Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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The Skill of the Hunt: Effective Research Strategies for Finding Information on the Web

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   This article was adapted from two articles -- The Skill of the Hunt (Nov/Dec 2000) and A Topical Change of Habits (May/Jun 2001) -- published in Law Practice Management. It updates information provided in the original articles.


Updated 15 June 2004.
In research, the find -- particularly finding the answer -- is cause for jubilation. But at what cost? Untold hours during which you initiate several false starts or follow a few distracting, albeit interesting, links? Personal defeat as search engines repeatedly yield too many hits with those at the top leading nowhere, or to irrelevant pages? And when you find the answer, can you trust it? Is it complete, authentic, authoritative and up-to-date? Does it help you envision the forest or spotlight just one tree?

Successful Web-based research encompasses economy of time and effort. It also takes into account the quality of the answer. The key is to focus on the strategy and skill of the hunt rather than the find.

The Web Environment

Until the mid-1990s, online researchers dealt mainly with databases. They mastered field-restricted, Boolean and proximity searching. They learned to create a broad set of search results that they could whittle down to a highly relevant working list. No matter the size of the database, its scope had definable boundaries. And while vendors certainly updated, removed and added records, information did not present the moving target that it does today.

Unlike traditional law-related online tools such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, the Web is not a database. It is not an orderly means for storing definable data and related information. It better resembles the research environment of another era, before the advent of online information: Researchers began their task with a known source or by using a finding aid like a library card catalog or a case digest. Accordingly, you will improve your chances of success if you first identify a source -- whether by title (United States Code) or by type of document (federal statutes). Then consider whether, and where, it exists on the Web.

This is especially true when conducting topical or investigative (companies or people) research. It also means changing your online research habits. You need to think differently about search engines. Rather than treating them like dumbed-down versions of LexisNexis or Westlaw, consult them to find a starting point or a handful of potential sources. Do not use them to zero in on the information you seek. This usually works only when you are looking for certain facts like a telephone number, a common statistic or a stock quote.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

How can you change a search strategy so that it retrieves helpful starting points in the quest for topical information? Begin with a broad concept and then narrow it as necessary. Suppose you want to find background information concerning a public school's legal obligation to educate a learning disabled child. Identify the broad concepts contained within the research question. In this example, these include public education, law and learning disabilities. You could describe these concepts in a variety of ways; for example, special education, learning disabled, learning disabilities, learning disorders or learning difficulties and law.

Next, consider potential sources of information about these broad concepts. You might ask: Who cares about these issues? Or, who is responsible? Some of the answers - government, advocates for the learning disabled, educators or school psychologists -- should help you make the leap to possible resources such as the Department of Education, state education agencies or professional associations for educators or school psychologists as well as advocacy groups for special education or the learning disabled.

Finally, think about the type of information desired. You want background information - perhaps an article covering the basics of special education law or a guidance document that explains the law. Having a checklist of the key data -- broad concepts, potential sources and types of information desired -- in hand prepares you for making efficient and effective use of a search engine.

Making a Search Engine Work for You

What do such queries look like? For articles written by advocates, educators, school psychologists or lawyers, begin by entering terms that describe the broad concept or concepts. Like this:

  • special education

  • special education law

  • learning disabilities

  • learning disabled

  • learning disorders

  • learning difficulties

In the search results, look only for matches that fit your list of potential sources. The query special education at Google, for example, retrieves information about the Web site, Special Education Law & Advocacy (Wrightslaw). The search learning disabilities finds the Web sites of The National Center for Learning Disabilities, Learning Disabilities Association of America and The Learning Project, which is supported by a PBS station and several organizations, including Schwab Learning.

For guidance documents or other explanatory materials prepared by government agencies, enter the same keywords, but limit the query to the .gov domain. Like this:

  • special education site:gov (Google; syntax for other search engines may vary)

  • learning disabilities site:gov

The first returns the Web site of The Office of Special Education Programs as well as several relevant state agencies and the White House sponsored DisabilityInfo.gov, which provides a lengthy list of special education resources. The second yields information on learning disabilities the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Advocacy groups, trade or professional associations and government agencies often make good starting points for topical research. In fact, you could use this knowledge to refine a broad query when it fails. Imagine that you want to find information about licensing and certification programs for midwives. Following the advice above, you enter midwifery at Google. While in reality the query finds a useful starting point - American College of Nurse-Midwives, which offers information relevant to the question, suppose it did not. Add a term like organization, association, institute, foundation, agency, bureau or office to the search.

A Balanced Collection of Tools

In addition to using search engines more like traditional finding aids, you should gather and organize a collection of such aids. A balanced collection will include subject directories, database finding tools and reference works along with search engines.

Subject directories. What finding tools besides search engines exist to help with research on the basics of special education law? INFOMINE, Librarians' Index to the Internet, Scout Report Archives and Intute (formerly, the Resource Discovery Network) come to mind. Arranged by topic, each offers searchable annotated references to quality resources.

Enter the phrase, special education or learning disabilities, to find a number of useful resources. In addition to many of those retrieved using Google, these tools suggest sites like SchwabLearning, Special Education Resources on the Internet and the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

Databases and reference works. INFOMINE, Librarians' Index to the Internet, Scout Report Archives and Intute also help you find subject-specific databases, research guides and reference works. Suppose you want to find articles about teaching programs and methods for children with reading difficulties. Use these finding aids to locate a database on educational literature. At Librarians' Index to the Internet, for instance, enter education database to find ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center).

For reference works, begin by organizing a set of links to known sources like the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Directory, the United States Code, various state rules of professional conduct, and the Code of Federal Regulations. Then add a few general reference sites, such as Bartleby.com, Electronic Reference or refdesk.com, which compile general reference works.

Web Research Proficiency

Becoming proficient in Web-based research depends foremost on your grasp of the concept of research. Research is the thorough, diligent, often creative investigation into something that results in knowledge about the subject. An online search does not meet this definition unless it probes all relevant resources and retrieves sufficient information to impart knowledge.

When research on the Web fails, usually it's because people attempt to use search engines to zero in on the answer rather than a source for the answer. It bears repeating that the Web is not a database. Search engines do not query every word, or even every page, on the Web. Rather than wasting precious time combing through the mediocre results of a targeted search engine query, attempt a broader search that seeks one or two useful starting points. Look for government Web sites, professional associations or advocacy groups. Also try the more traditional finding tools such as subject directories and database finding aids.


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Created: 24 April 2003
Revised: 3 June 2008 (minor text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/skill.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com