Fast Company

Start Your (Search) Engines!

We all want the same thing: better information faster. Here are road-tested strategies and tools to speed up your searches.

Fifteen minutes of searching the Web saved Paul Kaminski $20,000. This past February Kaminski, 50, the purchasing manager of Millipore Corp., a filter manufacturer in Bedford, Massachusetts, placed an order for work-flow software to help 800 employees share information. The supplier promised to cut him a promotional price if he bought right away. But before he signed a contract, Kaminski logged onto the supplier's Web site. And there, among the staff pages and the company overview, he discovered an announcement that caused him to put the deal on hold: the supplier was about to release a new version of the software for 41% less than the so-called promotional price.

"All you need is one successful hit," says Kaminski. "A savings of $20,000 is well worth a few minutes spent digging through the Internet."

Let's get real: You're not going to save thousands of dollars for every hour spent searching the Web. The Web might be a vast reservoir of facts and figures, but who in business has the time to find that vital piece of information that can make a real difference? Who has the time to learn Boolean logic or analyze the finer points of searching on AltaVista? We don't. That's why we've assembled tools and strategies from three savvy businesspeople who've learned to search smart. On your next lunch break, hop on the Web and follow their advice. Their tips might not save you $20,000, but they'll certainly spare you a repeat episode of "lost in cyberspace."

Researching Emerging Markets

WebHead: Rita Gildea, 41, international marketing manager for EMC2 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. EMC2 is a $2.3 billion data-storage-device manufacturer whose Symmetrix enterprise storage systems are sold out of 50 offices in 26 countries. "I don't find many worthwhile statistics on the Internet," says Gildea, "but I do find research that helps me make educated assumptions about breaking into a new market."

Research Challenge: Preparing to crack Argentina's emerging market for data storage devices. That means searching out easily accessible numbers such as the country's population, GDP, and inflation rate -- plus hard-to-find figures such as the number of mainframe computers that are up and running in Argentina.

Strategy #1 The shortest route is not necessarily a straight line.

Gildea began by keying in an obvious search phrase, "Argentina and mainframes," and launched AltaVista http://www.altavista.digital.com . Not surprisingly, the search engine bounced back 30,000 useless hits. So she abandoned the direct route and looked along a few back roads.

Gildea cruised to the Web site of the Argentine embassy in Washington, and the embassy linked her to an IT society in Argentina. In 15 minutes she found exactly what she needed: the number of mainframe, mid-range, and open systems installed in the country. She also searched the pages of computer companies such as IBM. These pages helped her to estimate the number of mainframes sold in Argentina and to flesh out the market's size. With both searches, she didn't seek out the data directly -- she thought about sites that might have what she needed and browsed through them. Thirty minutes of searching for the right source is worth hours of sifting through convoluted search-engine results.

"It's pretty daunting when AltaVista delivers 30,000 hits that mention Argentina," says Gildea. "Scrolling through them would be a real waste of my time."

Strategy #2 Let someone else do the searching for you.

Fed up with traditional search engines, Gildea turned to Info Wizard http://www.infowizard.com . For $7, InfoWizard sent out its intelligent agents to glean articles about information technology in Argentina.

InfoWizard scoured the Web and hundreds of databases that are off-limits to most search engines. Ten minutes later, Gildea received an email telling her where to find her articles on InfoWizard's Web site. In another minute, she was rewarded with the twin blessings of low quantity and high quality. She pulled out some useful bits of news -- such as the extent to which Argentina's health-care industry relies on information technology -- with almost no investment of her own time. "It eliminated a lot of junk," says Gildea, "which made my research move a lot more quickly."

Coordinates: Rita Gildea, gildea_rita@isus.emc.com

Smarter R&D

WebHead: Chris Christenson, 50, research fellow at Dow Chemical. His projects have included developing the plastics used in front- and rear-end car parts. "I use the Net for tracking developments in plastics," he says. "Chemical research is like firing a gun at a moving target, so knowing where the target is and where it's going is terribly important."

Research Challenge: Investigating the chemical compounds used in manufacturing various automobile parts. Christenson's goal: improving thermoplastics to make cars and trucks tougher.

Strategy #3 You get what you pay for.

If you want real value, says Christenson, you have to pay for it. Dow ponies up $1,000 per year for his subscription to the American Chemical Society's Chemical Abstracts Service http://www.CAS.org , a specialized engine dedicated to searching chemical libraries. To keep pace with developments in thermo-plastics research, Christenson keys in "polypropylene and polyethylene miscible blends." The engine sifts through 13 million abstracts from periodicals ranging from the Journal of Physical Chemistry to Science to the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and delivers helpful titles and article abstracts. By sticking to chemistry, CAS avoids the timesink of useless links.

No doubt about it, CAS is an esoteric search mode for the rest of us. The upshot, however, is that there are professional services that enable specialists to drill deep into the Net. For those in the insurance business, the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. http://www.rims.org delivers risk-management updates to RIMS members for $19.95 per month. For entrepreneurs, the QPAT-US site http://www.qpat.com offers one of the largest patent databases in the world, with full-text patent records from every industry for $1,995 per year.

"If you want to save time, accept the fact that there are worthwhile resources on the Internet that cost money," Christenson says. "Don't stick with the free stuff."

Strategy #4 Seek out people, not just information.

To keep pace with breaking research, Christenson needs to network with leading researchers. So he devotes an hour a week to cruising through university Web pages. He corresponds regularly by email with Glenn Fredrickson, a "brilliant" materials researcher in the University of California at Santa Barbara's Department of Chemical Engineering http://www.engineering.ucsb.edu/~ghf/ . Christenson also checks out the notes from Fredrickson's chemical engineering course on the UCSB Web page. Such resources often give him new ideas for his research.

Emailing a few quick questions to the right person can yield valuable information that you might not otherwise find on the Web. "The University of Texas has a specialist in conductive polymers," says Christenson. "So if you're interested in making car doors more conductive and easier to paint -- as I am -- then that person is very important to you. Sometimes, the best way to leverage the Web is to use it to discover who does what."

Strategy #5 Corporate fluff is more valuable than you think.

Most people avoid corporate PR. Not Christenson. Many of the plastics produced by Dow are used by auto manufacturers, so he goes to their Web sites to see what's important to them. Saturn's Web page http://www.saturncars.com proclaims that its "dent-resistant polymer bodyside panels" mean there's "no need to shelter your new Saturn in the farthest corner of the supermarket parking lot." That indicates to him that he should focus his research on reinforcement plastics. An hour spent reading his customers' online marketing efforts, says Christenson, saves him from devoting countless hours to researching materials for a product that might never find a market.

Coordinates: Chris Christenson, cpchristenson@dow.com

Real-Time Presentations

WebHead: Steven McGeady, 40, a vice president of Intel and director of its health-technology initiative. Working out of Intel's office in Hillsboro, Oregon, McGeady develops networking solutions for personal computers and frequently gives presentations at Internet conferences. "The Internet," he says, "is a great resource for spicing up a presentation with graphs, amusing facts, even slides."

Research Challenge: Polishing a presentation for the Fifth International World Wide Web Conference in Paris. At 9 p.m. on the eve of the conference, McGeady needed some statistics for his speech. He found a phone jack in his hotel room, logged onto the Net, and got to work.

Strategy #6 One Netscape window is never enough.

McGeady typically opens three or four Netscape windows at once, which allows him to use several search engines at the same time. (Under the "File" menu, click on "New Navigator Window.") In Paris he typed "Internet statistics" into both AltaVista and Yahoo, visiting only those sites found by both engines. He then opened several sites simultaneously, looking at one site while another was downloading.

Strategy #7 Throw away your first search.

McGeady uses his first search to glance at the top 10 or 12 sites, so he can see how his keywords should be revised. Then he starts over and creates a tighter search. He doesn't actually visit sites until his second or even third search -- when the results begin narrowing down to a manageable number. Working in his Paris hotel room, he found that "Internet statistics" brought up 700,000 links on AltaVista alone. Many references to the South Australian Regional Network were cluttering the valuable hits, so he limited his search by returning to his original phrase and adding "minus Australia."

Strategy #8 Go first for breadth -- and then for depth.

When McGeady finds a promising site among his search results, he doesn't go into it. Instead he bookmarks it and checks out other sites. "I can't really judge the quality of any one site until I know more about the other sites out there," he says.

Strategy #9 Don't stay where a search engine points you.

When a site that looks promising fails to deliver, don't give up and return to the search engine results. To take a shortcut, delete a few letters from the end of the URL to get to the site's homepage. A link there might take you to the good stuff.

In Paris, McGeady was sent by AltaVista to a useless page in the guts of the Internet Society site. He pulled off the end of the URL to get to the primary address http://www.isoc.org and then linked to their "Papers and Presentations" section. Bingo! He found just what he was looking for: PowerPoint slides charting the growth of Internet and Web traffic from 1991 to 1995. As for the rest of his search results, you can find them in his presentation, titled "Paradise Lost? Centralization and Censorship on the Web" http://mcg.www.media. mit.edu/people/mcg .

Coordinates: Steven McGeady, mcg@intel.com

Formerly a Fast Company editorial staffer, Eric Matson is pursuing an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

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