Your company needs a piece of information, and you need to find it fast. Perhaps you need to locate a supplier for an obscure widget, or to know the number of dental offices in Sheboygan, or your congressman's mailing address. The information must be out there on the Internet somewhere. But where should you start looking? A myriad of search engines, databases, and Web indices are available to you. Knowing where to look, and how to search, can mean the difference between finding that essential bit of knowledge and getting lost in a bottomless sea of irrelevant information.
For many searches, Google (www.google.com) is a great place to start. There are plenty of other general Web search engines, too: Alta Vista (www.altavista.com), Lycos (www.lycos.com), Teoma (www.teoma.com), All The Web (www.alltheweb.com), and others, but Google has some advantages. In addition to having the (arguably) largest index of Web pages, Google can search PDF files and Microsoft Word documents, all possible hiding places for that extensive widget FAQ.
Most search engine users type two- or three-word phrases, and that can be good enough most of the time. But too often, these simple phrase searches yield thousands and thousands of hits--way too many to effectively sort. So familiarize yourself with the advanced search options of your favorite search engine. Don't let the word "advanced" scare you off: You can learn your way around these search functions in minutes. Just read the help provided by your search site. For instance, on Google you can search for an exact phrase by putting it in quotes, limit hits to a particular language, or just show pages that have been recently updated. (Details about advanced searching on Google are at www.google.com/advanced_search.)
Google does more than searching: It's a one-stop shop for many types of information that a business might need. You can type a UPS, USPS, or FedEx tracking number into the search field for a quick delivery confirmation, or a flight number such as United Airlines 85 for status about an airline flight. You can type a UPC code number to find out about a product, or a vehicle identification number to get information about a particular car. The site also handles arithmetic and conversions: You can type 123 * pi or feet per 2.5 miles or speed of light in furlongs per fortnight for speedy answers.
No matter which search engine you use, it's easy to drown in information. A one-word search phrase (which 19% of searchers use, according to OneStat.com) is likely to provide a tsunami of hits that don't provide the information you need. The trick is to be specific enough to find what you want, without being so specific that you inadvertently weed out potentially useful results.
When a photojournalist goes on an assignment, she tries to get wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups in the hopes of telling the story. Similarly, a combination of search styles, from wide to close-up, can help you find information.
A wide-angle search such as Sheboygan can be useful when you want general information about something: Maybe you don't know exactly what you want to know, you're just fishing for anything. A general search such as this won't reveal the number of dental offices there, but it will point you to some of the major features of that city.
A medium-range search such as congressional contact information can often bring you to a Web site that has the information you want. It might not zip you to the precise page you need, but close enough that you can find it.
Finally, try making your search phrase very specific, which should hone the results significantly. For instance, searching for Western Electric 311B vacuum tube supplier might deliver exactly what you want when searching for vacuum tubes will lead you on a wild goose chase.
There is no one right way to search. Figuring out which type of search is right for your particular query takes trial and error. The other half of the battle is knowing where to search.
There are innumerable specialized databases that can provide the answers that you seek, but they're only helpful if you know they exist at all.
The U.S. government serves up endless amounts of searchable information, from product recalls (www.recalls.gov) to FCC product identification numbers (www.fcc.gov/oet/fccid) to copyright registrations (www.copyright.gov/records). FirstGov, the federal government's official Web portal (www.firstgov.gov), is a useful starting point for hunting down information that you think the government might have. The site's Reference Shelf section (www.firstgov.gov/Topics/Reference_Shelf.shtml) serves up government contacts, maps, information about laws, and statistics . . . so, so many statistics.
For scientific, medical, and technical data, try Scirus (www.scirus.com/srsapp/). FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) is similarly focused on legal data. The Business area of FindLaw includes sections on human resources, accounting, and intellectual property, among other topics.
Publications and journals are often essential resources. For $100 per year, Highbeam Research (www.highbeam.com) lets you search 2,600 newspapers, magazines, trade journals, and reference books. For businesses with more lavish budgets, LexisNexis (prices vary; www.lexisnexis.com) provides authorative searching of 36,000 legal, news, and public records sources. If that's out of your budget, FindArticles (www.findarticles.com) lets you search 3.5 million articles in more than 700 publications for free.
Thanks to the Internet, there's usually no need for a business to spend a penny on directory assistance. Phone numbers and addresses nationwide are a search away. Switchboard.com and AnyWho.com serve up nationwide yellow and white page listings. Or enter a telephone number into the Reverse Phone Directory (www.reversephonedirectory.com) to find out to whom a particular phone number belongs.
Mapping sites can answer your questions about geography, even if the question is "How do I get to this meeting?" Mapquest.com will show you a street map of any U.S. city or provide driving directions between any two U.S. addresses.
What if, despite your best efforts, you can't find the piece of information you need? Hire someone to find it for you.
At Google Answers (answers.google.com) you can pose your question in a variety of categories from small business advertising to computer network security, and specify what you're willing to pay for the answer, as little as $2.50. Researchers will try to find the answer--often, they're able to do it in less than an hour. If you're in a particular hurry or need an especially detailed answer, a higher amount can motivate researchers to get the details you need.
For those hard questions about computers that crop up when your IT guy is on vacation (or that the IT guy can't answer), turn to the helpful authorities at Experts Exchange (www.expertsexchange.com). On this site, you spend question points to posit your query. If you just have an occasional question, there should be enough free question points to help. Otherwise, an inexpensive subscription to the site will provide all the points you need.
Searching the Internet is an art. Sometimes the information you need is right there, and other times, it will elude you. Consider the reference librarian at your local library (who is, by the way, an excellent resource when you can't find the information you need online): The librarian doesn't know everything, but he does know how to find out just about anything. Until the ghost of Melville Dewey comes to organize the Internet as well as he organized the library, search engines are the best way we have to find information online.
Here are some of the most useful sites to go to when you're on the hunt for information for your business.
Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.