Review: About.com guide to Online Research | Federated Search BlogFederated Search
28
Jun

When I reviewed Going Beyond Google I made a mental note to try to find an inexpensive consumer-oriented guide to performing research in the deep Web. While Going Beyond Google is a great book that I highly recommend for use in LIS programs, the book is a class text and at $65 it’s not a book that is aimed at the masses.

When I learned about About.com’s $18 guide to Online Research I became very curious to see if I had found a complement to Going Beyond Google. I got a review copy from the publisher and what follows are my impressions of the book.

The Online Research book is authored by Wendy Boswell, About.com’s guide to Web Search. The book is 276 pages long and has 15 chapters plus several appendices. The book was published in 2007. While this may seem pretty current, depending on what month the book was published it might be two and a half years old. That’s getting old given the numerous references to web resources.

My main interest was in the value of the book for proselytizing about the value of federated and deep Web searching. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 were most relevant:

Chapter 8: Digging Deeper with the Invisible Web
Chapter 9: The Web as Your Personal Librarian
Chapter 10: Evaluating Web Sites for Credibility

For the sake of completeness I’ll list the other chapters although I only skimmed them:

Chapter 1: An Introduction to the World Wide Web
Chapter 2: The Basic Web Search Toolbox
Chapter 3: Using Search Engines
Chapter 4: Google Tips and Tricks
Chapter 5: Searching the Web with RSS
Chapter 6: The Niche Web
Chapter 7: Using the Social Web in Searches
Chapter 11: Finding Multimedia on the Web
Chapter 12: Mining the Blogosphere
Chapter 13: Keeping Your Web Searches Private
Chapter 14: Most-Requested Reader Searches
Chapter 15: Web 2.0

Chapter 8: Digging Deeper with the Invisible Web

This chapter provides a really good introduction to the deep Web. I particularly appreciated this paragraph:

Why is the invisible Web important? I can answer that in one word: quality. Most of the information on the invisible Web is very topic-focused, simply because most of this fantastic information is packaged in various databases concerning everything from archeology to zoology. Because this information is so narrow – and for the most part, academically oriented – you’re more likely to obtain higher than average quality search results in a shorter amount of time, which definitely comes in handy when you’re trying to do a research paper on a deadline.

Bingo! I couldn’t have said it better. I like the author’s clear and simple style of writing. She goes on to discuss the size of the deep Web, citing statistics from Michael Bergman’s Bright Planet seminal paper on the subject. She explains how crawling differs from deep Web searching and how “invisible Web gateways” provide access to deep Web content. Most of the rest of the chapter lists deep Web resources (portals and search engines.)

I learned a handy trick for finding deep Web databases in this chapter. Add the word “database” to your queries. Sure enough, when I tried the example of searching for the two words “flowers” and “database” (not as a phrase) the top few results were all to searchable databases of flower-related information. I found a pressed flower database, a gardening plant finder from the BBC, and a searchable database of companies in the flora industry, to name a few.

Chapter 9: Using the Web as Your Personal Librarian

This chapter is about finding a topic to research. It provides more web resources; these are general reference resources intended to get a researcher high level information about a subject. Some of the resources are deep Web ones: The Arts Database at Yale, SciSearch, Science.gov, and Biography.com are just a few of the ones mentioned. The chapter does touch on how to evaluate resources for credibility but leaves the deeper discussion for the next chapter.

I have to note that this book is chock full of resources. I find this chapter, like much of the book, is filled with descriptions and URLs to many great web sites. While I like the level of detail I also find it a bit overwhelming. Too many sources and not enough time to discover them all. That’s how I feel. So, I find myself skimming much of the book, looking for what’s relevant to me. Maybe that’s the author’s intent.

Chapter 10: Evaluating Web Sites for Credibility

Of course, with the scholarly federated search engines out there one needn’t worry about the credibility of information. It’s when one strays from the deep Web search engines that one has to worry about the credibility of the content found. I do think that this question of credibility is a critical one, especially for researchers. But, even the public should be more concerned about what’s true. Just because it’s online doesn’t make it true, right? So, how do we know what’s true?

This chapter considers factors that determine credibility: outside editorial oversight, double-checking of facts, and maintenance by trained experts. Specific advice is provided on how to evaluate a web-site:

  • Who’s in charge?
  • Is it absolutely clear which company or organization is responsible for the information on the site?
  • Is there a link to a page describing what the company or organization does and the people who are involved (an “About Us” page)?
  • Is there a valid way of making sure the company or organization is legit – is this a real place that has real contact information?
  • Is the site telling me the truth?
  • What is your source really trying to tell you?

I appreciate this exploration of critical thinking skills. These skills are not ones I hear discussed particularly often. As young people enter their college years, given how much time they’re going to be spending online, I think it’s important that they learn to filter what they read.

What do I think of the book? Do I recommend it? I like it and I recommend it. It is certainly not a replacement for Going Beyond Google. It is not an academic book. I wouldn’t use this as the only book in a college course but I would use it as a second source. The book provides a very readable introduction to the deep Web. It provides too many resources but you may not find that overwhelming. It gives a really great introduction to web searching, which applies to federated search as much as it does to searching the crawlers. This is a great book to give to a child heading off to college, especially if the child has an aptitude for or an interest in information science.

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One Response to "Review: About.com guide to Online Research"

  1. 1 Richard Blumberg
    August 17th, 2009 at 9:25 am  

    Over the past several years, I’ve been deepening my study of the teachings of the Buddha; my approach is scholarly, and I find that the standard Google search wimps out quickly, especially when I’m looking for serious scholarly treatment of topics such as Buddhist hermeneutics or dependent arising. I just signed up for a trial with Highbeam Research, and I’m finding the kind of articles there that I’ve been looking for. But I’m a little scared by the warnings on several blogs concerning Highbeam’s billing practices and TOS.

    Would you have any recommendations regarding a service that would work for a serious student, not affiliated with a University? I’d like to keep the cost in the $150-250/year range.

    Thanks for any help that anyone can provide.

    With regard,

    Richard

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