Edited highlights from my recent workshop on search tools for research information are now available. Please note that not all of the services, search tools, examples or issues covered in the workshop are included in this version.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the problems I was having with Google Verbatim (Google Verbatim on the way out?). This morning I ran through a checklist of commands that I am demonstrating in a webinar and it seems that Verbatim is back working as it should. Don’t hold your breath, though. Three times this year I have seen Google Verbatim disappear or do strange things and a couple weeks later return to normal. Verbatim may be here to stay or it may not, but you cannot depend on many advanced search commands to always work as you expect. So either learn different ways of making Google treat your search in the way you require or use a different search engine.
Unfortunately, disappearing or unreliable functionality is not confined to just Google. Bing used to have a very useful proximity command that allowed you to specify how close you wanted your words to be to one another. The “near:n” operator is still listed in Bing’s list of advanced search commands and, although it seems to do something and reduce the number of results, it does not behave as described.
There is also the endangered list such as DuckDuckGo’s sort by date option. In fact all of DuckDuckGo’s web search options will probably soon change or disappear as it is currently powered by Yahoo! which has been bought by Verizon. Who will DuckDuckGo turn to if Verizon does combine Yahoo with AOL as has been stated in the press?
Get to know several different search tools really well and, for the ones that you use regularly, find out how they work and who provides the search results.
Two of the services I cover in my workshop for researchers on alternatives to Google are Carrot Search and eTools.ch, and recently one of the people who had attended the session in April asked me to confirm what Carrot Search used to provide its main results. Strictly speaking, neither Carrot Search nor eTools are Google free: eTools is a metasearch tool that has Google as one of its sources and Carrot Search uses eTools for its web search. At the start of the year, Carrot Search offered 7 options for searching under tabs across the top of the search screen including Web, “wiki”, Bing, News, Images, PubMed and Jobs. Web search used eTools.ch to provide the results.
The range of options has now been reduced to just three: the more transparently labelled eTools Web Search, PubMed and Jobs.
This makes sense as the number of accesses to Bing via the api was always limited and I could never get the news or images options to work. eTools in any case is a metasearch engine covering 17 tools including Google, Bing and Wikipedia so the extra Carrot Search tabs did seem to be unnecessary. The full list can be seen on the eTools home page.
This is where it gets interesting. It appears that Carrot Search does not just copy the results from a search on eTools. I ran a search on Brexit in Carrot Search and compared the results from eTools Worldwide and eTools United Kingdom. All of the sets were different so Carrot Search must be doing some additional analysis and processing.
Carrot Search doesn’t just list the results but also organises them into topics or Folders that are displayed on the left hand side of the screen. These can be a useful way of narrowing down your search.
Carrot Search offers two other ways of displaying results: Circles and Foam Tree.
Both show the density of terms in the top 100 results and allow you to click on an area to add the term or phrase to the search. In addition I am finding that the Foam Tree is an interesting way of monitoring changes in news coverage and social media discussions on a topic, product or company. Yesterday, when I ran the search on Brexit, there was an area representing Theresa May. Today, that had been replaced with one for David Cameron. I assume that is because the news coverage has been concentrating on David Cameron’s last day as Prime Minister and his last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) in Parliament . Later he goes to see the Queen to officially resign as Prime Minister. Tomorrow, with Theresa May as our new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet, the Foam Tree could have a very different structure so I shall be looking at it periodically to see if and how it reflects changes in events.
As I mentioned earlier eTools.ch, which is behind the main Carrot Search web search, is a metasearch engine covering 17 tools. It also has options to select a country from a drop down list (Worldwide, Swtzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, UK) and a language (All, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish). Either or both of these give you completely different views and opinions on a subject.
It is a convenient way of gathering a range of foreign language information, especially on European events, and is easier than searching individual country versions of Google or Bing. The disadvantages are that the range of countries and languages is limited and many of the articles will not be in English. Nevertheless, I often find it helpful at the start of a piece of research as I get a general feel for the type and range of information that is available.
Carrot Search and eTools.ch are just two of the tools that I cover in my workshop on alternatives to Google. If you are interested in finding out more, the next session is being organised by UKeiG and will be held in London on Wednesday, 7th September 2016. Further details are available on the UKeiG website.
A question that I’m often asked is “do search engines that don’t track your search history also anonymize your IP address?” DuckDuckGo is the first search tool that often springs to mind with respect to “do not track”. It does not store searches, web history or IP addresses when you use it to search. Also, it does not pass on the search terms you used to the sites that you visit. However, the sites that you visit will still be able to see your IP address. See https://duckduckgo.com/privacy for further details.
Ixquick (http://ixquick.com/) and StartPage (http://startpage.com/) are similar but have an additional feature that gives you the option to display a page from the results list using a proxy. Run the search as normal and you’ll see the usual set of results. Next to each result you should see a “proxy” link. Click on that and you go through a proxy server making you invisible to the website you are visiting.
Any links that you subsequently click on and which are on the same site also go through the proxy. As soon as you follow any links that take you off that site then you are warned that you that you will be “unproxied”.
The disadvantages of using the proxy option are that it can be slower, some functions on the page may not work, and I have come across some pages that do not display at all.
This collection of Top Tips is a combined list nominated by those who attended the autumn and spring UKeiG workshops on “Anything but Google”. The participants came from all sectors and types of company, and included a couple of self employed researchers. The sessions covered both general search tools and specialist services, and the list is an interesting mix of strategies and specific sites. A big “Thank- you” to everyone who participated in the workshops.
1. Get to know the advanced search commands and options.
Google is not the only search tool that uses them and they can help focus your search, especially when using general search tools such as Bing.
2. If you are conducting serious research don’t stop with the first reasonable looking results.
Information of dubious quality can infiltrate even the most well respected of specialist websites. Put on your “skeptical goggles” as one delegate said! There are plenty of alternative tools and resources out there so get some corroboration from additional sources before acting on the information you find.
3. Allocate time for your search.
If you are carrying out in-depth research don’t leave it to the last minute. You will probably need to tweak your strategy and try different search tools to ensure that you are retrieving the best information. It can sometimes take longer than you anticipate.
4. Plan your strategy.
Think about the type of search you want to conduct and the type of information you are looking for. For example if you are carrying out a systematic review and want to use Boolean operators forget about Google; head for Bing instead. And if you need official statistics or company information go straight to specialist sites that provide that data.
5. Don’t stick with what you regularly use.
Experiment with other resources, especially if you suspect your default search tool is not telling you the whole story.
6. Country versions of search tools.
Many search tools offer country versions that give priority to the country’s local content, although that might be in the local language. This is a useful strategy when searching for industries, companies and people that are active in a particular country.
7. Learn when to try something else.
If a site’s navigation or internal search engine seems to be returning rubbish don’t struggle with it. Try another route to get to the information. Either try an alternative source of information or use the ‘site:’ command – available in Bing as well as Google – to search inside the site.
8. DuckDuckGo http://www.duckduckgo.com/.
This was recommended for its clean, straightforward layout and the range of resources it offers on a topic. A school librarian commented that the pupils at her school loved it.
9. MillionShort http://millionshort.com/.
If you are fed up with seeing the same results from Google again and again give MillionShort a try. MillionShort enables you to remove the most popular web sites from the results. Originally, as its name suggests, it removed the top 1 million but you can change the number that you want omitted. The page that best answers your question might not be well optimised for search engines or might cover a topic that is so “niche” that it never makes it into the top results in Google or Bing.
10. Carrot Search http://carrotsearch.com/
This was recommended for its clustering of results and also the visualisations of terms and concepts via the circles and “foam tree”. There is a link to the live web demo on the left hand side of the home page.
11. Microsoft academic Search – charts http://academic.research.microsoft.com/
This is a direct competitor to Google Scholar. The site can be slow to load and it sometimes assigns authors to the wrong institution. Nevertheless, the visualisations such as the co-author and citation maps can be useful in identifying who else is working in a particular area of research. The visualisations can be accessed by clicking on the Citation Graph image to the left of the search results or an author profile.
12. Creative Commons and public domain images.
Use the Bing license option (US version only) to search for images with creative commons or public domain licenses, but do go to the original webpage and check that the license is indeed associated with the image you want to use. Alternatively use one of the following:
Flickr Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons
Flickr The Commons http://www.flickr.com/commons/
Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/
13. Tineye Multicolr http://labs.tineye.com/multicolr/.
“Search 10 million Creative commons Flickr images by colour.” You can specify more than one colour and move the the dividing bar between two colours to increase/decrease their prominence within the image. Click through to the original Flickr image to double check the license.
14. Company Check http://www.companycheck.co.uk/
Company Check repackages Companies House data and provides 5 years of accounts, and graphs for some financials free of charge. It also lists the directors of a company. Click on a director’s name and you can view other current and past directorships for that person. It provides more free information than Companies House but you have to register (free) to gain full access. Additional information such as credit risk, CCJs, credit reports, and many Companies House documents are priced or available as part of a subscription.
15. Guardian Data Store http://www.guardian.co.uk/data/
For datasets and visualisations relating to stories currently in the news. As well as the graphs and interactive maps the source of the data is always given and there are links to the original datasets that are used in the articles.
16. Zanran http://zanran.com/
This is a search tool for searching information contained in charts, graphs and tables of data and within formatted documents such as PDFs, Excel spreadsheets and images. Enter your search terms and optionally limit your search by date and/or format type. One delegate said “It has changed my life!”. (We think/hope she meant her working life.)
17. Keep up to date.
Keep up to date with what the search engines are up to, changes to key resources and new sites. Identify blogs and commentators that are relevant to your research interests and subject areas, and follow them using RSS or email alerts.
Just over a year ago Bing launched a website called Bingiton (http://www.bingiton.com/), which enabled you to compare search results from Google and Bing side by side and then decide which set was best. You had to run five searches and then Bingiton told you which search engine you had chosen for each. After a couple of weeks the site was restricted to US users but it has now been relaunched in the UK.
The principle remains the same: you type in five searches, Bingiton displays the two sets of results side by side, and you decide which you prefer or go for the draw option (“can’t decide”).
I ran several batches of searches through Bingiton and Google won 4 of the rounds. The fifth, which consisted of searches for cake and jam recipes, was a draw with me being unable to decide. Two other rounds had to be declared null and void because “Scholarly articles” links (Google Scholar) appeared at the top of one set of results indicating that they were from Google. Another included what was obviously a Google map!
For me Bing seemed to be better at recipes and shopping enquiries than research oriented queries. Google consistently came out on top for local information and current news. Phil Bradley has also blogged about Bingiton (http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/2013/10/bings-bing-it-on-challenge-returns-to-the-uk.html) and invited people to comment on their own results. It is an interesting mix and Google does not always win or win outright. Take the Bingiton challenge yourself at http://www.bingiton.com/.
Google is rolling out a new addition to search results called “In-depth articles” (http://insidesearch.blogspot.ca/2013/08/discover-great-in-depth-articles-on.html):
“To understand a broad topic, sometimes you need more than a quick answer. Our research indicates perhaps 10% of people’s daily information needs fit this category — topics like stem cell research, happiness, and love, to name just a few. That’s why over the next few days we’ll be rolling out a new feature to help you find relevant in-depth articles in the main Google Search results.”
The articles appear as a block of three at the bottom of your results, if you only display 10 results per page, or in the middle of the page if you display more. As Google says, they appear if your search is fairly broad and they do not appear for every query. I had to run several different searches before I found an example. At present it is only available in Google.com
My search on thorium reactor started with a Wikipedia article at the top, which seems all too often to be the default.
Further down the page was a block of three “in-depth” articles from Wired, Cosmos Magazine and Nature.
They do not appear at all if you use a Chrome Incognito window or your browser’s private browsing option. They also disappear if you apply Verbatim to your results.
How useful are these articles? They are certainly lengthy and in depth but only the one from Nature was fairly recent (December 2012). The one from Wired was published in 2009 and the Cosmos Magazine article appeared in 2006. I tried limiting my search to articles published in just the last year using Search Tools, Any time, Past year. The documents in the main results changed but the in-depth articles remained the same. The Nature article is highly relevant but there are more recent documents to be found than those from Wired and Cosmos. This raises the question as to how these articles are selected. I have not yet found any reliable information on how it is done, although Google’s Webmaster Central Blog has provided a checklist that may help get an article into the triumvirate (http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/in-depth-articles-in-search-results.html). The Moz Blog has run an analysis on 352 searches and found that the major news sources feature heavily (see http://moz.com/blog/inside-indepth-articles for further details).
In theory, in-depth articles are a good way to find an overview of a topic but do check the dates. They may be horrendously out of date.
Yahoo is finally pulling the plug on AltaVista on July 8th. It appears as a one line entry in Yahoo’s latest list of closures (http://yahoo.tumblr.com/post/54125001066/keeping-our-focus-on-whats-next) with the comment “Please visit Yahoo! Search for all of your searching needs”. AltaVista was started by Digital Equipment in 1995 and quickly became the default search engine for many of us. I still meet people who have remained loyal to AltaVista even though it lost its unique search features a long time ago. Danny Sullivan has written a short history and eulogy for the search engine at http://searchengineland.com/altavista-eulogy-165366 – “A Eulogy for AltaVista, The Google of its Time”. Great though it was, some of us had already defected to the Inktomi powered search engine HotBot by the time Google had arrived on the scene. Alas, HotBot is now a shadow of its former self and AlltheWeb, which Yahoo had also acquired, was closed down in April 2011.
I’ve unearthed the AltaVista chapter and summary that I wrote for an early edition of Search Strategies. The chapter is at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/altavista/AltaVistaChapter.pdf and the summary sheet at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/altavista/avsumm.pdf
Picture the scene: an obviously distressed researcher is hunched over a computer screen, sobbing hysterically. All they wanted was a list of donkey sanctuaries in Surrey. How difficult is that? But Google decided that what they really wanted was a field guide to identifying buttercups. Our researcher tries all the advanced search commands and options they know but to no avail. It seems that Google has locked them into its dreaded live experiments (1) with no possibility of escape, and the information is needed NOW.
There is hope, though. There are other search engines out there. Bing may seem consumer/retail focused, but its list of advanced search commands is great at unearthing serious research information that Google buries at around the 2 millionth entry in your results list. My comparison and summary of search commands at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/compare.shtml lists the Bing commands that you are most likely to need. Or if you just want a no nonsense summary of your topic without all of Google’s personalisation and experiments look no further than DuckDuckGo. But should you even be using Google or similar, generic search engines in the first place? Think about the type of information you are looking for.
For news, RSS feeds are still a great way to pull together updates from your favourite newspapers, blogs and websites. Google Reader is about to disappear into a black hole but there are other, better RSS readers out there. I use a desktop client called RSS Owl (http://www.rssowl.org/) but if that doesn’t suit you Phil Bradley has a list of alternatives on his blog at http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/2013/03/20-alternatives-to-google-reader.html. Or you could try a different approach: create a Twitter list of essential news sources, or use Paper.li to create daily “newspapers” using keyword searches or hashtags. See my own “daily” at http://paper.li/karenblakeman or the paper.li on biofuels at http://paper.li/karenblakeman/1321447614.
If you are looking for images Flickr.com is an obvious alternative. For photos you can re-use without fear of being dragged through the courts for copyright infringement try Geograph (http://www.geograph.org.uk/) or Morguefile (http://www.morguefile.com/).
And when it comes to free search tools for tracking down open access and research information there are dozens, some of which are listed at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/links.shtml#research.
These and many more are covered in my workshop “Anything but Google”, which is is being held in Newcastle later this month. Further details are on the UKeiG web site at http://www.ukeig.org.uk/trainingevent/anything-google-karen-blakeman.
We may not be able to avoid Google completely but there are equally good, if not better, tools available. Take the first step and say “No” to Google.
(1) Just Testing: Google Users May See Up To A Dozen Experiments http://searchengineland.com/just-testing-google-searchers-may-see-up-to-a-dozen-experiments-141570
At last! I’ve managed to convert my article on “Free search tools for research information” into a Kindle version (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00C11XLVQ). It took me four attempts to get it right (and I hope it is indeed OK). The Amazon instructions are here, there and everywhere. Amazon’s general guide on producing a Kindle version is OK, but it’s the detailed stuff that is hard to find. The link I have given takes you to Amazon.com. If your “local” Amazon is different you’ll need to search for either the title or my name in the Kindle store.