12 tricky tips to help you research online – and get great results

Updated Jan 11th, 2020. Having been researching for my own and my clients’ writing projects online for as many years as the internet has been a viable research tool, I have learned a few tips and shortcuts to finding out a few trickier pieces of information that some less world-weary online researchers might not have thought of yet!

Here are some of the tricky shortcuts I’ve learned to help me do really worthwhile research online.

Here are my top 12 Tricky Tips for you to try out…

When written?

Tricky Tip 1: With time-sensitive topics, watch out for undated articles and blog posts that may contain obsolete information. I have written about that in some detail in this article here – check it out.

Where from?

Tricky Tip 2: Sometimes it’s very hard to tell where the business or organization of a website is based. The more obvious places to look for this information is on their contact page, or their about page. However sometimes you w ill draw a blank on both of those.

Tricky Tip 3: If there are no clues, look around for telephone numbers. Those beginning with a 1 followed by a space are likely to be in North America. Even without the 1, numbers configured like this – 123-456 7890 – are also likely to be in North America. To find out where they are, Google the first three digits: within a few entries on the first page you should see which North American area code that represents.

Tricky Tip 4: Within Europe, find the organization’s telephone number. Let’s take the example of a number like this: 32 2 123 45 67. If you Google +32 2, you’ll see that the country code (32) is Belgium, and the area code (2) is Brussels, the capital city.

Tricky Tip 5: There are numerous websites around that allow you to find out various countries’ area codes, but fewer sites allowing you to track down a location purely from a phone number. However here is quite a good one you can try.

What sort of English do they use?

Tricky Tip 6: Another fairly subtle way you can work out where a website’s or blog’s origins lie is by assessing the English used. I’m not offering any prizes for guessing correctly between US and British spellings … they’re easy to spot!

Tricky Tip 7: But if the text has been written by Indian English speakers, for example, you will notice a distinctly formal style that seems a bit quirky to the western eye. And if the text comes from Australia or New Zealand, you’ll see that they talk about prices in dollars, but use (in the main) British spellings and phrasing.

And if you’re researching for fiction?

Have a look at this tutorial here on HTWB – part of a series we ran on “how to write fiction without the fuss.” It’s very comprehensive.

How accurate is it?

Other than being wary of undated text that talks about time-sensitive information as I mention above and here, there are other issues you need to watch for when researching so that you get the most accurate information possible.

Tricky Tip 8: One is whether or not a website is likely to give you unbiased information, or whether it may have a hidden agenda. Just because its URL is www.somethingorother.orgΒ  does not mean it’s a nonprofit, charity or other non-commercial enterprise.

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Tricky Tip 9: When I’m researching for something where accuracy is critical (and it nearly always is) I usually start with Wikipedia. Although even they make it clear that their information is not necessarily 100 percent accurate and people can – and do – challenge it and change it, at least with Wikipedia you know that their content is likely to be unbiased and based on largely relevant facts.

Tricky Tip 10: Next stop, for me, is the trade or professional associations relevant to the topic I’m working on. You would be surprised how many seemingly obscure topics and areas of interest have their own associations; and once again, these are likely to be pro the topic, obviously, but not trying to sell you anything other than membership, which is innocent enough.

Tricky Tip 11: Only once I have got a fairly clear picture of the topic from these sources do I then begin to explore the commercial organizations connected with the topic. Have established a few baselines from Wikipedia and the associations, it’s a lot easier for me to tell what – on a commercial site – is useful information and what is overblown hype.

Here’s a recent, real example: I was researching about bladder cancer, and I wanted some fresh, up-to-date information to share about it with our recently formed local bladder cancer support group. I started with Wikipedia … a very good overview.

Next, I went to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) site, plus a number of bladder cancer charities like this one, and online support groups. Finally I took a look at some of the commercial organizations associated with this form of cancer, like this one.

Tricky Tip 12: What’s key here is to look upon your online information gathering as an exercise in totting up common denominators. If you see facts portrayed in identical or very similar ways across 2, 3 or more different websites, there’s every chance those facts are accurate.

When you’re done, credit your sources

We’re all working for a living, so don’t just grab information from the internet even though it’s free, without attributing that which you find useful to those who have bothered to put it up there.

If you use good chunks of information or even short quotes from Wikipedia or other freely available sites, link to the relevant URLs. Not only is this a polite way of thanking your source but also it’s good for everyone’s Google Juice.

And finally, some advanced research tricks on Google…

In this very interesting article, “Tips for journalists using Google Search” by Abigail Edge on Journalism.co.uk shares some very detailed advice on how to research by using images, part images and even colors. Well worth a read.

That’s all I can think of for now, but if I come up with any more tips I’ll share them here.

What experiences have you had with researching online? Please share them and also, your recommendations to help others.






  1. This is probably what librarians were trained to do well before the internet.

    Years ago when his kids were little (in the 90s) my brother made them go to the library to use many books or to ask the librarian. When he saw librarians use computers to look up the info, he acquiesced and let his kids use computers too. If you can’t beat the internet then use it πŸ™‚

  2. LOL Trudy … I must say I find the internet a lot more convenient than the local library! But libraries are still lovely, quiet, peaceful places to go to catch up on some reading or to study. I hope we never lose them completely, although several smaller ones in the UK have closed in the last few years. πŸ™

  3. Suzan, excellent tips! Particularly #12! πŸ™‚

    I’d take a bit of exception to your characterization of wikipedia though: “at least with Wikipedia you know that their content is likely to be unbiased and based on largely relevant facts.” I think W is an excellent opening source for information, but the information it has at any particular time is not necessarily unbiased. Areas that are highly controversial, particularly ones where one side of the controversy is well-established, heavily funded, and employs many professionals, may be overly influenced by organizations or individuals who recognize the power of Wikipedia and maneuver in ways to dominate the “flavor” (and even the content) of the information that is presented. I have not put my energy in the Wiki direction lately, but I *do* remember, five or ten years ago, trying to correct some of the bias in their articles on secondhand smoke exposure and smoking bans and running into some real difficulties. My sense at the time (which may or may not have been correct, and may or may not still be a current problem) was that the professional antismoking organizations “ruled” those pages in some form with some sort of editorial power that made it difficult to display contrary information, no matter how well-referenced or valid it might be.

    I’m guessing that you might see similar problems if you looked at Wiki for information regarding the Israeli/Palestinian situation, President Obama’s actions/effectiveness/Congressional-interaction etc, and other politically volatile areas. Perhaps, if you’ve researched this yourself, a future article on Wiki’s structure and attempts to correct for this possible deficiency might be helpful!

    Again, VERY nicely done set of tips! Google is *magical* — it’s made the HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy a dream come true! Research that used to take hours upon hours in a dusty medical library now takes just a few minutes from the comfort of my home!


    • Thanks for your kind words, Michael. I hear what you say about Wikipedia; sadly some sort of political influence is able to buy its way into most media that ostensibly is unbiased. So perhaps I should re-highlight my Trick Tip number 12!


  1. […] Google! Brilliant tool. Love it to bits. A lot of my work involves quite detailed researching and the advent of Google has meant that I can research absolutely anything while sitting on my arse in my home office. Recently I wrote a blog post about how to get the best results from online researching, if you’re interested – click here. […]

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