College students increasingly rely on online sources for research papers and projects.
But you can't drop citations from random Google searches in your bibliography. Instead, you need to strengthen your online research skills.
If you're stuck wondering, "how can I improve my online research skills?" start with these ten strategies. From assessing reliability to identifying useful sources, these tips will improve your research and cut down the time it takes to find sources. Over time, evaluating online sources becomes easier — as does finding reliable sources in the first place.
In nearly every career path, you'll need to find reliable information online, so the following ten tips to improve online research will serve you long after graduation.
Tips to Improve Online Research
1. Check Your Sources
Before clicking on a Google search result, look at the source. What website you're using makes a major difference in whether you should trust the information or not.
It's not always obvious whether you've found a reliable site. Unreliable sites often masquerade as reputable sources. That means you'll need to do some research before using a particular source.
Always check the web address first. University websites end in .edu, while official government pages end in .gov. Both offer solid information for college students. Many reliable news organizations have a .com address — but so do commercial sites that may contain biased information.
In general, college-level research should not link to blog posts or other sites that do not have clear editorial standards. For example, avoid citing Wikipedia — but consider using the references section on Wikipedia to find sources.
2. Research the Authors
Who wrote the piece? Spend some time looking into the author, including the person's credentials for writing in a particular area.
A research article written by an author with a Ph.D. in the field falls into the reputable column. A piece with no sources authored by someone with no credentials in that area might need additional verification.
What if you can't find the author? Some reliable sites will list the author as 'staff writers' or similar. But if you don't recognize the source and it doesn't list an author, consider finding a different site.
3. Critically Evaluate the Information
You can't believe everything you read on the internet — and that's especially important when conducting research online. After evaluating the source and authors, look at the information itself. Does the source contain multiple unsubstantiated claims? Is it an opinion piece? What sources does it link to?
Ask about the purpose of the source. Is it meant to inform, entertain, or persuade? Does the source back up every claim with verifiable information?
This step requires strong critical thinking skills. In general, sources that "show their work" are more reliable. Look for data-driven pieces tht explain how they collected information or scholarly work that discusses its method and includes citations to sources. Avoid short online articles with no links or citations — instead, seek out stronger sources.
4. Check the Publication Date
As a general rule, it's a good idea to use more recent publications in most academic disciplines. If you're writing a paper on college student debt, for instance, it's much better to cite data from 2020 versus 2010. The same applies when you're researching anything scientific.
There are exceptions — in fields like history, an article written 10-20 years ago might still be considered current. Similarly, choosing a more recent publication date does not apply when searching for primary sources.
5. Focus Your Search
There are billions of websites. Focusing your search means you can avoid sorting through thousands of off-topic pages.
To do this, start by avoiding vague search terms. For example, searching "state of the union' yields 8.8 billion results — it's too broad.
Using a long phrase keyword narrows your results. Add the year and information on your specific topic of interest, such as "editorial commentaries" or "audience polling."
The phrase "state of the union 2019 partisan approval ratings" narrows Google results to 444,000. That's still a lot, but it's less than 8.8 billion, and the first page results include pieces from established news sources like CNN and polling organizations like Gallup.
6. Go Beyond Page One on Google
According to SEO expert Brian Dean, less than 1% of people click on search results on Google's second page. Over 30% click on the very first link.
Going beyond the top organic search results can unearth better research for a college paper. Searching strategically means understanding how search engines work. Make sure you can identify sponsored links and ads — they usually won't be the best research material.
Familiarize yourself with tools like Google image search and Google Scholar to find useful online articles and scholarships. Google Books can also offer a solid alternative to hitting the library stacks.
7. Use Reliable Databases
Google and Wikipedia might be your first stop for online research, but they shouldn't be your only stop. Knowing a few reliable online databases for research makes the process much smoother.
If you're in the sciences, PubMed connects you with the top medical and life sciences journals — and it's from the very reliable National Library of Medicine.
In the humanities and social sciences, JSTOR offers peer-reviewed articles, primary sources, and images in 75 disciplines.
Depending on your field, you might need specialized databases. Check out Chronicling America, a database of historical newspapers from the Library of Congress, if you're interested in journalism or history. For psychology students, PsycInfo, from the American Psychological Association, contains everything you need to know for a paper.
While some databases limit access, students can usually login through the campus library.
8. Consider Nontraditional Sources
Depending on the assignment, nontraditional sources might work better than academic scholarship. Instead of quoting interviews published in a newspaper, try conducting your own interviews or posting questions in forums. Other nontraditional sources include blog posts, social media posts, YouTube videos, and TED talks.
When using nontraditional sources, make sure to put the source in context and properly cite it. Understand the limits of unscientific surveys or blog posts that represent someone's opinion before basing a paper on these sources.
9. Stay Organized
Successful online research requires strong organizational skills. Otherwise, you'll spend hours looking through your browser history trying to find the source for a fact you remember reading but didn't write down.
Creating folders and bookmarks for your sources helps when it comes time to create a bibliography. So does copying links for sources so you can write up the citations later. Whatever you do, avoid scanning a thousand websites and finding yourself stuck searching for a needle in a haystack.
10. Verify Information
Before including online information in a college research paper, verify it. Follow the rule for journalists: Fact check your work and make sure you have at least two sources to back up your arguments.
When verifying information you find online, avoid sources that simply link back to the same study, article, or survey. Instead, look for third-party verification.
For example, say you find a source claiming that 90% of college students graduate within six years, but every other source gives you a number around 60%. Believe the number that's backed up by multiple sources rather than the outlier.
Taking the time to verify your research will drastically improve its quality — and it's good for your bibliography, too.
Building strong online research skills helps students write papers and complete projects efficiently. With so many resources at our fingertips, the greatest challenge can be sorting through sources to find the best ones.
By honing your ability to identify reliable sources, search effectively, and evaluate information, you'll graduate with more than a degree. You'll also gain a powerful transferable skill for any career path.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.
Header Image Credit: Jamie Grill, Eskay Lim / EyeEm, kyoshino | Getty Images
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