Content may be king, but poorly researched content can make you look more like the court jester.
Developing your research skills will ensure that your writing for content marketing and social sharing helps solidify your reputation as an expert in your field. But it’s a wild and woolly world of information out there, and it can sometimes be tricky to find the precise bit of data you’re looking for from a credible source.
Even if you do strike research gold, you can still go wrong by using statistics incorrectly—something even professional journalists can struggle with. So, what’s an aspiring marketer to do?
In this guide, you’ll learn how to conduct effective online research to provide a solid basis for all of the content you create.
Google, of course, is an online researcher’s best friend—but it can also be your worst enemy, sucking you into time-wasting dead ends as you hunt for information. It can also lead you astray, since it returns information unfiltered for credibility. Remember: Just because you found a “fact” on the internet doesn’t make it true.
First, let’s talk about how to use some advanced search techniques to target your research efforts and minimize the amount of time you spend searching through irrelevant information.
Google search operators and advanced search
Google search operators can help you find precisely what you’re looking for by narrowing down the potential matches to your search. Some of the most useful include:
- “”: Placing a search string in quotation marks tells Google that you’re searching for a specific phrase, rather than just a combination of words (example: “online research strategies”).
- *: An asterisk acts as a wildcard, allowing Google to fill in the blanks (example: “to * own self be true”).
- Site: This operator allows you to search only the results from a specific website. This is particularly helpful if a website does not have its own search field. Be sure not to insert a space after the colon (example: site:Hootsuite.com add stream).
- ..: Placing two periods between numbers instructs Google to search for any numbers in that range (example: Space Shuttle 1981..2011).
You can also use Google’s advanced search page to narrow your results by language, region, file type, and more, without having to memorize any search operators.
Boolean search operators
Boolean search is named after George Boole, a 19th century British mathematician who developed much of the logic that underpins how we use search engines to find what we’re looking for online. These search terms can be helpful in targeting your results in search beyond the search engines, like when searching within a specific website, social network, or online database.
- AND: Using AND between two search terms indicates that you only want results that include both search terms. For example, searching Instagram AND Facebook AND Snapchat will reveal only sources that mention all three of these social networks. Keep in mind that Google automatically treat all searches as AND searches.
- OR: Using OR between search terms indicates that you want to search for any of the terms rather than all. So, searching for Instagram OR Facebook OR Snapchat will return sources that mention only Instagram, sources that mention only Facebook, and sources that mention only Snapchat, as well as sources that mention any combination of these networks.
- NOT: Using NOT before a search term eliminates results that include that term. So, searching Instagram NOT Facebook would return only sources that mention Instagram but do not mention its parent company, Facebook. When using Google, place a minus sign in front of the term instead of using the word NOT, like this: Instagram -Facebook.
Research tips and best practices
Filter results by date
While information doesn’t come with a clear best-before date, it’s only useful if it’s current. When searching for information in Google, go to Search Tools, then click on Any time to bring up a drop-down menu that allows you select a specific date range for your search, or to search only for information from the last day, week, month, or year.
Search for embeddable social media posts
Sometimes the best way to quote a source or provide an example is to embed the original social post in your content, like this:
After all, there’s no chance of misquoting when you’re directly sharing the original source.
Facebook search allows you to find relevant Facebook posts, but you can only embed those that are set to public.
On Twitter, you can use advanced search functions to find posts by user, date, search terms, language, and even mood, or use all of these in combination to laser-target your search. You can also use Hootsuite Pro’s advanced search capabilities to search for and follow conversations about particular topics on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
If you know you’ll regularly need updated information about a certain topic, you can then use your findings to set up a Hootsuite stream to keep tabs on what authoritative sources are saying on social media so you always have a prescreened go file ready when you need new details.
Find the original source
When you begin your research online, you’re likely to come across a lot of news articles or compilations of statistics. These can be a great starting point for your research, but you need to dig deeper to find the original source.
For example, this Marketwatch article says that Instagram surpassed 500 million monthly active users in June. But Marketwatch is not the source of the information, so you need to keep going to find the original source to cite yourself.
The Marketwatch article cites an Instagram blog post, but does not provide a direct link. Still, it’s pretty easy to find—just Google “Instagram blog” “500 million” and the blog post appears as the first search result. You now have an original source to cite directly in your own article.
Use consistently reliable sources
With so much information out there, it’s important to start building a list of credible sources of good information that’s relevant to your industry. When looking for statistics or other information about a company, the best place to start is the company itself, as in the Instagram blog post mentioned above.
Good places to search include the company’s blog, news or media relations page, and about page. For example, you can learn from the Hootsuite newsroom that we surpassed 15 million users in October 2016, and that the platform is used in more than 175 countries—both original statistics straight from the source. Likewise, Twitter’s About page has loads of great stats, including that there are 1 billion unique visits monthly to sites with embedded Tweets.
Pages that promote the company’s advertising options can also be a good source of data, since user numbers are of particular interest to potential advertisers. For example, Facebook’s Ads page reveals that more than 900 million people use Facebook every day.
Government statistics agencies and census results provide lots of useful and reliable information about a wide range of topics. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau has a population clock showing up-to-the-minute figures for the U.S. and world population.
Research companies that produce regular reports are also a great source of data—keep an eye on the sources that are regularly cited in your industry to get a sense of the major players. Those relevant to you will vary, but Forrester, comScore, and the Pew Research Center are great places to start.
Research statistics appropriately
Working with statistics is challenging even for professional journalists, so it’s definitely an area to watch out for when you’re researching. Percentages can be particularly tricky. For example, the percentage of women who use Facebook (77 percent) is a very different statistic from the percentage of Facebook users who are women (54 percent).
But these statistics often get mixed up. For instance, you can learn from our post on Facebook demographics that 82 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds online use Facebook, a statistic we gathered from a Pew Research Center report. It’s a common mistake to flip statistics like this around, saying instead that 82 percent of Facebook users are aged 18 to 29.
In fact, several articles online do say this, linking back to the same Pew Research Report we cited. Some even add that 48 percent of Facebook users are over 65, another backwards statistic (the correct information is that 48 percent of people who are aged 65+ use Facebook). Think about that for a moment: 82 percent plus 48 percent = 130 percent. Since “percent” means “out of 100,” well, you see the problem.
If this all sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is. That’s exactly why you need to make sure you truly understand what a statistic means before using it to back up a point or incorporating it into your content. This guide from the Centre for Investigative Journalism provides some good tips for working with statistics:
Incorporating all of these techniques will help you use the Web for effective research to build your credibility and support your content marketing strategy, making your site a credible source of quality information for your followers and potential leads.
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