A Skeptic’s Guide to Internet Research

In this era of drive-by searching, when most people are satisfied with just about any ‘information’ that surfaces in a top ten result list, it’s refreshing to read a book by a professional researcher who’s an unabashed skeptic about virtually all sources of online information.

Sure, there’s a lot of great stuff online, but even the best sources of online business information can conceal traps for the unwary. Sometimes it takes more than a cursory examination to determine whether an information resource is reliable—even when you’re dealing with a source that you can almost always trust.

The Skeptical Business Searcher by Robert Berkman is an excellent guide to sorting out the wheat from the chaff of business information. And while the primary emphasis is on business research, the lessons offered are applicable to any type of online searching.

Although the book is replete with online research tips and techniques, Berkman’s focus is more on cultivating a mindset and approach to critically evaluating information, with an eye toward settling for nothing but the best.

The first chapter sets the stage by laying out the core challenges facing business researchers. While we now have an overwhelming abundance of online information sources, they’re not all reliable. An even greater challenge comes in recognizing our own limitations in understanding and evaluating information.

Chapter two, “What to do before using a search engine,” may seem like heresy to some, but it’s an invaluable reminder that we shouldn’t automatically turn to Google or Yahoo for every information need. Other sources may not only provide better information but they may actually save time and often money as well.

As the book progresses, Berkman takes us deep into search strategies he’s refined over 15+ years as editor of The Information Advisor newsletter. He offers concrete techniques and examples for finding company and industry information, statistics, news and other types of relevant business information.

Berkman also focuses on the crucial tasks of cultivating and nurturing your own skills as a searcher. Are you asking the right questions? How do you detect and deal with questionable web sites and other sources of information? What role should intuition play in helping you find and evaluate information that may lie out of mainstream channels?

And what do you do when a usually reliable tool like Google suggests results from a usually reliable source such as the United States government—but the information is out of date and inaccurate due to political or economic changes in the world since the document was originally published?

Berkman offers excellent answers and suggestions for these and many other questions.

One of my favorite parts of the book is a case study where Berkman demonstrates the value of persistence and using a wide variety of sources to verify information. Berkman came across this quote on the web: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Talk about an appealing quote for a skeptical researcher! The quote was attributed to Buddha, and while it certainly fits with other sayings of Siddhartha, Berkman had trouble verifying its origin. His story about the steps he had to take to ultimately decide whether the quote was accurate or not provides an invaluable lesson for all business researchers (no, I’m not going to give it away here—buy the book!).

The book ends with a checklist for evaluating information quality, which Berkman offers as an aid rather than a rigid framework for judging websites. He also provides links to other similar checklists prepared by information specialists.

The Skeptical Business Searcher is an excellent overview of the challenges faced by anyone trying to ferret out reliable information about companies and industries online. And the wealth of tips and techniques distilled from years of experience make the book invaluable to anyone who spends time searching for any type of information.

The Skeptical Business Searcher
by Robert Berkman
CyberAge Books, $29.95
ISBN: 0-910965-66-8

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