The Barnes & Noble Review
If you're ready to actually find what you're looking for on the Internet, read Researching Online For Dummies, Second Edition. Lead author Reva Basch is the Mark McGwire of online research, and new co-author Mary Ellen Bates isn't far behind (Sammy Sosa?) In this book, they share their best techniquesand if your time's worth anything, the book will pay for itself on Day One.
You'll start with a clear-eyed guide to "thinking and working like a researcher"in particular, focusing your search, planning where to look first, and understanding what you still might not be able to find on the Webat least, not for free. The authors cover the usual suspects (Yahoo! and its ilk) but go far beyond them, introducing specialized search engines, "ready reference" sources, industry-specific mega-sites, online libraries, and "gated information services" (some of which charge a pretty penny, others are free as a bird).
Need to do a trademark or patent search? Get an independent briefing on a company? Track down the latest medical treatments and procedures? Research colleges, cars, vacations? Basch and Bates show you how. There's also a CD-ROM with demos of the best online research software, plus direct hyperlinks to all the sites mentioned in the book. Why keep wasting time, when you can become a research expert with Researching Online For Dummies, Second Edition?
Read an Excerpt
The Many Faces of Online
In This Chapter
* Unearthing the hidden online
* Investigating fee-based services
* Contacting the Net's human resources
Amazing as it may seem, the online world was alive and thriving long
before the arrival of the World Wide Web. Yes, the Web has grabbed
the spotlight as a glamorous, fun-loving, party animal -- every would-be
information junkie's dream date. But for all its multimedia glitter and flash,
the Web is a newcomer to the online world, and a derivative and ditzy one at
Harsh words? Not really. I adore the Web. The Web is fast becoming the
preferred route for information publishing of all kinds. But the Web is
not synonymous, quite yet, with online. The Web is an overlay on a much
older, quieter and less chaotic environment -- the Internet itself. Early Net
denizens developed an extensive array of electronic archives, or collections of
specialized information, and the research tools needed to plumb them. You
can now access many of these resources through the Web, but you may
want to bypass the Web at times and go direct. See the section, "The Net
beneath the Web," later in this chapter for the when, why, and how of
accessing these electronic archives directly.
The Online World: Library, Bookstore, or
Shopping Mall after an Earthquake?
Coming up with creative ways to describe the online world could be a
full-time job for a wordsmith. For all I know, a roomful of English majors are
sitting around somewhere, busily minting metaphors on the subject. Make
them stop, please, and tell the one who came up with the term "web-surfing"
to stand in the corner, right next to the guy who invented "Information
Superhighway." Thanks. I feel better now.
Actually, metaphors can be useful. They help you create a mental map of the
territory you're getting into. Someone -- one of those English majors,
probably -- once called the Web "the world's biggest library." If only it were
all as orderly and logical as a real-world library. Some sections, like the
Library of Congress site (lcweb.loc.gov/loc/libserv/), really are
library-like. Other parts are far more chaotic.
Some people prefer a bookstore metaphor to describe the online world. A
bookstore can be as orderly as a library, or can be a chaotic jumble of
idiosyncratic offerings that reflect the proprietor's taste and opinions. Parts
of the online world really are like bookstores. You find neatly organized rows
of information at www.yahoo.com, and highly selective offerings in web rings
and at guru pages and mega-sites (see more about these resources in Chapters
5 and 6).
You might even find the online equivalent of helpful bookstore clerks and
fellow browsers. We take a quick glance in this chapter at the human side of
online research -- the kinds of information you can get from real, live
experts who hang out in various places on the Net. Chapter 10 goes into a
lot more detail about how to use these people-resources effectively.
Just to complicate the question of what the online world is really like,
dozens of well-organized online services have developed independently of
the Internet and still haven't fully merged with it. You can find professional
database services, such as Dialog, LEXIS-NEXIS, and Dow Jones Interactive.
You can also find popular (or once-popular) online venues, such as America
Online and CompuServe. Each of these services has something unique to
offer information-wise, and its own way of organizing it and making it
available. We do a brisk survey of them in this section, and go into more
detail in Chapter 9.
My favorite metaphor for the online world is "a shopping mall after an
earthquake." This implies a worst-case scenario. Go in expecting total
chaos, and you're pleasantly surprised when you stumble across a section
that hasn't been thoroughly trashed, and that still bears some semblance of
order and rationality.
Much of the Web is a shopping center, earthquake-jumbled or not. You've
got piped-in music and video entertainment along with retail opportunities
galore. From a research standpoint, parts of the Web are totally content-free.
No wonder you can't find the information you're looking for. When you get
frustrated with your lack of results online, look around you: Are you even in
the right neighborhood? You wouldn't expect to buy a Big Gulp in a bookstore,
let alone a library; what makes you think you can find useful data in a
cyber-mall? Get ye to another corner of the online world, posthaste. And
don't forget your map.
The Net beneath the Web
Duck below the glossy surface of the Web and take a look at the raw,
unvarnished Net, where it all began -- plain text on a blank background, no
graphics, just information, in its pure, unadulterated form. The sight is
kind of spooky, and beautiful, in its own austere way. If nothing else, it gives
you an appreciation for how much the online research environment has evolved
in just a few short years.
One of the earliest ways of organizing information on the Net was through
something called Gopher. A gopher is just a menu-based way of filing and
finding information online. Gopher is a lot like the Web, but without the
fancy multimedia effects. The grandmother of all gophers was developed at
the University of Minnesota -- the name came from the state mammal and
the University's mascot. Gopher is also a pun on "go-for," as in
errand-runner. You figured that out, right? To see what a gopher of the
non-furry variety looks like, type gopher://peg.cwis.uci.edu/into your Web
Since most Web browsers no longer require you to type http:// at the
beginning of a Web address or URL, we generally don't include them here.
However, some other protocols, like Gopher or telnet, a prefix is required.
When one's needed, we show it.
Figure 1-1 introduces you to PEG, a Peripatetic, Eclectic Gopher, serving
your Internet research needs since 1992. Lovely, isn't it? Don't those
folders look organized? And, if you're a Windows 95 user, don't they look
Now, click the folder labeled Accessing the Internet. Figure 1-2 looks
like a list of destinations on the Net, and that's exactly what it is.
Notice the icons mixed in that look like pages rather than folders. Those
icons represent files or documents -- destinations in themselves. Folders,
like directories on your hard drive, contain other files and pointers to other
Just for fun, click Other Gopher and Information Servers and, on the next
screen, All the Gopher Servers in the World. The next page may take a while
to load, and for a good reason, too: The page is a list of 80 bazillion or so
individual collections of information, ranging from the American Association
for the Advancement of Science to ZAMNET, the Zambian National Gopher.
Searching in Gopherspace
Veronica is the gopher equivalent of a web search engine, such as Infoseek
or AltaVista. If you glance back at Figure 1-2, you see a folder labeled Search
all of Gopherspace (5000+ gophers) using Veronica. From here, you can do a
keyword search and find gophers, anywhere in the world, that contain
information on your topic.
Another type of search engine, called Jughead, is roughly equivalent to a
Web page "search-this-site" feature. Jughead lets you search for information
on the gopher site where you're currently parked, or sometimes in a collection
of related sites. In case you're wondering, Veronica is allegedly an
acronym for Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computerized
Archives. Jughead supposedly stands for Jonzy's Universal Gopher Hierarchy
Excavation and Display.
You can also browse Gopherspace using specialized software programs,
such as QVT/Gopher or WSGopher for Windows, or TurboGopher for the
Mac.www.shareware.com will lead you to other free and low-cost gopher
clients you can try out for yourself.
The bad news about gophers is that they're yesterday's technology, largely
supplanted by the Web. The people who used to maintain them are now
putting the same information up on public Web servers and corporate
intranets. As a result, many gophers are stagnant relics containing reams of
outdated and no-longer-useful information. In fact, of those 80 bazillion
gopher entries on the worldwide list we just pulled up, an astounding
number are no longer in service.
The other bad news is that Veronica and Jughead are real wimps compared
to today's search engines. They're slow and awkward to use, and they only
search the titles of documents, not the complete text. A title search is only
as good as the title is descriptive, and often that's not good enough. For that
reason, I'm not going to spend time here explaining how to use Veronica and
Jughead. You can find help a click away online, often in a file called How to
compose Veronica [or Jughead] queries, or something similar.
Why spend any time on gophers, then? The good news is that they're still a
fast and convenient way to store and retrieve data, particularly lengthy texts
and information that doesn't change very often. Many countries that don't
yet have the communications bandwidth to support graphics and multimedia
still maintain much of their information on gopher sites. If you know
what you're looking for, and have at least a general idea of where to find it,
then you can rejoice that gophers aren't extinct.
If you're old enough to remember the comic book characters Jughead and
Veronica, you've probably been wondering: Is there an Archie, too? There
certainly is. Archie is a tool for searching ARCHIvEs of software and other
files that you can access through something called FTP, or File Transfer
Protocol. You can find Archie on some gopher menus, such as the one at the
University of Minnesota (gopher://gopher.tc.umn.edu). When you
download software or a large document from a Web site, you're sometimes
FTPing without knowing it. Since the research we do in this book doesn't
involve finding files with Archie or manipulating them with FTP, I won't
spend time on them here.
Check the CD-ROM for software packages like Anarchie for the Mac or
WS_FTP for Windows, to help you with Archie and FTP.
We have WAIS to make you talk
Another kind of retrieval mechanism called WAIS, for Wide Area Information
Server, addresses some of the shortcomings of gopher searching. WAIS is
the equivalent of a "deep" search engine, like AltaVista, HotBot, or InfoSeek,
that purports to search not just titles, but every word in a document, and
that displays the results based on how many times in each document your
keyword appears. WAIS showed great promise in the early days, when
searchers were desperate for something more powerful than Veronica and
Jughead. It never caught on the way it should have. Nowadays, you're most
likely to encounter WAIS without even knowing it, as a customized search
engine embedded in a particular Web site or other online database. See
Chapter 3 for more about these engines.
No, Hy Telnet wasn't the slick-haired cohort of Archie, Veronica, and
Jughead. That was Reggie, and I hate myself for remembering that. The word
Hytelnet is actually a smooshed-together construction of hypertext and
telnet. Hytelnet is a program that lets you look up library catalogs and other useful
resources by geographic area or type of library, and then connect to them
using the telnet protocol by means of a hypertext link.
The creator of Hytelnet, Peter Scott, has announced that he plans to stop
development on the program and replace it with something new and even
more useful. I hope so, because Hytelnet is a great shortcut to some incredibly
useful information. For the moment, you can still use it through the Web
at galaxy.einet.net/hytelnet/START.TXT.html. Figure 1-3 shows the
Hytelnet Welcome page. See Chapter 8 to find out more about telnet and
Hot links, cool Lynx
When the Web first got started, it wasn't the multimedia circus it is now.
Originally, it was designed to make it easier to move between related text
documents through hyperlinks. You don't need Netscape Navigator or
Internet Explorer to read simple text; all you need is a browser that displays
the documents and allows you to link from a document you're reading to
another document that may be pertinent to it in some way. If you happen to
find yourself on, or with access to, a UNIX-based computer system (if you
are, you probably know it) you can experiment with a text-based browser
called Lynx that comes already installed on many UNIX systems. Just type
lynx followed by a space and the full URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or Web
address) of the site you want to visit, like this:
Figure 1-4 shows the text-only version of the Yahoo! Welcome screen. See
Chapter 5 for more on Yahoo!.
The term text-only means that text is all you get -- no images, movies, audio
clips, or other special, effects. Lynx uses the Up and Down arrow keys on
your keyboard to move around the screen, and the Left and Right arrow
keys to navigate back and forth (or forth and back) between links. You can
find built-in help, the ability to print or save documents, and even a way to
create and maintain a bookmark file -- just as you can with Netscape or
Lynx isn't very exciting to look at, but boy is it fast. Without all those huge
graphics and multimedia files to clog up your download, pages viewed in
Lynx appear almost instantly. What a relief from the World Wide Wait. I
sometimes use Lynx when I'm after truth, not beauty -- when I know that
the pictures at the site I'm visiting aren't necessarily going to be worth a
The elephants' burial ground?
Are you starting to think that I've led you into a morgue, or some
Internet backwater of dead and dying technologies? You may never use Gopher,
Veronica, Hytelnet, or Lynx. But you may run into references to them as
you move around the Net, and a knowing nod is much more impressive than a
blank stare. Also, knowing this information is a "remember your
ancestors" kind of deal; these are the foundations on which the Web was built.
Knowing about the forerunners of the World Wide Web is also a matter of
perspective: Don't you feel more confident already, knowing that you'll
be working with much more powerful tools than the Net-gurus of just a few
short years ago had available to them; and that most of the useful
information encapsulated in these now-underground sources is available to you, one
way or another, through much easier means? I thought so.
Gated, Not Open; Fee, Not Free
Three of the most enduring misconceptions about online research are:
The information is all out there on the Net.
Everything on the Net is free.
All you have to do is type a couple of words into your favorite
search engine, et voila -- instant, on-target edification.
You mean there's more to it than that? I'm afraid so, and here's why:
Some online resources are proprietary -- they're self-contained, and not
part of the Net at large.
Some make you register first; access is by password only.
Some require you to pay a monthly or annual subscription fee, or
charge you every time you use the service, and/or for each item you
I call any online resource that matches one or more of these conditions a
gated site or service, because the site is set off from the Web at large.
Gated sites are closed, and the rest of the Web is open. Most Web spiders
(spiders are special software programs used by search engines to crawl around and
index the Web) can't climb the walls of a gated site, so whatever information
is stored inside the gates is invisible from the outside. To get access to
what's behind the walls, you have to be on the inside yourself.
Gated resources come in two flavors -- proprietary and Web-based.
Probing proprietary services
The Internet has been around for a long time. But so have dozens of other
good-sized computer systems with names like Dialog, LEXIS-NEXIS, and Dow
Jones. These are called proprietary online services. None of these services
had anything to do with the Net until quite recently, and you can still reach
them by dialing up and connecting directly to their computers, without
going through the Internet at all. Before you can search them, you have to
set up an account, agree to pay a pre-determined amount for the information
you're going to receive, and supply a user ID and password every time you
log in to look for information. Proprietary services use their own methods of
organizing material into giant collections of information called databases.
They require special protocols that are different from the query languages
used by Web search engines to run searches and retrieve information.
Proprietary services sound like a pain to deal with, don't they? But they
have a couple of distinct advantages:
They often contain information you won't find anywhere else online,
such as legal cases, conference papers, dissertations, and obscure
They're masters of aggregation. Proprietary services collect and make
available, under one roof, sources that you would otherwise have to
wander the great, wide Web to cover on your own. You can search
hundreds, even thousands, of unique and valuable research resources
at the same time.
Aggregation means that instead of visiting two dozen different newspaper
sites to gather articles on the Rolling Stones' last tour, you can cover them
all, plus hundreds more, with a single search query, if -- big IF -- you're
willing to pay for it. These proprietary services don't come cheap. We talk
about the costs, and about when and whether it makes sense to use them, in
Gated sites on the Web
You find two different kinds of gated Web sites:
Some sites just require you to register. You may have to supply some
information about yourself when you first sign up, but after that, you
typically just type your name and a password, and you're in. Hundreds
of Web sites require registration now, often because advertisers are
interested in the data on age, gender, income, occupation, and spending
habits that you're sometimes asked to provide.
Other sites make you register and pay a fee. This may be a subscription
fee ranging from a couple of dollars to $50 or more a month, or a charge
(often nominal) for every item you view, download, or print. Some
subscriptions offer a certain amount of free usage; then you must pay
for each additional item. Dozens of Web sites charge for access, from
the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (www.wsj.com/) to Engineering
Information Village (www.ei.org/eihomepage/village/
intro.html) to the full-text special collection at the Northern Light
search site (www.nlsearch.com/).
Whether free or not, gated sites all have one thing in common: A standard
search engine won't touch them, and many Web indexes miss them, too. You
may miss a lot if you ignore this sad fact, because gated sites are far too
valuable to overlook. Chapter 9 has a lot more on gated sites, how to find
them, and what they can do for you.
The Human Side of the Net
You probably think that the goal of your research project -- the answer to
your question -- will come from something fixed and formal in nature, such
as a product brochure, a company financial statement, a government report,
a list of references or article summaries, a scholarly journal, or a story
from a magazine or newspaper. It may even be a video clip, a sound file, or a
piece of software. Every one of these things is a publication -- something
that someone has produced and published for the world to see and react to.
Web sites are publications consisting of documents and pages.
But information comes in the form of conversation, too. Conversation is
fast, and often fleeting. The online world is full of conversation pits,
informal gathering places where people chat, tell stories, and express their
opinions. Some of these people actually know what they're talking about, and some of
them may be willing to share their knowledge with you.
Tapping into human expertise online calls for a different set of research
skills, involving psychology, and some anthropology and sociology, too.
Every online hangout has its own culture and set of behavioral norms. You
can find knowledgeable folks hanging out in newsgroups, in mailing lists
or listservs, in chat rooms, electronic conferences, and other virtual
communities. You can converse with them publicly, or go one-on-one in e-mail.
People made the Net what it is today. Sometimes, it makes sense to go
directly to the source, Chapter 10 explains how to find, interact with,
and get the information you need from other people online.