Don’t Do a Blind Google Search

GoogleYesterday I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar to members of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Business Valuators. I shared some tips about developing effective search strategies, as well as some techniques and tools for finding better and more relevant information more quickly. You can find the presentation slides here.

My main message was that research is more than just plugging a word or two into Google; thinking through your search strategy and knowing how to use search engines and other tools to their fullest are important factors in your success. In this, I have one of the foremost experts in the field of valuation on my side: Professor Damodaran. Listen to what he had to say about effective research — to an audience of Google employees, no less!

The 4 Stages of Business Research: Are You Prepared?

StairwayKnowledge is power — we’ve all heard this mantra, but how many of us truly empower ourselves with knowledge when tackling a new business opportunity or project?

In the lifecycle of a project, there are four stages where good, thorough research is critical to business success: when pitching a potential client, before signing the client agreement, during project completion, and after project delivery.

Each stage has unique research needs and specific resources that should be consulted. Googling for information is a good start — but your competitors have Google too. Staying ahead of your competitors and shining in the eyes of your clients requires going beyond Google.

Stage 1: Pitching a Potential Client

You’ve identified a potential client and project to pitch on, you’re confident that you offer what the client is looking for, and you’ve secured an hour of their time to prove your chops.

How well do you know this client and their market, industry position, plans for the future, and projects in development? How do you show them that you understand their needs, their challenges, and the fears and concerns that keep them up at night? How do you establish a personal connection — by, say, casually mentioning an article the firm’s CEO wrote for an obscure industry magazine?

The thoroughness of your research and the depth of your understanding of their situation can be the difference in winning or losing the contract. Industry and market indicators, major players and competitors, the regulatory environment, statistics, trends, forecasts, and the backgrounds of everyone in the room are some key pieces of information to research and understand before stepping into that boardroom or office.

Some information sources to consider are industry associations, statistics agencies, government agencies, financial filings, public records, market research reports, journals and trade publications, news reports and social media, investor presentations, analyst reports, and conference proceedings. Some of these resources are available on the open web and can be accessed efficiently if you use advanced techniques, but many must be purchased through information vendors or retrieved from specialized databases. Consult an information professional about how best to find, access, and leverage these resources.

Even if most of the research doesn’t end up in the pitch deck, you will feel confident and connected to the client’s needs. Here, you can never be too prepared.

Stage 2: Signing the Agreement

Congratulations! You won the project! Before you sign on the dotted line, think about the minefield you may potentially be entering, especially if your client is not a large corporation already under constant scrutiny.

A client’s history with vendors and customers could provide a good indication of what you might expect in their dealings with you. Have they ever declared bankruptcy? Are they currently embroiled in a major lawsuit? Do they pay their vendors on time and treat their customers well? Will they somehow jeopardize your reputation by association?

The same goes for your own vendors and suppliers: Can they do what they say they’ll do? Might they take your deposit and run? Have you validated and verified the information they’ve provided you?

Public records, media reports, and social media can uncover important clues to the above questions. This checklist (PDF) provides some key resources.

Taking the time to perform due diligence on a potential client or new vendor may save you considerable time, money, and headaches down the road.

Stage 3: Completing the Project

The due diligence process went well, you’ve signed the agreement, and now you’re ready to undertake the project. What do you need to know to get started?

It all starts with a well-defined problem. What is at stake? What question or questions do you need to answer? What information do you currently have? What information gaps exist? How will the information be used? The answers to these questions may change as the project evolves, but the relevance and quality of the research will depend on how clearly defined the questions are.

Other questions to ask at this stage are: What are some best practices that you can leverage and apply to your project? Are there experts you can consult and interview to provide information and guidance?

Many of the same resources used in Stage 1 can be used here as well, this time in a different way and with a different goal in mind. Whereas in Stage 1 you were likely looking for high-level information, now you may need to dig deeper, use a wider range of resources, and be cognizant of the nuances of the information. If you’re not finding exactly what you need, you may need to conduct primary research such as interviewing experts or undertaking market research.

Stage 4: After Project Delivery

Phew! The project is complete! You did a fabulous job, delivered the project to the client’s satisfaction, and received glowing reviews. Now what?

How can you leverage this project into other projects for this client and even their competitors? Will you wait for the client to call again or will you be proactive in monitoring their needs?

You probably already have some Google alerts set up for your business. Be sure to add the new client and/or their industry and all the major players to your alerts. These days Bing’s news alerts are even better than Google’s. You can receive customized alerts via RSS, and if you wish to see them in your inbox rather than an RSS reader, you could use a service like FeedMyInbox.

Website monitoring tools (such as ChangeDetection), RSS feeds, and social media monitoring tools (such as WhosTalkin) should also be part of your arsenal. Use them to keep up-to-date on changes that are taking place in the client’s industry, what relevant new products or services are coming to market, and what competitors are trying to do to stay one step ahead.

But, as mentioned above, not everything is available and accessible on the open web. Here subscription databases are again critical for monitoring news and specialty and trade magazines, where the information wheat has already been separated from the chaff.

At each of these four stages, accurate and strategic information can help you reduce risk and maximize your opportunities. Good information is the basis of knowledge — knowledge that can empower you and help your business succeed.

Photo source: Unsplash, Pixabay

Business Backgrounding and Due Diligence Resources

I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting a session last night on business backgrounding and due diligence resources and strategies to the special libraries community in Toronto. I really enjoyed the session, and there was a lively Q&A afterwards where I picked up some tips as well.

Here’s a checklist of resources I created to help guide researchers when conducting this kind of research. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it provides an overview of the resources typically used. Please let me know in the comments if you find it useful.

Business Background and Due Diligence Research Checklist (PDF)

Quick Tip Tuesday: Links from a Domain

I admit, I don’t use Bing as often as I should. This is mostly because I’m more comfortable with Google’s advanced search syntaxes, and when I want to search multiple search engines, I tend to use a meta search engine.

But Bing has some features that are unique and quite useful. One such feature is LinkFromDomain, a search operator that returns the pages that a website links to. Simply enter the web address after the operator (e.g., linkfromdomain:fsoresearch.ca).

This operator is obviously useful for SEO and link building, but for research purposes it provides a sense of what a site is about, and when used on an authoritative site, it leads the searcher to other authoritative sources of information. Check it out.

Country-Specific Google Search

GoogleI’m often frustrated by the fact the Google customizes search results based on my search history and geographical location. Often I need to search a wider scope of sources than is spat out in Google.ca or even Google.com.

Here is a list of country-specific Google search engines — 158 in all — to help you do just that. If you don’t know the local language, use Chrome to translate the pages. Be sure to delete your search history and log out of Google if you’re logged in, so you don’t get any results based on your previous searches.

Photo source: Simon Steinberger via Global Panorama, Flickr

Searching the Past

Internet ArchiveThe Internet Archive has received a lot of attention recently, and if you haven’t read this New Yorker article, I urge you to do so. If you’re not already in love with the Internet Archive, you will be after reading that piece, as well as this one titled “Never Trust a Corporation to Do a Library’s Job.”

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is an indispensable tool for historians, journalists, and investigative researchers of all types. One handy tool that I use often is Memento Time Travel, which provides point-in-time searches on the Wayback Machine as well as a number of other online archives. It is also available as a Firefox and Chrome add-on.

Another useful tool for searching things as they appeared in the past is the sliding time scale for Google Maps’ Street View images. Once you have your target address showing in Street View, notice that there’s an information box at the upper-left corner that shows the address, city, and date of the image you are looking at. Click on the date and you’ll get a slider showing all the available images for that address, which can date back several years. When you click on the image from a previous time, you’ll not only get the target address as it appeared then, but you can rotate the view and see the surrounding area.

Given Google’s tendency to constantly change its offerings, who knows how long this feature will last (and that’s why we need non-profit organizations like the Internet Archive!), but for now, it’s a unique and handy historical search tool.

Photo source: Beatrice Murch, Flickr

Quick Tip Tuesday: LinkedIn Activity

Ever wonder how you can see someone’s past activities on LinkedIn? While your connections’ posts and activities show up on your LI home page, when you visit someone’s page on LI, you see only their profile, not their “wall” of past posts, like on Facebook.

This is somewhat hidden on LI, but it is possible to find. When you visit someone’s profile, click on the little arrow next to “Send a message” and the first option is “View recent activity.” This will bring you to a page with the person’s recent posts, likes, and profile changes (if they’ve set their settings to publish updates about profile changes).

You can see someone’s activities from the past two weeks even if they’re not a connection.

LinkedIn activity

 

Tips and Tricks for Finding Email Addresses

At signFor a recent project I had to scour the Internet for email addresses of corporate executives. You’d think this would be a relatively easy task. After all, work email addresses are public information, and executives have assistants to sort through and filter their communication so they’re not inundated. But I quickly discovered that email addresses are precious, hidden gems to be excavated via advanced methods.

I found some direct contact information through Hoover’s and through running simple searches in Google, but not as many as I’d hoped, so I revved up the search. First, I ran a search in Google and Bing using the following syntaxes:

Google: “*@companyname.com” OR “email * * companyname.com”
Bing: email NEAR:2 companyname.com

This brought up a few email addresses so I could see the pattern for that organization’s email addresses. Often press releases have the direct email addresses of the marketing or PR team lead.

Once I ferreted out the pattern, I ran a Google search with that pattern using the target individual’s name, to see if it appeared anywhere legitimate. I also tested the validity of the email address at MailTester.com or VerifyEmailAddress.org.

Unfortunately this method isn’t foolproof, as executive email addresses don’t always follow the format for the rest of the company’s employees. (To learn about how executives hide their email addresses, see this article.) But I was able to get 90% of the addresses this way. For the other 10%, I called the company’s switchboard and turned on the charm. In a couple of cases, I had to try different methods on different days, but I finally got what I needed.

Finally, for public companies, don’t neglect public filings as a source. I found some of my targets’ contact information this way.

Do you have any tips for locating hard-to-find email addresses? Please share them in the comments.

Photo Fakery and the Challenge of Verification

Another week, another fake photo making the rounds in social media and raising outrage and/or hilarity. This time it is a photo of a gold toilet said to have belonged to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Problem is, the photo has been around since at least 2012, and while the Ukrainian president may indeed be guilty of accumulating outrageous luxuries, there’s no evidence that the gold toilet belongs to him or anyone else in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a number of Sochi Olympics photos went viral that were also fake or not attributable to Sochi. And you may remember this photo of the Egyptian pyramids blanketed with snow (for the first time in 112 years!) making the rounds in December.

pyramid-snow-grabjpeg-2929283

Pretty cool looking, but guess what? Fake.*

Hoaxes, rumours, misinformation, and fake stories and images have long found a welcoming home on the Internet, but with the rise of social media they get shared and disseminated even more quickly than before, sometimes by people who should know better. Sometimes verifying a piece of information is as simple as checking snopes.com or doing a Google search. Other times, however, it may take a bit more work to dig under the surface and confirm the veracity of a story or photo. This Storyful article is a good start for learning about some ways to verify images, such as checking the Exif data and cross-referencing with other sources like satellite images.

Storyful and a number of other news and non-governmental organizations such as the BBC and Amnesty International have released a free ebook called The Verification Handbook to help with identifying rumour and misinformation. While the book is geared toward verifying user-generated content in disaster and emergency situations, the tools and guidelines presented provide an excellent resource for all types of digital verification and investigations. And as the book’s editor Craig Silverman (of Regret the Errorstates, “We’re all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what’s happening.” Learning how to judge the accuracy and credibility of information is one of the essential skills of the social media age.

For some great examples of how a skeptical and investigative mindset can be applied to photos and videos, watch this TED talk by Storyful’s former managing director:

*Fake and staged photos have a long history, going all the back to the early years of photography. For a fascinating story about how Errol Morris uncovered what may be the first faked photo, check out this Radiolab episode.
Photo source: Snopes.com

What House of Cards Teaches Us About the Value of Good Research

House of CardsWarning: some spoilers ahead!

I’ve been watching House of Cards, and like a lot of people, I’m morbidly fascinated by Frank and Claire Underwood’s evil machinations as they connive and kill their way to becoming the most powerful couple in the free (ha!) world. One thing that has struck me is how absolutely crucial good research is to their success.

The journalists in the show, of course, do a lot of digging as they try to uncover the truth behind Peter Russo’s death, but it’s the investigative research that Doug Stamper, Frank’s trusty assistant/dirty-work-doer, does that underlies major plot points and propels Frank’s career aspirations forward.

We see this in action as early as Chapter 2 in Season 1: Stamper uncovers an anti-Israel editorial that ran in the college newspaper that Michael Kern, the proposed candidate for Secretary of State, edited. When the story gets picked up by the media, the ensuing controversy for Kern seals the nomination for Frank’s preferred candidate.

Another point at which research helps Frank outmaneuver others is in Chapter 12, when Doug’s sleuthing reveals that, contrary to what President Walker had claimed, he and the billionaire Raymond Tusk are actually close friends. He discovers this by digging up the travel schedules of each man and identifying a number of instances where both men were in the same city at the same time (the president’s schedule would be publicly available, but I’m not sure how he could’ve gotten Tusk’s schedule; we’ll overlook that unexplained detail…). With this knowledge, Frank is able to remain in control in his interactions with Tusk, who, as he discovers later, is playing him.

Doug Stamper may be inscrutable and a bit creepy, but he’s a damn fine researcher. He has that magical combination of qualities that makes a good researcher: he’s smart, focussed, diligent, and detail-oriented, but also able to think outside the box and connect the dots. Frank’s success depends as much on Doug’s ability to dig up valuable gems that he can use to his advantage as it does on anything else. I’m only a couple of episodes into Season 2, but no doubt there will be other examples of Doug’s indispensable research.

Good research can make the difference between a successful leader and an also-ran. Good research provides knowledge, and knowledge is indeed power.

Photo source: House of Cards’ Facebook page