Once upon a time, in the Pleistocene era, I used to go to libraries to find information.
I remember researching college papers at the New York Public Library on 42nd St. I’d sit one of the long tables at under one of those dim lamps, with a pile of books and magazines, and I’d take notes – in longhand. This was a terrible problem, because I’ve never been able to read my own handwriting. Sometimes I would take a book to a copy machine and pay 25 cents a page. Or I would sit in front of a microfilm reader scrolling through pages of old newsprint, scratching my forehead and wondering how to copy the page I needed. It was horribly laborious and I hated it.
Later, I became a journalist and if I wanted to know something, I called someone who knew it. That provided great quotes, but it wasn’t always easy to get the right person on the phone fast enough. And that person didn’t necessarily have all the information.
Today it’s hard to believe how I, or any of us, ever lived without the Internet or Google. You can ask Google anything. Anything. For example, I was getting together with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years and wanted to send him our favorite song. I knew the song was from a musical and had “old friend” in it. That’s all I could remember. I typed “old friend musical lyrics” into Google and sure enough, the first hit was “Michael Feinstein Old Friend Lyrics” Bingo!
Here are some favorite sites and tips from me and other journalists who, along with librarians, are the best Internet researchers.
Boolean for Dummies
Most search engine tips involve doing “Boolean” searches. No, it’s not an arcane Halloween custom. I Googled it: “Boolean refers to a system of logical thought developed by the English mathematician and computer pioneer, George Boole (1815-64).” Since there was no Internet at the time, I can’t imagine how he came up with this stuff, but basically Boolean means using quotes, plus and minus signs, and words like “or” or “not” to make searches more specific. Check out this page, which gives you insider Boolean and other really great tips from a search expert at Google.
Troubleshoot your trouble in a forum (Google will find the right forum)
My Ford Focus broke down on a Friday night and I was frantic to find out what was going on before the dealer opened on Monday. I typed the symptoms into Google – “Ford Focus stalled with battery light on” – and sure enough Google pointed me to the Ford Focus forum where someone had already asked that question. The bad news: The alternator had died and it was going to cost a lot to fix. It was a common problem in the model I owned. I even found out that I might as well let the dealer fix it because it wasn’t going to be cheaper anywhere else.
Have you lost the toolbars on Firefox? You can’t ask for help on Firefox because the toolbar with “Help” on it has disappeared. Grrrrr. Google “I lost the toolbars on Firefox” and you’ll be taken to the Firefox forum, where someone has solved this problem and will tell you to press “Alt” or whatever it is and voila! Toolbars.
Whatever your trouble is, someone has already run into it and asked it in a forum, and Google will take you there.
Find answers to medical questions
The Internet has been a huge boon to patients who want to be more involved in their own treatment. Do you need to find out what the latest medical treatment is for a disease? Ask Google – but pay attention to the file extension on the site it sends you to. There are a lot of questionable websites that want to sell you whatever product they’re pushing for your ailment, or doctors who want to convince you to come to them for treatment. Look for nonprofit sites with the extensions .org, gov. or .edu. Avoid sites with a lot of advertising, especially from pharmaceutical companies. A few trustworthy sites: Mayoclinic.org; WebMd.com; NIH.gov; Medlineplus.gov.
Go beyond Google
Google’s not the only way to search for answers.
Ask.com Are you desperate because you’re having a dinner party and you put too much salt in the soup? Originally called AskJeeves.com, this search engine has emerged as the best way to find answers to just about everything from real people. The consensus in this case from a few different cooks: Put a raw potato in the soup.
Wikipedia.com Do you want to know how Ask.com or Google.com originated or where Boolean comes from – or when so-and-so was born and what he did? Go to Wikipedia. A “wiki” is a site that’s created and edited by its users. There used to be a lot of wikis but now they’ve pretty much disappeared except for Wikipedia, which dominates the encyclopedia space. For better or worse – and a lot of people think it’s for worse – Wikipedia has become the encyclopedia of choice for Internet users. You can’t trust everything on Wikipedia, but it’s so convenient and comprehensive, who cares.
Justanswer.com You broke a crown and need to talk to a dentist at 3am. Try JustAnswer.com. There are experts here at any hour of the day or night. They will charge you for their advice, but only if you find it helpful. Put in your question and you’ll get to bid on how much you want to pay for an answer. You don’t have to pay if you don’t like the answer. I once asked a dentist a question and thought the answer wasn’t good enough, so I refused to pay. The dentist was upset, but hey, that was the deal.
Gethuman.com Are you ready to tear your hair out after sitting on the phone pressing 1, pressing 5, being put through endless menus just to reach customer service – and then being put on permanent hold? Go to GetHuman.com and put in the name of the company. You’ll get a list of the best direct-dial numbers to reach a real person. (Don’t bother trying to get a real human at Google or Facebook because there are no real humans at either of those sites. Shame on them.)
About.com When you need comprehensive rather than specific advice about any particular subject, try About.com. You will get advice from a “guide” – an expert in whatever the subject is. Some of the guides are better than others, but most are very knowledgeable. I know a few About.com guides and can tell you personally that they take their job very seriously.
More search sites from savvy journalists
Try a couple of other search engines and sites that Google might not bring up:
Good Search Every time you use this search engine, it makes a donation to your favorite charity. (You’ll have to sign up for the site.)
DuckDuckGo Most search engines, like Google track your activity and feed you results determined by an algorithm that’s based on popularity. This one does neither.
Snopes If you’re not sure whether what you just read is true or a popular rumor, check Snopes.
Urban Dictionary Find definitions here for words or terms you don’t understand – including plenty of slang.
IMDB The Internet Movie Database will help you figure out why that actor in that movie looks so familiar.
Which are your favorite search sites?