Sometimes, looking beyond search engines is the best, if not only way to find the information you're looking for.
I call this information sleuthing approach thinking outside the search box. To do this effectively, you need to use different thought process and search strategies, especially with the steps you take after using search engines.
As an example, say you're looking for information on trends in the U.K. market for Internet phones, otherwise known as VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). I actually did this research for a client recently. Here are the steps I took.
I threw "VOIP" into a couple of search engines, just to see what alternative terms showed up, both in the search results and in the paid ads. I found mentions of "Voice over IP", "Internet telephony" and "IP telephony", among others.
I then reviewed the sponsored links, on the assumption that, if a company paid to have its ad appear for the search term VOIP, it might have relevant content. Sure enough, I found links to a white paper that VOIP player Avaya had written, and to OrderVOIP.com, a site that offered a comparison chart of various VOIP providers.
Many people think that human-compiled web directories have passed their heyday, but I still find them valuable. The European portion of Open Directory Project and the U.K. version of Yahoo Directory both provided leads to trade associations and other organizations. From these directories, I found a link to voip.org.uk, which reviews various VOIP providers.
With my newly discovered information, I circled back and ran a quick search in a couple of search engines, which pointed me to Telephony Online magazine, which had a good resource guide to new telecom technologies. And this reminded me of BitPipe.com, a searchable portal of white papers, where I found some useful write-ups.
I also looked at what users were saying about VOIP by using the tag "VOIP" on Technorati and del.icio.us. From these postings, I found a link to VON Europe, a conference focused on Voice On the Net. I reviewed the program, and contacted a couple of the presenters to see if they would send me copies of their presentations.
Also from searching blog entries, I found a pointer to a European Union study looking into regulation of VOIP. Given how difficult it is to search the EU's web site, this was a tremendous lead.
Since I was looking for information about technology, I searched the European Patent Office for recent patents related to VOIP, to see what new developments might be on the horizon.
And finally, I went to Factiva, a fee-based online service, to search for published articles in the trade and professional press, for more in-depth coverage of VOIP.
All of this took me perhaps two hours—including the time to compile the information and write a summary for my client—of which I spent no more than 10 or 15 minutes using search engines. By going directly to the resources I thought would be most likely to have the type of information I needed, I was able to gather more of the most relevant information in less time.
Lessons learned? Stay focused, but watch your peripheral vision. Sometimes you find useful information in the sponsored links and passing mentions on web pages. Go to where you think the answers will be. Trust your intuition regarding the reliability of a resource. Remember that the first portion of your search process will be spent just getting yourself up to speed and looking at the information landscape. And finally, set a kitchen timer to 15 minutes; re-evaluate your success on any particular web resource after that time and decide whether it's worth investing more time there.
Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Boulder, Colorado.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.