Online research is often a challenge. Information from the web can be fake, biased, incomplete, or all of the above.
Offline, too, there is no happy hunting ground with unbiased people or completely honest authorities. In the end, it all boils down to asking the right questions, digital or not. Here are some strategic tips and tools for digitizing three of the most asked questions: who, where and when? They all have in common that you must “think like the document” you search.
If you want to know more about any given person, put your search engine to work. Let’s do a background profile with Google on Ben van Beurden, CEO of the Shell Oil Co.
Tip 1. Find facts and opinions
The oh-so-simple two-letter word ‘is’ reveals opinions and facts about your subject. Without it, you get all kind of generic hits. To avoid further clutter, include the company name of the person or any other detail you know, and tell Google that both words should be not that far from each other. This is why AROUND is handy. The operator must be in capitals. It sets the maximum distance in words between any two terms.
Tip 2. What do others say?
This search is asking Google to show me PDF documents with the name of the chief executive of Shell in them, but exclude documents from Shell. This will find documents about your subject but not from his or her company. This helps you to see what opponents, competitors, or opinionated people say about them. And if you’re a perfectionist go for:
inurl:pdf “ben van beurden” –site:shell.*
That will also give you PDFs that are not visible with filetype.
Tip 3. Official databases
You can search for worldwide official documents about your subjet like this. It searches for gov.uk (United Kingdom) but also .gov.au (Australia), .gov.cn (China), .gov (U.S.) and other governmental websites in the world. You will find any given domain name with gov in it. To get more official documents, go for:
filetype:pdf inurl:gov “ben van beurden”
If you don’t have a .gov website in your country, use the local word for it with the site: operator. Examples would be site:bund.de (Germany) or site:overheid.nl (The Netherlands).
With this query, we found van Beurden’s planning permission for his house in London, which helped us to find his full address and other details. These results are now deleted from Google.
Tip 4. United Nations
Tip 5. Find the variations
You’ll receive documents with the word ‘Shell’ but not those that include ‘Ben’ as the first name. So you’ll discover that he is also referred to as ‘Bernardus van Beurden’. (You don’t need to enter a dot [.] because Google will ignore points). Why is this important? You need the variations to find references to the alternative spelling.
Tip 6. Use photo search in Topsy
You can use www.topsy.com to find out where your subject was by analysing his mentions (1) over time (2) and by looking at the photos (3) that others posted on Twitter. If you’d rather research a specific period, go for “Specific Range” in the time menu.
Tip 7. Use Echosec or Geofeedia
Tip 8. Use photo search in Google Images
Sometimes the information is lost in Echosec or Geofeedia because the user deleted it. You still have a change to find it via Google Images. Combine all you know about your subject in one mighty phrase. In the below example, I’m searching for a jihadist known as @MuhajiriShaam (1) but not the account @MuhajiriShaam01 (2) on Twitter, (3) and I just want to see the photos he posted on Twitter between 25 September and 29 September 2014 (4).
Tip 9. Date search
Most of the research you do is not based on today but an earlier period. Always tell your search engine this. If you look back, instruct the search engine to go back in time.
Let’s investigate a fire in a Dutch chemical plant called Chemie-Pack. The fire happened on 5 January 2011. Perhaps you want to investigate whether dangerous chemicals were stored at the plant.
Go to images.google.com, type in Chemie-pack (1) and just search before January 2011 (2). The results offer hundreds of photos from a youth group that visited the company days before the fire. In some photos, you can see barrels with names of chemicals on them. We used this to establish some of the chemicals that were stored in the plant days before the fire. Most of the photos you see here are now deleted.
Bonus tip: Want to see the dates that Google indexed information?
1. Go to Search Tools -> Custom Range and type 1/1/1000
2. Sort by date
Tip 10. Find old data with archive.org
Websites often cease to exist. There is a chance you can still view them by using the well known archive.org. This tool can do its work only if you know the URL of the web page you want to see. The problem is that often the link is gone and therefore you don’t know it. So how do you find a seemingly vanished URL?
Let’s assume we want to find the homepage of a dead actress called Lana Clarkson.
Step one: find an index. You need a source about the missing page, and in this case we can use her Wikipedia page.
Next, put the index into the time machine. Go to archive.org and enter the URL of her Wikipedia page. Choose the oldest available version: 10 March 2004. There it says the homepage was http://www.lanaclarkson.com.
Now find the original website. Here’s a great trick to get the actual links that are available. Type the link into https://archive.org/index.php, but add a backslash and an asterisk to the URL:
This works with all queries: just add /*
All filed links are now visible. Unfortunately, in this case, you won’t find that much. Clarkson became famous only after her death. She was shot and killed by music producer Phil Spector in February 2003.
Dutch-born Henk van Ess (@henkvaness) is a trainer of media professionals. Van Ess works for radio, tv and newspapers in Europe including EBU, BBC Academy and Die Welt. He is a regular guest on conferences about internet research & social media and data journalism. This article is based on a chapter he wrote for Verification Handbook for Investigative Reporting (2015)