Life / Can Do

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Posts Tagged ‘Research

Researching a Topic on the Web

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In my career I am often required to research topics on the web. Over the years I’ve developed a routine that I follow repeatedly that allows me to gather a broad understanding of a topic in a relatively short time. These tips and tricks are in no way a replacement for advanced research but they should help you get what you can from the web.

1. Wikipedia

Your inclination may be to try the search engines first and for most simple topics that would be correct. But if the topic you are researching is complex with plenty of subtopics you can save yourself some time by getting some background on the topic from Wikipedia. It may even be tempting to begin and end your research using Wikipedia but this site tries to limit the content to purely factual information. Even if that is all you need it is best to confirm those fact using other sources. In addition to a factual overview on a topic it will also provide you with key terms or subtopics that can help you dig deeper into the details you need.

Using pen and paper or a digital equivalent (SpringpadEvernote, etc.), make note of potential terms to use in search engines. Save a link to the article in your browser (or other tool).

2. Use the search engines (Google, Bing)

By now you should have a list of terms to search for. Start your search with your main topic. When the results are displayed scan the list of result headings before making a selection. Don’t automatically click the first link in the list. There is some controversy over which sites move to the top. Those may just be the sites that are very good at getting traffic and may not be the best choice. Try to avoid any links to product sites unless you happen to be researching that specific product and even then you may want to start with review sites first.

Avoid any sponsored links or ads. Both Google and Bing will indicate which are ads unless you believe they can add to your research. For example if you want to research water purification methods, you don’t want to start at Brita. Links from educational institutions (.edu) tend to be very good sources of objective information (albeit boring) with no intent to sell a product.

One trick that can help filter out vendor driven material is to preface your search term with “Top”, “Best”, “What” or “How” as in “Best Colleges” or “How Water Purification”. The reason this works is because a product site is not going to list the Top alternatives to their product. Typically you will see results links to sites that get ad generated revenue by attracting people researching topics just like you but they themselves will not be trying to sell you something.

3. Use an online note taking tool

Pen and paper is still great for quick notes but you need something more permanent (and legible) to store the many links, clippings and notes that you will be collecting. Most note taking tools have browser extension that allow you store links and clippings without leaving the page you are on. Two of the most popular tools are Springpad and Evernote (I prefer Springpad but Evernote is more popular) which both have free smart phone apps that store data on the web. There are others ( so take your time and find what works for you.

Using an online note taking tool you can gather a great deal of information in a short amount of time that you can then read and review at your convenience. Some will also store audio and video if your research requires it.

4. Video Research

Video research is a great way to gather more information when you are too tired or stressed to read. They can also be entertaining depending on the content and the speaker/narrator. Sites like YouTube have videos of almost every topic imaginable.

If you are lucky you can find information that you need at Khan Academy which is an excellent site for learning a variety of topics. If you have never heard of this site follow that link and check it out.

5. Blogs

When blogs first started becoming popular find useful information on them was extremely rare (unless you were researching pet lovers or stay-at-home parents) but now you can find excellent and timely information written by experts. Even non-experts can provide insights and details that experts miss. You may also find amateur blogs that have links to the content that you would have spent hours looking for.

6. Forums and Discussion Boards

Somewhat related to blogs, forums are a great way to get answers to your questions. If you find the right discussion board you can just simply ask for the information you need – “Where can I find more information about X?”. The best approach is to put your questions out there and then check back in an hour. Most forums will let you setup a notification so that any responses be sent directly to your email address. Make sure you thank people for their feedback even if it doesn’t answer your question completely. If you happen to see any questions on the board that you can help with you should do what you can – people tend to help people who help people.

Try not to get too caught up in discussion boards (unless you are having fun). They are time-sinks that can distract you from your research. If you find it interesting or enjoyable you can always revisit it when you finish your research.

One more thing to remember

When doing research (or any activity) on the web you should avoid the urge to spend time in sites that don’t help you complete your originally intended goal. If during your research you find a site or an article that peaks your interest you can always save that link in your online note taking tool for further enjoyment later. If you are unable to resist the urge of following link after link ask yourself if the time you spent on those various sites would have been better spent doing your research or some other meaningful activity. You don’t want to look at the clock and realize that you spent the last 8 hours on the web with nothing to show for it.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

December 30, 2011 at 9:10 am

Read as If Your Life Depended on It

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You should read as if your life depended on it because in many ways it does. Whatever it is you want to do in life acquiring information is an essential task and reading is the fastest and most purest way of acquiring information. Some people say they learn by doing and that’s a valid way to learn but if you limit yourself to that you will find that learning this way is a slow process. Reading makes the learn-by-doing process faster by acting as a guide.

In most cases, reading provides you with the best source of information. Without it, you are dependent on what the media and your contacts are willing to provide. It is common knowledge that the news media has a tendency to sensationalize and often what you are hearing is only the juiciest part. Depending on your family, friends and coworkers for knowledge is also questionable. Unless you know an expert on a particular topic you would be better served by reading about it. Even if you do know experts, quite often they don’t have the time or the patience to teach you everything they know.

Even with reading you can’t depend on a single book, blog or magazine article if you want to really get to know about a particular topic. You will need to read from a number of different sources in addition to asking for input from your social circle. If you rely on one source of information your knowledge is not your own, it is of the writer or speaker. By absorbing information from a number of different sources you will be able to come to your own conclusions about the topic.

Your time is valuable so, unless you need to be extremely thorough when researching a particular topic, you should only read the best materials you can find. Read reviews and try to verify that a particular source is well respected and recommended. If it is a new book, read reviews of other books by the author. Often you will find that there are only a few  (in some cases, just one) books or authors that are considered the ultimate source for a particular topic. For example when I was researching the topic of Data Warehousing, I found that the author Ralph Kimball was the leader in that field and his book The Data Warehouse Toolkit was the most highly recommended book on the topic. Sure, you can continue your research by reading other books on the topic, but it is important to start with the best.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

April 29, 2011 at 9:21 am