Use These Internet Research Best Practices for Real Online Information

Critical thinking, reliable methods, good sense, and patience

Man in tunnel of digital information
Jon Feingersh/Getty Images

Legitimate research is called re-search for a reason: Only through repetitive filtering and patient sifting will you achieve the depth of understanding that a controversial topic deserves.

As of 2019, more than 1.5 billion web pages exist (about 200 million of them active), and many are not reliable sources of information. To successfully sift it all, you must use consistent and reliable filtering methods. You will need patience to see the full breadth of writing on any single topic, and critical thinking skills to question it until it can be validated.

If you are going to argue a point about politics, medicine, animal care, gun control, or other hot-button issues, take the time to research the topic and support your position with verifiable facts. Regurgitating social media posts, quoting biased media hosts, citing partial or "spun" statistics, etc. erode credibility in the eyes of any opponent with critical thinking skills.

Whether you're a student, a professional, or simply someone looking to make a cogent argument or explore a position, use these tips to conduct serious, "real" research online.

Decide If the Topic Is Hard Research, Soft Research or Both

Hard and soft research have different expectations of data and proof. Determine the hard or soft nature of your topic to point your search strategy where it will yield the most reliable research results.

Hard research describes scientific and objective research, for which proven facts, figures, statistics, and measurable evidence are absolutely critical. In hard research, the credibility of every resource must be able to withstand intense scrutiny.

Soft research describes topics that are subjective, cultural, and opinion-based. Readers tend not to scrutinize soft research sources as much.

Combined soft and hard research requires the most work, because it broadens your search requirements. Not only do you need hard facts and figures, but you also must debate against strong opinions to make your case. Politics and international economy topics are the biggest examples of topics requiring hybrid research.

Choose Which Online Authorities Are Suitable for Your Research Topic

Hard research topics require professionally and academically respected evidence. An opinion blog will not cut it; seek publications by scholars, experts, and professionals with credentials. The invisible web is important for hard research, and often, the best place to start is the same as it has always been: the library. Accordingly, here are possible online content areas for your hard-research topic:

  1. Libraries: WorldCat brings you content and services from 10,000 libraries around the world.
  2. Academic journals: These academic search engines can help point you in the right direction.
  3. Government sites and publications: Check ".gov" sites, such as USA.gov, the NHTSA, and the Library of Congress.
  4. Scientific and medical content: Check sites sanctioned by known authorities.
  5. Unbiased sources: Non-government websites that are not influenced by advertising and obvious sponsorship (e.g., Consumer Watch).
  6. Archived news: Check Google's Wayback Machine Internet Archive to see pages and sites that are no longer active.
Library of Congress screenshot

Exploring soft-research topics sometimes means collating the opinions of respected online writers. Many soft-research authorities are not academics, but rather writers who have practical experience in their fields. Typical sources include:

  1. Blogs, including personal opinion and amateur writer blogs
  2. Forums and discussion sites (e.g., Reddit)
  3. Consumer product review sites (e.g. ZDnet, Epinions)
  4. Commercial sites that are advertising-driven
  5. Tech and computer sites (e.g.Overclock.net). 
  6. Social media (Instagram, Twitter, etc.)

Be particularly careful with information you find on social media. Unverified claims, dubious sources, fake accounts, influencer-driven posts, and misleading graphics abound. Look for verified accounts and reputable, unbiased organizations.

ZDnet screenshot

Use a Variety of Search Engines and Keywords

Now comes the primary legwork: using different search engines and three to five keyword combinations. Patient and constant adjusting of your keywords is important here.

  1. Start with broad initial researching at Internet Public Library, DuckDuckGo, Clusty/Yippy, Wikipedia, and Mahalo. This will give you a broad sense of categories, related topics, and possible directions to aim your research.
  2. Narrow and deepen your visible-web searching with Google and Ask.com. Once you have experimented with combinations of three to five different keywords and keyphrases, these three search engines will deepen the results pool.
  3. Go beyond Google deep web searching. Google doesn't spider invisible web pages, so you'll need to be patient and use slower, more specific search engines such as the Internet Archive (for free media of all types and to backwards-search past events) and Surfwax (much more knowledge-focused and much less commerce-driven than Google).
Archive.org screenshot

Bookmark and Stockpile Possible Good Content

While this step is simple, this is the second-slowest part of the whole process: gathering all the possible ingredients into organized piles to sift through later. Here's a suggested routine for bookmarking pages:

  1. CTRL + click (Windows) or Command + click (macOS) the interesting search engine result links. This will open a new tab page each time.
  2. When you have three or four new tabs, quickly browse them and do an initial assessment of their credibility.
  3. Bookmark any tabs you consider credible on first glance.
  4. Close the tabs.
  5. Repeat with the next batch of links.

This method, after about 45 minutes, will have yielded you dozens of bookmarks to sift through.

Filter and Validate the Content

This is the slowest step of all: vetting and filtering. If you are doing hard internet research, this is also the most important step, because your resources must withstand close examination later.

  1. Carefully consider the author/source and the date of publication. Is the author an authority with professional credentials, or someone who is peddling their wares and trying to sell you a book? Is the page undated or unusually old? Does the page have its own domain name (e.g. honda.com, gov.co.uk), or is it some deep, obscure page on a free hosting platform?
  2. Be suspicious of personal pages, as well as commercial pages with shoddy, amateurish presentations. Spelling and grammar errors, poor formatting, cheesy advertising, lots of popups, absurd fonts, and blinking emoticons are all red flags that the author is not a serious resource and does not care about quality.
  3. Be suspicious of scientific or medical pages that display scientific or medical advertising. For example, if you are researching veterinarian advice, be wary if the veterinarian web page displays blatant advertising for dog medicine or pet food. Advertising can indicate a conflict of interest or hidden agenda behind the writer's content. This isn't always the case, but it's best to investigate.
  1. Be suspicious of ranting, overstating, or extreme commentary. Forceful, pointed anger and negativity can indicate dishonesty and fraudulent motivations behind the writing. The same goes for overly positive, flattering coverage. Look for balance.
  2. Commercial consumer websites can be good resources, but be skeptical of every comment you read. Just because seven people rave that Pet Food X is good for their dogs does not necessarily mean it is good for your dog. Similarly, if five people out of 600 complain about a particular vendor, that doesn't necessarily mean the vendor is bad. Be patient, skeptical, and slow to form an opinion.
  3. Heed your intuition if something seems amiss. Perhaps the author is just a little too positive or seems a little too closed to other opinions. Maybe the author uses profanity, name-calling, or insults to try to make his point. The formatting of the page might seem childlike and haphazard. Or you get the sense that the author is trying to sell you something. If you get any nagging feeling that something is not quite right about the web page, trust your intuition.
  1. Use Google's link: feature to see the backlinks for a page. This technique lists incoming links from major websites that link to the web page of interest. These backlinks help gauge the respect the author has earned around the Internet. Simply enter link:[the web page's address] in the search bar.

Decide Which Argument You Now Support

A few hours of serious research might have changed or validated your initial opinion. In any case, you'll have learned more about both sides of an issue, and you're now equipped to voice an opinion, write a report or thesis, or simply solidify your feelings on a topic.

If you've formed a new opinion, redo your research (or re-sift your existing research bookmarks) to collate facts that support it.    

Quote and Cite the Content

While no single, universal standard for citing (acknowledging) quotes from the internet exists, a few conventions generally apply.

Online content typically follows the formats laid out in the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. Cite sources inline, not as footnotes. For example, "A 2019 study by Some University discovered that..." Whenever possible, provide a link to the primary source of your info.

For printed material, the Modern Language Association and American Psychological Association offer two very respected citing methods.

Here is a sample MLA citation:

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive.
Web Atomic and Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
13 Sept. 2007. Web. 4 Nov. 2008. ‹http://classics.mit.edu/›.
 

Here is a sample APA citation:

Bernstein, M. (2002). 10 Tips on writing the living web. A
List Apart: For People Who Make Websites, 149.
Retrieved from http://www.alistapart.com/articles/writeliving

The Purdue University Owl Guide explains MLA and APA citing methods in detail.

Never plagiarize. Directly quote the author, or rewrite and summarize the content (along with appropriate citation). Restating an author's words as your own is illegal, and will get you a failing mark on your thesis or paper. Likewise, don't steal copyrighted material such as photos and graphics. If you'd like to include such an item, contact the owner first and provide appropriate credit. Or, check Creative Commons for images that are OK to use.

Choose a Research-Friendly Web Browser

Researching is repetitive and slow, so you need a capable browser. A research-friendly web browser offers:

  1. Multiple tab pages open simultaneously
  2. Bookmarks/favorites that are fast and easy to manage
  3. Page history that is easy to recall
  4. Fast page loading

Chrome, Firefox, and Opera are good choices.

Remember, it's re-searching. It should feel slow and repetitive because that's the nature of diligence and skeptical, hard questioning. Keep your attitude positive, and enjoy the discovery process. You might discard 90% of what you read (although you might find some of it entertaining) — but that 10% goes a long way toward forming an opinion, case, or knowledge base that's solidly rooted in fact.