TECHNOBUDDY: Used properly, Web is a great research tool from AJC

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TECHNOBUDDY: Used properly, Web is a great research tool

By Bill Husted
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/05/07
You can find an answer to any question almost instantly by using a good Web search engine.
Of course, you can't really care if the answer is right or wrong. I'm going to assume you do care, so today we'll talk about increasing your chances of getting correct information.

Let's start with why there is so much disinformation on the Web. First, any nut can create a Web page —- one that looks really nice —- and say whatever he or she likes.
Want to know the truth about why the "Secret Fraternity of Freemasons at the highest levels can fly around the planet for FREE on free-energy?"
Just go to www.freedomdomain.com/ufo.htm and read all about it. There's plenty more where that came from.
Worse yet, disinformation doesn't just come from nuts. Honest and smart humans make mistakes, repeat false assumptions or guess wrong. Google the phrase "under the weather" and you'll get several different origins for the phrase, most of them sincere and plausible. But obviously some are wrong.
So what do you do?
First, stick to the brand names. Sites run by large professional organizations are more likely to have the resources to do good research. Examples would be CNet, CNN, WebMD, Microsoft and most newspaper sites.
Newspapers? Don't they run corrections all the time? That's precisely what I like. Everyone makes mistakes, but only professionals bother to correct them.
But professionalism doesn't shield even the best sites from mistakes. Some mistakes are never discovered.
That's where we can take a lesson from people who sailed the seas back before GPS and radio navigation.
Good navigators of the day used triangulation. Instead of looking at one star, or two stars, to determine location, they'd check at least three. By drawing lines on a chart showing the position of each star, they could arrive at a fairly accurate fix.
So consult the virtual stars when you search. Check several reputable sources and see how the data compare. If three brand-name Web sites give you the same answer, you can start to feel comfortable. Check a fourth and you are danged near home free. The answer will be correct in most cases.
Still, there are times when you need absolute certainty. Maybe the future of your business depends on a correct answer, and you can't afford a "gotcha." Sometimes dozens of decent sources agree on the answer and they are all wrong.
That's because bad information can spread like kudzu. A newspaper or magazine might print incorrect information, and then someone researching the topic picks up that bad information and uses it in a story or on a Web site. The process repeats until bad information blankets the Web.
If this is a concern, try something really radical: Go to a library. Trained reference librarians have access to expensive commercial databases you can't affordably visit. And they have old-fashioned reference books. They also are trained to sift correct data from a sea of conflicting information.
So for times when you absolutely, positively, must be right —- ask a librarian.