especially focused and rare, e.g., dogs versus the Swedish Vallhund.
The World Wide Web provides us with a quick way to access information, and is an attractive, low-budget alternative to fee-based resources like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis. However, Internet researchers are advised to overcome the impulse to Google everything, and choose their Web-based research tools carefully.
General search engines may not always be the vehicle of choice.
Selected Sources for Searching for People, Places, Things
People are a popular target of Googling. Naturally, the more widely known an individual is, the more information can
and will be retrieved on the Web about him or her, and vice versa. However, if one wanted information on a senator and put the senator’s name into a general search engine, it is likely that some very subjective hits may be retrieved, considering politics is extremely charged with opinion.
Therefore, to research famous or known people, it may be much more practical to avoid general search engines in favor of sites such as Biography.com (www.biography.com), which offers encyclopedic entries on historical or famous people. For political figures in particular, a government site such as www.senate.gov will provide contact and biographical information for senators in additional to issue positions. Another political resource is www.votesmart.org, a purportedly nonpartisan, independent political site.
As for data gathering on members of the general public, Googling may be required in order to dig up anything. Public records may also be consulted; Searchsystems.net (www.searchsystems.net), the Largest Free Public Records Directory, is a helpful guide to online public records nationwide. Peoplespot (www.peoplespot.com) is a fairly comprehensive portal which provides links to many varieties of people-related information: statistics, famous and historical people, public records sources, FBI’s Ten Most Wanted, etc.
Useful sites for information on geographical places include the CIA World Factbook (www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html), which provides quick facts about countries, including statistical economic and demographic information, as well as the basics such as capitals and current government.
The USGS Geographic Names Information System (http://geonames. usgs.gov) is a handy site for looking up a U.S. city to check its county, as well as latitude, longitude and elevation information. When the place in question is a business entity, there are two tools worth consulting. First, Hoovers (www. hoovers.com) is a source for finding out quickly the principals of a public company and basic annual sales information. Second, the Business Journal site (www.bizjournals.com), which offers concise articles on the status and history of businesses nationwide.
When checking factual information, one should look to useful reference sources such as the Infoplease Almanac (www.infoplease.com), and Bartleby.com (www.bartleby.com), which provides access to several well known tools such as Bartlett’s Quotations, Roget’s Thesaurus and Gray’s Anatomy.
For product research, one may want to seek information which is independent of the manufacturer. A search of newsgroups, via Google (http://groups.google.com), may yield feedback from other individuals who are using a given product. To locate professional reviews of information technology products, Techrepublic (http://techrepublic.com), PCWorld (www.pcworld.com) or PCMagazine (www.pcmagazine.com) are worthwhile. For other products, the Consumer Reports Web site (www.consumerreports.org) offers a number of articles with sound advice for free on its site, although the bulk of its product reviews are only available by paid subscription. Recalls of most products may be sought at www.recalls.gov. Drugs may be looked up at the National Library of Medicine site (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ druginformation.html); the NLM site also makes a medical encyclopedia and dictionary available. The Food and Drug Administration site (www.fda.gov) has recall and safety information.
Rumor has it that there are legal professionals out there who regularly Google the legal cases they need. As stated earlier, government Web sites may be alternatively consulted for primary legal information. Findlaw.com (www.findlaw.com) is a practical legal portal to primary legal sources. Lexisone.com (www.lexisone.com, which requires free registration) allows registered users to look up case law from the past five years by search term, party name or even citation.
Diane Duffey is the law librarian at Habush Habush & Rottier in Milwaukee.