Insights from Our Office TED Prize

10 research tips for finding answers online

Online-Research

Before Danielle Thomson was our TED Prize researcher, she wrote trivia for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and spent years finding difficult-to-source info for The Late Show with David Letterman. And she has quickly established herself as our staff secret weapon. When one of us can’t get our hands on a piece of information that we need, we turn to Danielle and — voila! — there it is.

We asked Danielle to share some of her best research tips to help you in those “why can’t I find this?” moments. Here’s what she had to say:

  1. There are no new questions. Have a research question? Trust me, it’s been asked before. Put your exact question into quotations as a search term, and you will find, at the very least, a lead to your answer. Want to find out how much of the ocean has been explored? Type “How much of the ocean has been explored” into your search engine, and you will likely get your answer.
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  2. Didn’t get your answer from the above? Try working backwards. If the answer you are looking for doesn’t pop up, then work backwards from how you think the answer would be phrased. Try out different chunks of the question to get you going in the right direction. With that ocean example, you are likely looking for a percentage — so instead, search the phrase “percent of the ocean” and see if that gets you any closer.
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  3. If searching for something less specific, channel your inner writer. If you are trying to research something that has the potential for multiple answers, then think about common phrasings that a writer would use to describe the subject. For example — if you were searching for stories about people who collaborated after meeting at TED, search for phrases like “first met at TED,” “were introduced at TED,” or “while attending TED,” as those terms would likely be used by a writer to explain the concept.
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  4. Nexis is nice, but Google is great. Yes, there are pricy database research tools that are wonderful to have access to. But Google is my search engine of choice — with the advent of blogs and online archives, it is often actually better and more complete. While it depends on the scope and timeframe of your research project, if you are searching for breaking or current news issues, start with Google.
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  5. Google doesn’t have your answers? Google Books might. As much as I love — and begin all of my searches with — a simple Google search, Google Books is my favorite resource when a deeper dive is necessary. A majority of the books are fully readable within the digital database, and the ability to search for phrases within the books is a game changer. Use tips #1, 2, and 3 while searching through the pages of a book, and a wealth of information will appear.
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  6. Follow your leads — even if they don’t feel like leads! When you are searching for things on Google, never stop searching at page one. Not even page two. Follow the results to at least page six or seven as smaller, less popular articles that seemingly have less relevance might hold the key to what you are looking for. Never give up. The Internet, as we know it, holds all the answers!
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  7. Message boards aren’t just for sports fans and gossip. No matter what issue you are researching, there is very likely a community that has formed around that issue. It might feel a little old school, but if you hit a complete and total wall, consider joining a relevant message board and asking your question, or even calling up that association. There are many people with expertise in your subject who might be willing to put you on the right track.
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  8. If it feels creepy, it means you’re close. This advice pertains more to research about a public figure. Oftentimes, the accumulation of a lot of knowledge about a specific person can make you feel a little awkward. But the more you know that you didn’t know before just means that you are putting pieces together that others may have missed. On a down day at an old job, I (jokingly) committed to uncovering “Deep Throat” after reading rumors that the then-unnamed informant was in his final days. After an entire day of combing through information and feeling increasingly icky as I searched, I stood up and declared to the room that W. Mark Felt was my best guess. And I was right. I have witnesses.
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  9. Use multiple sources that appear to offer the same information. I know, I know, “use multiple sources” is Research 101. But don’t disregard sources that seem to relay the same information as your first. Sometimes articles that are 95% the same hold the crucial difference that you are looking for. For example, when I was at The Late Show, I was asked to construct a complete timeline of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight for an appearance by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his flight crew. At that point, none existed. So after reading what felt like 50 versions of the same article, I was able to extract a small line from each that helped me create a complete list of events. Tedious, to be sure, but it’s effective.
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  10. Need someone’s email address? You can probably guess it. Hunting down e-mail addresses isn’t as hard as it may sound — they are usually pretty predictable. First, make sure you have the proper spelling of the person’s first and last name. Second, find the organization’s URL, then do a simple search of “@________.” Your search results will give you a sense of the organization’s e-mail structure: the options are usually first name, first initial/last name, and then the ever-popular first name dot last name. Would it be danielle@ted.com, d.thomson@ted.com, or danielle.thomson@ted.com? Chances are, it’ll be obvious after just a little bit of searching. Try sending a message — if it bounces back, guess again. If it doesn’t, the person you want will likely be reading it.

Have any research tips that you love? Share them in the comments.