How to find things on the web

by Julie Sullivan

There are probably writers out there who don’t use the internet for research, but they must be few and far between these days.

But are you using all the tricks you can? Here are a few you might not know.

Search ideas 

Using Search Engines

Of course, everyone knows Google. But did you know how many other search engines there are? This article mentions 14, but there are actually even more. My favorite alternative search engine is DuckDuckGo, which does not track its users as Google does. Why is that necessary? Well, imagine you are writing a book that involves a poisoning or a gun or a kidnapping. In search of authenticity, you look up information on these topics on Google. Next thing you know, your local police become very, very interested in you. This really happens, and it can be unnerving. 

Youtube is not just a fun place to watch videos, it's a great place to look for information. Many more people feel comfortable explaining things aloud to a camera than writing an article, so there is a vast amount of expertise available. 

Search old newspapers, some more than a hundred years old.

Phrase your question right

Using the right language is critical to your search. Use the simplest, most basic form of any word: not “skiing” but “ski”, not “enchants” but “enchant”. Try to think how the site that has the information you need might tag it. Then try to think of words as unique and specific as possible about what you are asking. Leave out words like a, and, the– search engines do. 

Do you know the quotation marks trick? Putting something in quotation marks (it’s best to use double quotation marks “” for this) will produce results with that exact phrase. This is an especially useful trick for when the phrase you are searching for has several common words or names. “The Summer School” will get different results from “summer school”.

You can also add a plus or minus sign to see results that also include (+) or do not include (-). For example, suppose you want to look for interviews about Paris, but you don’t want to see results about Paris Jackson (Michael’s daughter) or Paris Hilton (the heiress). You can write Paris -Jackson -Hilton and your results will not include those words.

Not the heiress

Another good trick is to put an asterisk in a phrase inside quotation marks. This can help you find a missing word. For example, say you are trying to remember the phrase “shank of the evening” but you’ve forgotten the word ‘shank’. Try “* of the evening” and it turns up, along with ‘Kings of the Evening’ (a film), ‘ladies of the evening’ (prostitutes) and ‘Shade of the evening’ (a wine drunk by the warlocks of Qarth in Game of Thrones).

If you want to look for something at only one specific site, you can specify that. For example, say you want to search only on the British history site Spartacus for ‘queens’: just type “queens“ 

You can also use Google’s advanced search to find only results from a specific country, file type, or recent update.

The invisible web

Did you know that most of the web is invisible to Google? There is the Dark Web, of course, but also university, library, and organisation archives, as well as many, many more useful sources. Specialised articles are often found behind passwords, but researchers are often delighted someone is actually interested in their work, and if you approach them politely, many of them are happy to send you information or even the article you are looking for. You can look for researchers or articles on your subject in many places–one is

Sometimes when you are looking for something, you might want more authoritative sources than just blogs. You can go to Google Books and search there; the results will show only information in published books.

On Google Books, there is a very useful word-search feature, Ngram. I use this a lot to find out when a word came into use, or which variant of a phrase is most acceptable. You can even separate out UK and US results. 

Google Scholar allows you to search for scholarly articles that you might need for your research. 

On a less lofty note, suppose you want to find out how it feels to bungee-jump, or what it’s like to be a television actor, or what the ferry to a certain Greek island looks like. An amazing amount of information is out there, and ordinary people like to help (that’s the principle behind Wikipedia!). There’s Facebook and Twitter, of course. But also: 

A screenshot from Reddit's Today I Learned (TIL) group, in which people post amazing things they just learned 

There is always someone awake and ready to answer your question on RedditUse the search box to find a group for your interest. Just make sure you read the rules first, and also search before asking, to be sure your question hasn’t already been asked a thousand times–which might attract snarky responses.  Also, many famous people as well as many with fascinating experiences have featured in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, including Bill Gates and Barack Obama. You can submit a request there too. 

Nanowrimo is full of writers and the forums include people with expertise in many different areas who are happy to help. And of course our own SCBWI forums are excellent places to get information.

People on Quora, in principle at least, have to use their real names, although they can go anonymous to answer specific questions. This is a great place to ask frank questions and hear amazing stories from people you might never get to meet: self-avowed psychopaths, large company CEOs, actual famous people, scientists, people from every walk of life and country.

For example, here is how one writer on Quora answered a question raised above: How do crime authors do research on criminal activities without being investigated by the police?

A few more fun things

These definitely feature in the time-wasting category!

Type the word askew into Google

Did you know that besides normal languages, you can search Google in Bork, Elmer, Hacker, Klingon, Pig Latin and Pirate?

If you find yourself spending too much time on the internet and not enough time writing, try using an app that blocks the web for you. Here are two:

What are your favourite search tips?


  Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer.



  1. This is mind-blowingly useful! Thank you!

  2. Thank you. This is brilliant.

  3. Thank you - very useful indeed! (And not just for writers I suspect.)

  4. So much good information here. Thank you for putting this together and sharing.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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