Google, Bing, and other search engines can be powerful tools for turning up information quickly. However, sometimes you will need to dive into government websites,which are often poorly organized, to find pertinent information.
Sometimes you will get lucky the first time you put keywords into Google, but more often than not you will need to run multiple searches with a variety of variables and features.
When researching any given jurisdiction, you will want to try various configurations of the areas name. For example, let’s say you are researching the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office’s use of drones. For example, if you're looking information from the San Diego County Sheriff you may want to try the following variations:
- “San Diego County Sheriff”
- “San Diego Sheriff”
- “San Diego County”
- “County of San Diego”
When you use quotation marks, you are telling the search engine to only search for pages that have those exact words and in the order you quoted them. For example:
Using “San Diego County Sheriff” and “Body Worn Camera” will only turn up documents that have exactly those phrases.
This will help you filter out results that aren’t directly relevant to your research. However, one disadvantage is that it won’t turn up variations of the terms. So you will want to try other combinations such as “San Diego Sheriff” and “Body Camera.”
Sometimes a particular word or phrase may be diluting your search results. For example, you might be researching El Paso County, Texas but getting results for El Paso County, Colorado. You can filter out certain keywords by using the subtraction symbol. For example:
Using “el paso county” and “license plate reader” in quotation marks will produce results that contain those terms. By adding -colorado, you are excluding results that include the word “Colorado.”
Often the most useful information is contained in documents that are online, but aren’t actually web pages. You can limit the search results to a particular kind of document by adding filetype: and the acronym for the document, such as PDF, DOC, or PPT. For example:
Using the search terms combined with filetype:pdf will return only PDF documents containing those search terms.
You can use most search engines to probe a particular website by using site: and the URL for the website.
When you use “body worn camera” and site:tucsonaz.gov, it will only return results for that term on the City of Tucson’s official website.
One benefit of this technique is that the search engine will often return documents and pages that may not be directly linked o publicized through the website's regular interface.
Another handy tip is to use site:gov, which will return results just on website that end with .gov. For example:
By using “body worn camera” and “pima county” in combination site:gov, you will get search results that contain those terms and appear on both local, state, and federal websites.
You can also use this technique with news sites. For example:
By using “smart streetlights” and site:voiceofsandiego.org, you will get search results from the Voice of San Diego website that include that search term.