Google Power Search

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have been a professional researcher and information wrangler since 1994, so I know a thing or two about finding information. However, there is no doubt that search has changed, and search engines have redesigned their functionality and user interface a lot over the years. I think it’s fair to say that search has significantly evolved since 1994.

Frankly, it’s hard to keep up.

So, when Google announced it Power Search class, I signed up without hesitation. As I write this, I am half way through the course, and even this well-seasoned researcher is not disappointed. I have learned a thing or two that will sharpen my search skills.

I’m smug enough to say that I knew most of the class offers, but what is really nice about this class is Daniel Russel’s teaching style. He reveals the intuition behind the design of the search tools, and he challenges the student to think critically about the search. The tools will help you, but your instincts and ability to read and further filter your search results will truly help you to focus in on the results that you’re looking for. The genius of Google’s design is that it is, at least by my estimation, very intuitive.

In Lesson 2 you are challenged to think more deeply about your search and the terms you use to isolate precisely what you’re looking for, as well as to think critically about your results and how the links might lead you through a “six degrees of separation” kind of process to the unexpected, or seemingly unconnected, like six links from the Mona Lisa to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a skill that researchers intuitively acquire with experience, and I think it’s particularly valuable for this concept to come across in these lessons.

The Google Power Search online class is a good investment of time for novice and seasoned researchers alike. I say this having only completed half of the class so far, and I will write another post about the entire class when I have done the whole thing.

Google-centricity

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

What Is Good Search Practice?

I have found myself saying to people more and more how Google-centric I am. It is no secret that I am an information professional, hound, aficionado, and addict, among other things. I love information and the tools and processes associated with managing it. Google happens to make some of the best. And they’re free! Sort of, but that’s a topic for another post.

To justify my Google-centricity, I look to numerous things that I like about the products and the company. It doesn’t hurt that, in honor of Pride Month, Google launched the “Legalise Love” Conference at Google London, partnering with organizations to identify ways to decriminalize homosexuality and eliminate homophobia around the world…but I digress.

Basically, it comes down to this: Google tools make it easy for me to manage most (but certainly not all) of my personal information. Do I worry about privacy? Like everyone else, yes, I feel some anxiety about all of the information I keep online, and certainly I am anxious about keeping all of my eggs in my Google basket, so to speak. But convenience and good design trumps all of that.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a healthy suspicion that they are trying to sell me stuff, and truly, I don’t have a deep understanding about what they can do with the data they are collecting about my online activity. But I have drunk the Google Kool-Aid, for better or worse (and mostly, I like to think, better).

I used to observe a cardinal rule that when you use one search engine, you should use one or two more that may garner different results. At one time, anyway, it was considered best practice in research. However, I now admit that I don’t often use any other search engine besides Google out of habit more than conscious decision. Google has become so ubiquitous, in popular parlance it has become synonymous with “research”. People use the word “Google” as a verb when they talk about looking something up.

In truth, it comes down to the bottom line of time. It takes significant time to take the extra step of doing an additional search with another tool. And frankly, I find that I don’t get any more interesting results when I use another search engine. Back in the day, that problem was resolved by using Dog Pile, which aggregated results from different search engines. That became problematic when I realized that the different engines interacted in different ways with the search string, so I stopped using it.

Occasionally I look to other search engines like Blekko or Duck Duck Go. I harbor a prejudice against Bing, but I must admit that their latest marketing campaign and model sounds pretty smart. I haven’t used it yet because it’s not applicable for the professional research that I do, but the move to use social media to help you prioritize your results seems like an effective way to search. Jury is still out on that one, however.

So, I’m concluding this post with questions for my readers:

  • Do you still believe it’s good practice to use multiple search engines when you search?
  • If so, do you practice this habit, and what search engines do you regularly use?

Data Visualization

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

This week I acquired a new business intelligence tool, and I am geeking out! This tool is going to be a game-changer for how we perform data analysis, and it will also allow us to build dashboards to show activity in our prospect and donor pool in a whole new way. I’m super excited.

As I begin to dip my toes into the world of data visualization, I am seeking and finding some very interesting resources to help guide me through the process and give me ideas. Here is my attempt to collect them.

Visua.ly: Tools and guidelines for creating infographics and data visualizations (which are not the same thing). They even took a stab at drafting a Code of Ethics for Dave Visualization Professionals. Nice.

Storytelling With Data: to help rid the world of ineffective graphs, one exploding, 3D pie chart at a time

Spreadsheet Analytics: Resources and guidelines for spreadsheet analysis

Visual Literacy: e-learning tutorials for data visualization.

Information Is Beautiful: A blog by David McCandless, a journalist and information designer based in London.

The History of Visual Communication: An interesting perspective of human beings teaching and learning through visualization.

I have been collecting resources for data visualization for a while, and you can access them on my Pinboard page. If you know of others, please share them!

Method and Happenstance

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Key To Successful Research

I have written here before about serendipity and methodology in research, and I have been thinking lately about it again. Recently, Read, Write, Web reported that the website discovery tool StumbleUpon, among social media referral sites, is responsible for driving over half of the web traffic to websites. They surpass even Facebook and Twitter for referral traffic.

StumbleUpon was one of the first social media sites that I dabbled in, even before my beloved, now defunct, Ma.gnolia. As a professional researcher and information addict, I loved StumbleUpon as a discovery tool. Through that portal, I encountered sites of interest that I would not have discovered any other way. At the time I thought of it as random and happenstance, and above all it was fun! Not to mention enlightening and useful.

With the evolution of other tools that have captured my attention because of my social network, I haven’t given my presence on StumbleUpon my attention over the last few years. This news about traffic and my continuing exploration of social media and research tools is making me take a second look.

It also causes me to reflect on what I think about methodology versus happenstance in conducting effective research. What are some of the other ways that I have found useful information by serendipity?

  • Reading hard copy newspapers or magazines. My eyes wander to other articles, and I flip the pages to browse what’s there. I am led to other sources of information I wasn’t even looking for.
  • Browsing the library bookshelves. When I look up a book at the library, I make a habit of perusing the books on the shelf around the one I was looking for to see if there is another one on the subject that might be equally valuable.
  • Reading footnotes, indices, citations, and resource lists in books and articles. This is research 101. It can lead to other sometimes primary resources that will be useful for whatever I am researching.
  • Getting sucked into the vortex of the Internet. Following the same principle stated above, checking out the links from websites of interest opens portals to useful information.
  • Social media. I’m biased, of course, but my friends and colleagues post really interesting stuff. A personal recommendation from someone I know and respect means a lot to me. They have already vetted what they post as valuable and useful.

Happenstance and serendipity are simply other research methodologies. To be an effective researcher, you must do due diligence and use all of your skills and all of your tools. This includes setting up your news alerts and searching for terms in all of your databases. But it also means being aware of your surroundings and knowing that information can come from where you least expect it.

As a researcher, sometimes I feel like a private investigator methodically looking for a specific answer to a specific question. Sometimes I feel like a baseball player in left field, standing at the ready to catch that random fly ball. Sometimes I feel like a fisher casting a wide net and never sure what I’m going to come up with. Whatever the means, it is important to always ready to receive useful information from a variety of sources.

You never know where you’re going to find the answers to your questions, so be open to all possibilities.

Patience and Persistence

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The mantra for taking the long view on fundraising

This ongoing recession is putting many into crisis and panic mode, including nonprofits. The scarcity mentality is inspiring some organizations to contract instead of expand. Fundraisers are have to work harder to make their goals, and some organizations are being forced to make difficult choices.

I have always taken the long view on fundraising; the work you do today may not result in a major gift tomorrow, but perhaps next year. It’s an exercise in patience and persistence.

I read a blog post recently from the ML Wagner Group that has some sage advice for small nonprofit organizations in terms of setting up fundraising infrastructure. What I like about this piece is the emphasis on information management, whether it is about communication, establishing clear policy, or relationship management. Investing in your information management systems may sound expensive at the outset, especially to organizations with limited means. But an organization’s information is probably one of it’s most important assets. Investing in the infrastructure to manage it wisely is critical for your long-term fundraising success.

Information systems that work well will support the relationships with your constituents and donors and ensure their continued engagement and support. By taking the long view of fundraising and embracing the mantra of Patience and Persistence, organizations can look at this economic downturn as an opportunity to learn from this situation. Organizations can take the opportunity to build their institutional memory strategically so when the next economic downturn happens they will have loyal and engaged constituents there to help see them through tough times.

Proceed With Caution

July 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

Prospect research, social media, and ethics #APRA2011

The 2011 APRA International Conference is underway, and alas, I cannot be there. I am observing the twitter feed from my perch in Chicago, however, and seeing that there is some really great conversation going on. I wish I were there!

One of the interesting conversations is about (what else) social media! Folks are debating the ethics of using social media as a source for prospect research content. I’m gathering from some of the tweets coming from Austin that people think the information shared through those channels is fair game. Jeanine Flores tweeted the question: Is it still too soon to use social media and analytics? My response is no, it’s not too soon, but I do think that researchers always need to be discerning about the source.

My rule of thumb when gathering information about prospective donors goes to the following question: Would the prospect be happy to see the information in their profile if they were to have access to it? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t use the information. Some may argue that if the social media is in the public realm, open and available for anyone to see, it’s okay to use it to build solicitation strategy. While the information may be out in the open, it is important to consider the intended audience. If a blog is out there to share with family and friends, even if it is open for anyone to see, gathering any information from that source can pose a risk to the relationship between that prospect and the organization.

To illustrate my opinion, I will say that any information that someone posts on LinkedIn is fair game. This is a professional networking site, and the intention of using this tool is to expand your professional network. Presumably, the end users want their information to be discovered here. Facebook, on the other hand, is more personal in nature. Also, I don’t assume that people have a clear understanding of the privacy settings on Facebook. While I would not say that everything shared there is off limits (if you do indeed have access to it), be mindful and discerning. For myself, I will simply not look for or use any prospect information from Facebook.

In addition to this debate, I saw a few tweets referring to the need for every organization to establish a social media policy which includes something about prospect research and ethics, or that the confidentiality and ethics statement for the prospect research team includes something about the use of social media.

The bottom line on social media as an information resource: be discerning, proceed with caution, and when in doubt, don’t use it.

Social Media Evangelism: Part I

July 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Ten Commandments of Social Media  

How to make social media work best for you 

I have recently taken on the role of Social Media Evangelist at my church as a part of the effort to get the word out to the community about all of the wonderful goings-on there. I have been promoting the use of social media among all of our members, inviting people to tweet, update their Facebook status, and check in on Foursquare. The pastors have even gotten in on the action! Just today, Pastor Vernice preached from her new iPad, and created a hash tag for the sermon. So cool!

As the self-identified Social Media Evangelist for Broadway United Methodist Church, I have been approached by members of the congregation to teach them how to “do social media”. So, I am preparing to schedule a class for the early fall. Meanwhile, I’m having lots of conversations with folks and dispensing advice on the fly.* I thought I would write down a few rules of thumb here as part of my brain storming and preparation. Here I have assembled my own Ten Commandments (this was not an original thought – there are many “Ten Commandments” lists already out there from other social media evangelists, but these are my own.)

  1. Thou shalt be social: Social media is social! Social media is less about technology and more about relationships. It is more important to understand the culture and etiquette. Social media is a conversation, and like the dynamic in any relationship, there’s give and take. It won’t give anything to you if you don’t give anything to it. But like many relationships (hopefully), you can easily pick up where you leave off.
  2. Thou shalt not worship false idols: You are smarter than your computer or “smart” phone.  Technology itself is useless and dumb until humans interface with it. It is people and how they interact with technology that makes it so amazing.
  3. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s smart phone: Social media isn’t for everyone. You should use social media to the degree that it is useful and natural to you.
  4. Thou shalt choose appropriate technology: Choose the tools that are right for you. There are many applications out there, and if you’re just diving into to social media for the first time, you don’t have to use them all. Start with one or two tools that most of your friends are using, because you want to be where your friends are, anyway.
  5. Thou shalt have fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth the bother.
  6. Thou shall not disrupt your face-to-face interactions. By now, we’re all used to people being focused on their smart phones in meetings, on the bus, and in random social situations. Be mindful of the people around you.
  7. Thou shalt be patient with people who are not engaged with social media. Many people who don’t participate in social media will  judge it without understanding it. As you get into it, you may find that people assume that Twitter is stupid and Foursquare is a waste of time (and we all know what it means to assume anything). Don’t be deterred by the nay-sayers, and persevere with your own interests and engagement.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Before you share anything, be sure to check your sources and confirm whether or not the information you want to disclose is true, and your sources reliable. Don’t contribute to the stream of misinformation.
  9. Thou shalt practice social media etiquette. Be nice, and don’t take the bait from trolls. Positivity begets positivity. Be a good citizen and keep the discourse civil. When others are not civil, disengage from the conversation. Cite your sources, don’t use obscene language, and don’t forget to say thank you!
  10. Thou shalt focus on quality over quantity. Success in social media isn’t when you’ve accumulated the most friends or followers. Rather, it is about the quality of your interactions. If quality is your focus, your community will grow organically with relationships that are meaningful to you.
The “Part I” of this post suggests that I will follow up with sequential “Parts” that will cover different aspects of social media. I expect to continue developing the class for my church here. I hope you enjoy it! Feedback is gratefully welcome.

*Please note that I do not identify as a social media expert, guru, master, or supreme authority. I’m more of a dilettante, dabbler, amateur, or tinkerer.

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