Researching a study topic online can get quite overwhelming so often people try to take a shortcut by typing a keyword into their favorite search engine and pick the first entry. But if you know how and where to look you can find better and hidden material.
So here are 9 steps to find excellent study material on the internet:
- 1. Know what you want to find
- 2. Find out what other people ask
- 3. Mindmap your findings
- 4. Use google special search commands
- 5. Use other search engines and sources
- 6. Know how Google ranks websites
- 7. Keep a search record and bookmark system
- 8. Evaluate content reliability
- 9. Check the author’s credibility
- Related Questions
Searching is basically split into 3 major steps, knowing what you look for, conducting the search and evaluating the results. These steps are not new and you might already use them e.g. when you are shopping, know what to buy, know where to look and how to evaluate the quality. So let’s apply that to our study and dive into it.
1. Know what you want to find
Lewis Carrol, the author of Alice in Wonderland, said: “If you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there”. If you don’t have a clear goal and know what you are looking for you will most likely end up on YouTube watching another funny cat video or shopping on Amazon. I mentioned this already in my article on how to read a book and remember it that you need to define clear expectations of the research. So here are the first steps to get your search started:
- Write down a list of questions you want to be answered
- Create a list of keywords related to your topic
- Identify the global subject that sums it all up (be as precise as possible but broad enough to cover all subtopics – so instead of using “Internet safety” use “Home network security” if that is the topic you are really looking for.
- Identify the type of research you are doing. Are you looking for facts or opinions on a topic? This defines where you should be looking and how important it is to evaluate the credibility of the material
2. Find out what other people ask
Now that you have a clear understanding of what you are looking for you should be gathering further ideas and refine your questions. This is important because you might find a different angle on how to look at a certain topic. I always do these steps not only when I study for an exam but also for my research on my blog article. Here is how to do it:
Googles autocomplete is a great tool to get more ideas. Just start typing your topic into the google search bar and see what suggestions come up. These results are not some random sentences but things that other people have searched for in the order of search volume. Now you can refine the topic by changing the question pattern. Try all of the following questions for more ideas and use the asterisk, as an example I take “Password security”:
- What * password security
- Why * password security
- How to * password security
- When * password security
- Which * password security
The following pattern can help you identify groups or authorities for your topic:
- Who * password security
- Password security for
If you are looking for products, reviews or step-by-step instructions you might want to try:
- What is the best * password security
- Password security vs
- Password security versus
Other useful prepositions to try after the topic are in, with, without, and to. If you want to make sure not to miss anything you can try the website answerthepublic.com which tries all the combinations for you and gives you the autocomplete results on one page. With all these results go ahead and refine your questions. Most likely you will have a lot of new ideas on what to look for. You also might rethink the overall topic because you might have found certain areas of your subject you didn’t know were included.
Use the questions box
If you want to further refine your search you can type in the best questions you found so far and press enter. In many cases, Google will show a small box called “People also ask”. This might help you to refine the wording of your questions and gives you more ideas. By clicking and the right side arrow of a question that matters to you Google will add more similar questions to the box. Open and close question dropdowns until you see that no more new ideas come up.
Use the related questions section
At the end of the search page you find a box with related searches. See if you find an aspect of your topic that you haven’t thought of yet and add it to your list. Whenever you follow one of those links keep an eye on the overall topic you are researching. I often find myself drifting away into similar and more interesting stuff and end up on YouTube.
3. Mindmap your findings
Now it’s time to structure your findings so you can see the big picture. The best method to do that is to start a mindmap. A mindmap is a summarized visual representation of any given topic. Put the refined overall keyword
in the center and branch out to subtopics and sub-questions you have identified during your preparation. This is not only helpful to organize the search but also to fill in the results later and create a perfect study aid. The mindmap allows you to see the topic as a whole and identify gaps. If this is the first time you ever heard about mindmapping just try it – it’s simple and very effective. Download FreeMind, an open source software available for every platform.
4. Use google special search commands
If you haven’t heard of this yet this will be a real addition to your toolbox. Google has a list of search commands that help you narrow down the results (This is often referred to as Google hacking though it has nothing to do with hacking, totally legal of course. But these techniques are often used by hackers to find much more specific information about a target. Let’s take a look at the most useful commands:
Looking for all search terms – When you just type in Project management syllabus the default is to look for all the words using an implicit AND operator.
Binding words together – When you want to find specific terms you can put the term in apostrophes like so: Project management “cheat sheet” requires that the words cheat sheet appear exactly as you typed them.
Either word is ok – You can use the OR or | (Pipe symbol) to specify that either of your search terms can be in the result. Example: “Project Managment” OR PMP | “PM Professional”
Combining terms – You can use parentheses to group search terms. So if you are looking for a cheat sheet and want to find PMP or Project management you can use: “cheat sheet” (PMP OR “Project management)
Excluding words – Use the minus symbol to exclude words from your search: Project management PMP -“practice tests”
Placeholder: We used it before already, use the * symbol to allow Google to replace the placeholder with frequently used terms that match your search query
These were just the basic search option, if you did not know them you are in for a surprise. Google has quite a few special words you can use to narrow down where and what exactly you are searching. Let’s take a look at them:
intitle: This option finds only results where your keyword is in the page title. Example:
intext: This option ignores title and
site: This option is very useful if you found a great article and want to check if the same website has more useful information for you. For example if you like my articles and want to see what other tips I am offering you could type:
link: With link you have a great way of checking an articles credibility. It returns all the websites that link to a specific page. You still should take a look at who is linking to the site because nowadays many websites use some paid linkbuilding strategies thinking they might rank higher on google which is actually not really true anymore. It also might give you an idea about related pages that might have similar content you can check out for your research.
related: As the keyword suggests this finds related websites. This is a good way to search for groups of specific topic or categories of pages. Just try
ans see what comes up then you know what I mean.
info: This keyword is kind of a summary of some of the functionality above. It shows links to that
“PMP Exam” daterange:2458120-2458332
which searches for “PMP Exam” between January 1 and August 1 2018. Luckily for you I prepared a converter to calculate a Julian from a Gregorian date which you can find in Tool or with this direct link.
filetype: This is actually one of my favorites and I found countless very useful documents with this one. To filter out unwanted filetype you can specify exactly what you are looking for. As an example, if you are looking for summaries of an exam a search like
“PMP exam cheat sheet” filetype:pdf
might save you tons of hours to summarize study material by yourself.
5. Use other search engines and sources
Google is undoubtedly the king of internet search with approximately 40 billion indexed pages. So why use other engines at all? When you think about it you most likely never go past page 2 of the search results so the amount of results you get does not really matter. Other engines might evaluate the content and the search terms you type in another way so you can get different results which might be worth looking at. So let’s take a look at some other important search platforms:
Bing – Microsoft’s approach to search is the second largest and always a good way to double check your search results. It looks very similar to Google with the snippet (the box at the top) and the “What people asked” and related searches links at the bottom. Still, I always start with Google and most of the time their result is already what I was looking for.
Pinterest – One of my favorites. It is not the classic search engine but contains a lot of summarized material. Sometimes you can get an overview of an entire topic in just one infographic. Since most of these graphics are linked to a webpage it is usually easier to find relevant material by just going over the images. If somebody put a lot of effort into creating a visual overview you can expect a detailed article behind it. Yes, they want you to go to their website and look at some ads but hey if it saves you a couple of hours of research why not.
Yippy – Yippy is supposed to be a deep web search engine (Means it finds the websites that are usually not found by Google or Bing but it does come up with very similar results than the other one. What I like about it is that you have some filters on the left sidebar that lets you group those sites by domain endings, time and most important topic which might give you ideas of similar search topics you haven’t thought of before.
Google Scholar Search – This is a very valuable special version of Google which focuses on research and scientific material. Depending on the topic you are studying this is the place to find supporting documents and facts, reports and academic publication that might just be hard to find on the regular Google search.
DuckDuckGo – What I like about this search engine it that it shows you the Favicon (that little icon you see next to the website in your browser tab) along with the document type. This makes it easier to spot if the result is from the same site (so you can avoid visiting certain websites like Amazon or other shopping sites to avoid being distracted and wasting your time).
Baidu – This search engine is to China what Google is to the rest of the world. Since Google is blocked there China made their own search engine. This finds, of course, a lot of Chinese results – so why do I even mention it since most of us can not read Chinese. During the 8 years I lived over there I used it actually quite often with the help of translation software of course. The reason is that it gives you access to a whole new variety of knowledge and wisdom from a long history. When I was walking through a Chinese library and saw all these endless shelves of books I wondered how much knowledge they might contain that most of us will never find. So Baidu is a way to access part of this.
There are many other websites out there like Yahoo (which I usually avoid because I find it too distracting), Yandex, Ask, Dogpile etc. but with the ones I mentioned above, you will usually find what you need. So now that you hopefully found what you were looking for another question arises: How credible are my results?
6. Know how Google ranks websites
Googles ranking method was long a mystery and many web designers thought that stuffing a site with keywords helps to get on the first page. While that might have been true at the beginning google has learned a lot and improved dramatically. With more than 200 different indicators (which would take a separate article to explain) Google tends to focus on content quality. This means that the internet is not just indexed by bots and software programs anymore that analyze a website with some algorithms. Google uses humans and testers to evaluate website to make sure they filter out spammers and people who want to trick their readers into visiting. They also evaluate the authors credibility into account. This means if I would start a blog about brain surgery I would probably never rank for it. This take time so a new website takes up to 6 month or more to get its final rank (of course a rank is never final, every site will be revisited once in a while and checked for updates). I think my point is that what Google puts on the first couple of pages is probably the most helpful content you can find – but don’t forget to ask you questions in different ways like I described above.
7. Keep a search record and bookmark system
If you are doing an intensive research you are coming across dozens of websites. Having your bookmarks organized helps you to store important findings for later and slowly builds up a library of websites you can get back to whenever you need it. So here are some way to do it:
When using Chrome (which I do because I am using MAC and PC and the Sync function provides me with my bookmark library anywhere) the most simple way to organize your bookmarks is to type CTRL-SHIFT-O or on a MAC OPTION-COMMAND-B to open Chrome’s bookmark manager. Here you can simply organize your bookmarks into folders and match them to your current field of study. There are a couple of extensions with more sophisticated functions but keeping it simple gives you more time to study instead of organizing bookmarks.
Another way to keep your favorite websites in check is to use Pinterest. Create a couple of meaningful boards and whenever you find something useful (like this article) just pin it. For Chrome, you can simply use their Pin Button extension which installs right next to your browsers address bar.
But what if you researched for hours and remember you came across a website that you forgot to bookmark. Well, Google has you covered. Just go to https://myactivity.google.com and check where you have been. It shows you exactly when you have been on which website and which search terms have brought you there.
8. Evaluate content reliability
Whenever you find an article that looks promising you need to judge how good the content is. As I mentioned before that is what Google is trying to do already and they get it right very often. But here are some additional things to consider. The first thing I always look at (and Google does too) is how many ads are on that website. We are all used to ads nowadays and it is fine with me, I also use them but sometimes it is hard to find the content. This means that the entire article was created to earn money. This is why articles on such pages are often very short (Google recognizes this now and puts article length as one of the top ranking factors). But how much is too much? Experimenting with it shows me that with a 3000-4000 words article like this 4-5 ads in between the paragraphs is still fine and easy to skip. Annoying popups or videos that play with sound immediately are another sign. The second thing is affiliate links (Means that if you click on them and buy something the author gets a tiny commission). Though these links are totally fine if someone recommends a product or service genuinely some websites are just stuffed with Amazon buy buttons. This basically means the intention of the author is to sell you something which might impact the reliability of the information you are looking for.
Another thing I look at is the date of the article. The speed at which knowledge doubles increases exponentially. According to a publication by IBM in 1982, the average knowledge of the world doubles every 12 months, in 2020 every 12 hours. This means whatever was written yesterday might be outdated already. When I first heard this years ago this was one of the enlightenment when it comes to learning. If you stop learning you do not stand still, you decrease because your knowledge becomes obsolete faster and faster.
But back to the topic, of course, you won’t always find a fresh publication from yesterday and this is of course topic dependent. If you study history changes might not be relevant. I am in the IT business and sometimes shocked how what I just learned is already replaced by something else. Another thing you can look for is that links on the website work. This means the author is maintaining the article.
9. Check the author’s credibility
The authority of a website is closely related to the author’s credibility. First of all, if the author is hidden and there is no link to find him/her you should be suspicious already. Look for an About Me page so you can judge if the creator of the publication is credible. That does not mean if you are researching about an illness you always need to find a doctor, a patient who experienced and got over it may give you different but probably equally qualified material. Take me for example, I am not a teacher (though I have courses on Udemy) but I write about what I experienced during taking many exams and preparing for it.
No author knows everything. If a publication relates to findings of others make sure the source is linked properly so you can double check the fact. If you want to get more details about an author you can take a look at his LinkedIn page or his author’s page on Amazon if you can find one. One of the reasons I prefer personal blogs over Lifehack or other popular All-in-one sources is that they hire guest writers to write one article. That doesn’t mean they are bad. But writing an entire blog like me often makes me go back and improve other articles that I found new information about while researching a new topic.
That seems like a lot just for researching a topic. Trust me, you will get good at this over time and the way you look at your search results and find things on the internet is getting second nature. This does not only apply to study material but is also very helpful when looking for the best toaster.
How effectively study a huge amount of study material? This is basically no different from studying any other material. You need to learn study techniques (Read faster, memorize better, longer), motivation techniques (find your push button) and optimize your lifestyle (The right environment, tools, better sleep, and exercise). You can find many of the answers to those 3 key points here on my website, just take a look around.