I’ve been an online searcher since the 19-mumbles, and I’m still learning new search tricks. Here are a couple of tips for mining online databases that I picked up from Cynthia Hetherington, a Big Kahuna in the private investigative world, during an excellent webinar on due diligence she gave for AIIP.
When you are exploring a new resource for information on individuals and want to figure out how far back in time the dataset goes, try searching for a common name like Smith. Since it’s a safe assumption that there will be Smiths in even the earliest records, you can just sort the search results in chronological order from earliest forward, and you’ll probably see the first year of coverage. You could use the same approach with any other type of database — just search for something that is likely to occur very frequently, and then see the date of the earliest record you retrieve. Searching an export database? Try a common export like machinery. Checking out a database of news articles? Search for the word President.
Another trick I learned from Cynthia relates to those times when you’re looking for reliable information on a topic and keep turning up too much irrelevant material. Try restricting your search to only government sites by adding to your search the phrase site:gov. Sure, it’s a very restrictive search and probably won’t turn up a lot of results, but the sites you do get will probably be useful. Cynthia recommended using this technique when looking for public records on individuals and needing to weed out all the resellers of government data.
(I was surprised at how useful this was. When googling bull snakes, having found one living in my backyard, I wasn’t finding much reliable information. Even the Wikipedia entry was full of “citation needed” notes. Limiting my search to .gov or .edu sites, I turned up several useful articles from university extension services and state government web sites. Bull snakes are our friends!)
What search tricks have you learned recently?