Effective Online Research (Written by a Journalist)

 

Target Internet’s in-house writer also works as a freelance journalist for newspapers, media websites and brands. In this article, we share his top tips on how to do effective online research to feed into your content.

Most journalists today would struggle to imagine their work without online research. Whether researching ideas for article topics or finding facts and quotes to add into stories, we use the internet in lots of different ways to support our work. We hope you’ll find the following examples useful in your own online research:

Find quality media archives to suit your content

Using a media archive will often prove to be a better way to find relevant info from reputable sources than using an ordinary web search. They’re more specialised, you’ll get less irrelevant results, and in some cases they’ll give you access to both online and offline media (e.g. print newspaper clippings).

For journalistic research, a newspaper archive would be a natural first port-of-call. I use Clipsearch.co.uk – an online archive that “provides access to more than 9 million newspaper articles from over 140 UK national and regional publications”.

Here’s a demo of how you might use Clipsearch to research a topic.

Clipsearch is only available to registered users, and some of its services come at a price. If that’s off-putting, you might find it suffices to use Google News search instead.

Sticking with the Google theme: have you tried searching with Google Scholar? It’s a version of Google search in which all the results are scholarly articles, including citation notes and author links. I’ve found this to be an invaluable resource for adding facts, figures and academic opinion into my content.

Crowd-sourcing information via personal social networks

Have you ever used social media for research? Lots of journalists do.

You can research lots of day-to-day topics simply by asking your social contacts a question. Here are a few examples of statuses you might post on Facebook to research a certain topic:

  • Guide to off-the-beaten-track restaurants in Barcelona: “Do any of you guys know Barcelona really well? I’m researching an article on off-the-beaten-track restaurants in the city and would love to hear your suggestions.”
  • Top home remedies for treating a headache: “Has anyone got a great tip for treating a headache? I’m avoiding over-the-counter medicines if possible.”
  • Small business digital marketing case studies: “Does anyone on here run a small business? I’m writing an article on how different SMEs are using digital marketing and I’d love to hear your stories.

The great thing about this approach is that it gives you a better basis for creating original content than using existing online articles for your research instead.

Sourcing information via your personal social networks can be a fine starting point for your article research. Please do remember, however, that your friends may get things wrong from time-to-time. Check every piece of info you receive on social against a trusted source.

Sourcing expert opinion via social

Sometimes you’ll need to look beyond your existing network for informed input on your topic – especially when you’re researching something specialised or complex.

One of the most effective ways to reach out for expert opinion online – besides picking up the phone and calling a well-known expert – is using the hashtag “#journorequest” on Twitter. The journalist writes a tweet calling out for expert comment, using the hashtag. Then, hopefully, someone with the right expertise will get in touch to offer a quote.

Here are a few examples of journalists using this hashtag:

There’s a growing trend amongst brand content producers to use journo requests on Twitter and elsewhere to put together the groundwork for entire articles. Here are a few examples – featuring quotes from Target Internet:

In each case, the author posts a public callout on Twitter and then interviews the most appropriate respondents to create the article. It’s a highly efficient and often highly successful approach to collating content.

A word of caution: you should refrain from posting public callouts on social if you’re working on a highly original idea or a breaking news story. It would be a shame if another content producer were to copy your idea before you’ve managed to publish your content.

Researching with Wikipedia – follow the citations!

Wikipedia can provide an excellent starting point for your online research – but please, never take anything you find there as gospel.

Developing an understanding of your subject is a basic requirement for creating worthwhile content. Very few full-time content producers could honestly claim to have a total mastery of every topic they cover – and this means, for most of us, that we must do some background research ahead of each piece of content we produce.

In my experience, Wikipedia can fulfil this need exceptionally well. The key here is to absorb the theory, not to reproduce the facts and figures. It’s hard to spot where a mischievous Wiki user has changed a name, date or detail – but changes to the broader concepts within a Wikipedia entry should be obvious.

We can use Wikipedia to develop our own understanding of topics, but Wikipedia in itself is not a suitable source for quotes and figures to use in your content. If there’s some information from Wikipedia that you particularly want to use, I would always recommend following the citation links (small numerals in square brackets) which you should be able to find after any fact in the body of a Wikipedia article. If you can appraise the original source and find it to be trustworthy, you can go ahead and use the information.

News alerts for story leads

If you’re in the business of finding scoops and reporting fresh news, there’s no substitute for creative, human research. However, for day-to-day “hygiene” content, you may find automated alerts and feeds very handy indeed.

The classic example would be Google Alerts, which provides daily summaries of news stories related to the keywords you specify. So, if your job is to create content for a digital marketing website, you might follow keywords such as ‘digital marketing’, ‘SEO’, ‘PPC’ and so on. Or, if you need to put together content for a showbiz site, you might create alerts for news on the celebrities, TV shows, etc. which are most relevant to your audience.

One of the great things about Google Alerts is that Google only includes news sources which it has vetted and found to be reliable. This doesn’t mean everything you see published in its alerts is 100% accurate, but it certainly is a welcome vote of confidence.

There is, of course, a big wide web out there, beyond Google. Here are a few other news subscription providers I can recommend:

If you want to create a highly customised news feed and have plenty of time on your hands, you might try learning how to scrape web data and setting up a feed that combines all your go-to sources. Not for the challenge-averse!

You might also try using ‘social listening’ to hear about breaking news topics on social – have a listen to our podcast episode about social listening tools for more on that.

SEO-led content research

SEO has joined traditional considerations such as topicality, public interest and exclusivity as a key factor in many journalists’ content strategy decisions. The better your content’s chance of high search rankings, the likelier it is to reach a wide audience – which is a KPI for most of us.

There are lots of tools online that can help with researching content ideas through an SEO lens. One of my favourites is Answer The Public, which can give you an overview of the questions search users are asking about certain topics.

Here’s what Answer The Public came back to us with when we entered the keyword “Online research”:

As you can see, the results are divided up into different question types. You can click on any result to see current Google search results for that search query.

In addition to the above visual showing questions, the tool also provides results for prepositions (e.g. “Online research tools”; “Online research for marketing”), and comparisons (e.g. “Online research vs traditional research”; “Online data sources and research”).

For more on this topic, see our guide to the 5 Best Tools for Content Marketing Ideas

Republishing images and infographics

Incorporating free-to-use images and infographics from third-party sources is an efficient way to add variety to your content, and perhaps even to shape its meaning.

Try searching for images using ‘Creative Commons licence’ Google Image Search. Here’s how:

  1. Go to Google Images
  2. Go to Settings
  3. Advanced search
  4. Enter the keyword you want to search for in the uppermost field
  5. Scroll down to “usage rights”, and select “free to use or share, even commercially.”
  6. Click the “Advanced Search” button

You should now see a page of results which are available for use under a Creative Commons licence.

When publishing someone else’s images or research findings, you should always cite and link to the source. This allows readers to follow-up and verify your claims, and more importantly, it is good ethics to give credit where credit’s due. Plus, in many cases, Creative Commons licences only apply on the condition that the content creator is credited.

Make time to refine your online research practices

This article will hopefully have given you some idea of the breadth of research tasks being undertaken by journalists online. Really, we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg.

The better you can tailor your online research to your particular requirements, the more efficiently you’ll be able to do your work. We strongly suggest setting aside a few hours here and there to look into different research techniques and refine your practices.

This won’t just help you be efficient – there’s a good chance it will help you be original too. The further away you can grow from the bog-standard Google search, the more vividly your content will stand out from amongst the crowd. Not only is this important from a content quality perspective – it’s also key to your search visibility. Search engines reward original content, and by extension, original research practices.

 

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