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Citizen Investigations: Searching the Internet

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Online Search Strategies

We’ll get to specific tips and tools on searching the internet in a minute, but the first suggestion is to consider carefully what you want to know. This is essential to effectively framing your search. It is usually best to start online searches with a few keywords. After seeing the results, try variants of the terms.

Expertise Finder has a good tutorial on planning searches, Google Search Tips For Journalists.

Also remember that the internet isn’t the only place to look.  

Think about where else documents might be located: libraries or government offices, for example. And think about who you could talk with. 

Being imaginative pays off. 

Citizen Uses Social Media to Solve Crime
Elis Pacheco, a 47-year-old marketing manager in Brooklyn, analyzed a video of a man kicking a cat to figure out where it happened and then posted it online. The Facebook publicity attracted media and police interest, resulting in the arrest of the perpetrator.

Google Searching Skills

With your target in mind, there are a variety of tools to improve your searching skills on Google specifically.

The advanced search page is a good place to start, but there’s more.

Certain commands can refine your searches. 

Placing a phrase in quote marks will yield only pages with the same words in the same order. And there’s more: You can exclude terms, set date parameters, etc. Here’s a quick tipsheet on the commands, prepared by BBC’s ace online sleuth Paul Myers.

Google has training classes for journalists, including, surprise, a lesson on searching. Also see Google recorded webinars, a “power searching” course, and more. 

Alternative Search Engines

Google dominates, with 75% of the search engine market, but there are alternatives.

Some have the advantage that your searches are not recorded.

DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you. For more detail, see DuckDuckGo vs. Google: An In-Depth Search Engine Comparison published by Search Engine Journal in 2019. Here’s another list of alternatives from Techspot.

Search Engine Colossus lists search engines by country, such as the Russian Yandex or Baidu for Chinese. And here’s a list of 12 alternatives done by Search Engine Watch. Another list of search engines was compiled by Mashable. A comparison of results from using different search engines was done by Make Tech Easier. 

Looking backward? The Wayback Machine can help you find information from the past that has been archived.

And, are phone books too old-fashioned? has a list of international telephone directories.

Chinese Investigator Used Satellite Images
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Canada, began scouring Google Earth for evidence of detentions in Xinjiang, developing a collection of satellite images proving the detention camps’ existence. “Zhang, a Chinese citizen, continues to do this research despite the fact that the Chinese police have previously pressured his family related to other content he has posted online,” according to a China File article about his efforts.

Setting Up Alerts

Setting up automatic “alerts” on a subject is like hiring a 24-hour detective. 

Creating a Google alert is pretty easy. Here’s how.

A fun blog called ResearchBuzz wrote: The Importance of Excluding Words When Setting Up Google Alerts.

If alerts don’t produce relevant material, you can always delete them.

Domain and IP Info

You may want to learn about who operates a particular website.

Try the WHOIS domain database from ICANN (the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a listing of all registered domains (somewhat diminished by EU privacy rules). Domaintools is one of a number of derivative search sites.

A search using the name of the website may yield the registrant’s name/business and contact information. However, some registrars allow users to remain private and some domain owners use proxies. More detailed information can be found on GIJN’s resource page: Online Research Tools.

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