10 Top Tools for Doing Research Online


As a distance/ online student, you probably have one or more reasons for choosing your mode of study, including the ability to balance study time and family time or to study at your own pace. As well, there may be a school that you would like to study at, but for whatever reason, being there in person is not possible.

However, just because you are a distance student and possibly have a more relaxed study pace doesn't mean you don't have as much research to do. Since you are likely spending a fair bit of time on the Internet to complete your distance/ onlinestudy requirements, you probably want to have a nice set of tools for making your research easier and more efficient.

As a person whose entire week consists of intense research on the Internet 5-7 days per week, followed by the writing of 80+ articles of various sizes, good online research tools are crucial to me. I've been collecting new tools on an almost weekly basis, trying them out for a while, then discarding a tool if it doesn't really improve my efficiency. But the tools I'm using are just as relevant to distance students.

As a result of over two years of regular online research, first as a Master's student candidate, then as a professional online writer (aka blogger), I've come up with a set of tools that I've been using regularly, sometimes daily. While I did set aside my bricks-and-mortar Masters degree plan, I do plan to complete a Masters degree online in the future. So the tools I've been collecting have also been selected with the intent that they will be used for research for an online degree.

Further below in this article is my list of ten very useful online research tools. They're not the only tools I use, but they're probably the most important to me. Many of these should be valuable to you as well if you are doing distance/ online learning, or even other types of research.

There is no significance to the order of the tools below, but there is an abundance of Google products and services. That's often because I came across them first, and became used to them. There are alternatives, and I recommend you explore them as well. Some of the tools listed overlap in functionality, but most are fairly distinct. Each tool falls into one of the following categories:

  • Viewing information
  • Seeking information
  • Subscribing to information
  • Comparing topic popularity
  • Networking with peers
  • Writing
  • Sharing information

Here's my brief review of ten extremely useful online research tools:

Firefox Web Browser

Without a web browser, you simply cannot do online research or even online tests. But one browser isn't the same as any other. Everyone has their favorite, though power surfers and researchers typically pick either Mozilla or Mozilla Firefox. Once Firefox became available, I stopped using Mozilla, so I can only tell you about Firefox: it quite simply is one of the most powerful web browsers around. From multiple tabs to skinnable interface to XUL-based add-ons to literally hundreds of free plugins useful for research, it can't be beat.

If you intend to do serious research on the Internet, this is a must-have free tool. Here's a link to Firefox, skins, and extensions. In fact, some of the tools referred to below require Firefox to function.

Emailed Topic Alerts Service - Google Alerts

One of the fastest ways to find online information about a topic and its related terms is a search engine. But that actually takes effort, because once you get a page of search results, you feel impelled to look at the links right away. A more efficient way, which gives you control, is to use one of the available Alerts services. An Alerts service delivers snippets of web pages to you, in your email inbox, so you can followup at your convenience. (Each snippet contains a link to the source web page.) It's basically a step above using just a search engine.

I've been using Google Alerts to great effect, but Yahoo! is now offering their own service - although it's accessed differently. With Google Alerts, you enter a simple or complex search query, and it emails you the search results with whatever frequency you indicate (as-it-happens, daily, weekly). Alert emails are sent to you until you delete an alert.

You can use Google Alerts with any email address, but I highly recommend getting a Google GMail account. If you are using Google GMail, you can build a list of Alert queries in your control panel. Google GMail also displays related emails as a collapsible collection, which makes it easier to browse through multiple Alerts. I find browsing my Alerts - or just any thread of related email messages - much faster with GMail.

There are only two ways to get a GMail account: sign up with a mobile phone number or get invited by someone who already has an account. Once you signup, you're allowed to give out 15 invites. I suggest you get one, because you can also use the account as a file storage service. (See "File Sharing Services", the last section of this article.)

Website Subscription: Bloglines News Feed Aggregator

As you do research for your distance and online courses, you'll find that some topics simply have have hundreds of websites covering them. Keeping track of all that information is an absolute chore. You need the information, but you don't really want to check in daily to each and every website of interest to you. If you're a typical distance student, you're probably taking more than one course simultaneously. You could potentially be tracking several dozen websites for new articles. Is there an easier way? Yes.

Several years ago, two separate web-based projects were seeking to accomplish the same result: a simple means of subscribing to your favorite websites. So, every time your favorite website added new articles or news, you would get some sort of notification in a stream of "headlines". Each feed item would consist of the article title and the first X words of the article, as well as a link to the original web page containing the article. [In some cases, websites will publish what is known as a "full-text" web feed, in which case you can read the entire text of an article through your feed reader.]

In a nutshell, the result was something now called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which is both a file format and a technology. An alternative file format that accomplishes the same thing, with some added functionality, is Atom. Atom is actually both a file format and an online publishing protocol, but we don't need to know what's under the hood to use either RSS or Atom.

Collectively, some people (supposedly Microsoft) started calling information/ headlines distributed in either RSS or Atom file formats as "web feeds". Other people prefer the terms "RSS feeds" or even "news feeds". Either way, feeds are incredibly useful for research. Note that not all websites publish web feeds. However, most "weblogs" and large news sites do.

Of course, if you are going to subscribe to a website's feed, you need a way to track the "headlines" you'll receive. Some sites offer a feed-to-email service, which sends new article snippets to your email box. Most, however, just offer their web feed, for which you'll need either a standalone feed reader or a web-based feed aggregator to browse headlines with.

Standalone feed readers are software packages that you download to your computer and install. They often resemble email software such as Microsoft Outlook in that they have three panes: one listing all your feed subscriptions at far left, one at top right to show a list of headlines for a given feed, and one at bottom right to show the details of a specific feed item.

Web-based feed aggregators require no software download. They work straight from a suitable web browser, but have a slightly different viewing paradigm. It's this type that I've moved to, after nearly 8 months of trying various standalone readers. I find Bloglines to be mostly superior to the other feed aggregators. (I've tried a lot of them.) What's more, many websites have a "Bloglines" graphic subscription button.

I recommend that you register with Bloglines from the same browser that you do most of your web site browsing from. Then, when you see a "Bloglines" subscription button on a web page, clicking on it will take you to directly to Bloglines. From there, you specify a couple of details, then click the "Subscribe" button. Voila, the site's web feed is added to your Bloglines subscription list. You can now browse your subscribed web feeds by clicking on the name of a feed from the left pane. (Bloglines has only two panes.)

One thing to take note of. If a site you're subscribed to publishes a "full-text" web feed, you'll be able to read entire articles directly from Bloglines. If the site only publishes a "partial-text" web feed, you'll have to click on the item title to see the rest of the article. The item title is a link to the original web page where the full article ilves. So clicking on the feed item title will open either a new web browser window or a browser tab, depending on the browser you are using. (Simply for convenience, this is why I almost exclusively use a tabbed browser such as Firefox. Internet Explorer is hopelessly beyond in this regard.)

Because of this browser behaviour, some power users of Bloglines only subscribe to "full-text" web feeds. It's a decision you'll have to make for yourself. I personally don't like the font used in Bloglines, so I subscribe to both partial- and full-text web feeds, browse items, then click on those I want to read in entirety.

By the way, there are a couple of different Bloglines subscription buttons. If you want to see an example of one, visit Performancing. Then look at the top right for a "Sub Bloglines" button.

You can register for Bloglines free of charge with any email address. If you are going to use one browser primarily for your research (I highly recommend Firefox, as noted above), then you should register at Bloglines from the same browser.

Google News Search Results Feed Subscription

If you've discovered the usefulness to your research of Google Alerts, described above, you may like to try an alternative method of delivery. It's not precisely Google Alerts, but the source is the same: Google News delivered as a web feed to your Bloglines subscription.

First, go to Google News to search for terms of interest. When the results page is generated, look at the navigation menu at left. There is a link underneath the menu that says "RSS". Right click your mouse on it and copy the URL. Then go to your bloglines subscription page and "Add a feed".

The only drawback to viewing Google News search results this way is that all of the unread headline items in the web feed show in Bloglines all at once. (True of any web feed in Bloglines.) If you don't click the "mark all new" link for the feed, the next time you return to browse the feed, the items will be gone. With Google Alerts delivered to your email, the items remain until you delete them from your inbox.

What I do is subscribe via Bloglines for search results I use daily. For less frequently used results, I use the Alerts-to-email method.

Topic Popularity Comparison - Google Trends

Not everyone is going to need this tool, but I use Google Trends regularly. For those of you taking courses which require you to choose a topic for an essay or project, you might like this tool. Given a set of up to five search terms, Google Trends comes back with two line graphs and a series of geographically-defined bar charts.

The first line graph shows you the relatively popularity of each search term over a specified period of time - up to two years. The second line graph shows you the relative quantity of web pages that refer to each search term. This is particularly useful if you plan to write your research paper based on online materials. Obviously, if one topic has more web pages discussing it, then you'd probably find it easier to find relevant references. Finally, the bar charts show you the relative interest for each term by the most popular cities in the world, or countries, if you prefer.

Google Trends is thus a powerful tool that helps you narrow down a topic of research. I often use it to choose niche topics within a broader, more general area of interest. Since the line charts show you up to two years of relative popularity, it's a great tool for choosing topics that are currently of interest, based on searches performed using Google Search. So while one term may have been more popular than another a while back, it may not be so popular now. Meaning that you might not find recent references for the topic. Though sometimes using related terms will produce more favorable results.

Instant Messaging and VoIP Software

When you are doing a diploma or degree online/ distance, you don't always have the live support group of select classmates that you'd have if you were in actual bricks-and-mortar classes. For this reason, some distance schools team people up to work remotely with each other, and offer a dedicated instructor for small groups of students. But if the school doesn't have a toll-free phone number, what are your choices? Emailing someone doesn't always cut it, especially if you need to discuss something in real time. And being a distance student means that talking to your study mates on the phone is probably costly anyway.

Fortunately, there are dozens of free IMs: Instant Messaging clients. Some of these are well-known, others very new. If you've been using the Internet for anything length of time and have signed up for a free email with AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo, etc., you might already be familiar with IM software (aka "clients") such as Windows Live Messenger (aka MSN Messenger), Yahoo! Messenger, or even AOL's AIM Pro. Originally, these text IM clients had only text-mode real-time chat, whereby you'd communicate with one or more people by typing in your conversation.

More recently, these IMs are now enhanced with voice-mode chat, also called pc2pc (pc-to-pc) calling, and even video calling. That means that you can talk to a distant study buddy or instructor via your computer, as if you were on the phone. Free of charge. Unfortunately, you probably have to both have the same software, although this requirement is changing. For example, the latest versions of (Windows Live) MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger can communicate with each other.

Some of these IMs also let you call from your computer to a regular telephone. This is sometimes referred to as pc2phone or net2phone calling. There are also some voice IMs that assign you a real phone number so that people can actually call you from a telephone to your computer (phone2pc). (Hullo is one such VoIP IM, which for now provides a free telephone number and extension. Skype is another, but they charge for a real number - no extension, and you can choose from several cities' area codes.)

All these types of calling over the Internet (pc2pc, pc2phone, phone2pc) are referred to collectively as Internet telephony, IP communications, or VoIP - Voice over Internet Protocol. (Services like Vonage are also called VoIP, but they do not require a computer They use regular phones routed through the Internet. Thus such calls are known as phone2phone, but strictly in reference to VoIP. We're not discussing this type here.)

The popularity of video- and voice-calling software such as Skype has forced many formerly text-only IMs into offering at least pc2pc calling. Some VoIP IMs often allow you to share files. So if you are working jointly on a project with another distance student, VoIP IMs make it easy to collaborate. AIM Pro and Windows Live Messenger even allow you to share applications. So if you need to show your study partner some document or media file or program in real time, you can run "application sharing" on these IMs.

The best part, at least for some students, is that Skype currently has free SkypeOut calls for users in Canada and the United States until Dec 31st, 2006. I actually use the SkypeOut service several times a week, and I use one VoIP IM or another almost every day. The quality of pc2phone/ phone2pc calls are usually lower than pc2pc or phone2phone, but here are some call quality improvement tips.

If you want to learn more about VoIP, including the hardware-based versions, please visit the website VoIP Now. I've also linked, above, to particular articles from the site, for specific IMs. A few more VoIP IMs not mentioned above are Sightspeed and Gizmo Project. There are many more, but all of the IMs mentioned here are the ones I use most regularly. A general overview of some of these and other VoIP software and services is discussed in the article How To Make Free VoIP Calls - A Reader Q+A.

Consider one last benefit of using a VoIP IM over calling on the phone. Some IMs not only let you talk to someone in audio mode, but you can often type messages simultaneously. So if you need to pass information for later reference, or info better deliver in text mode, then this beats a phone call. Especially since such hybrid conversations are free.

Zap Reader Web-Based Speed-Reading Service

Inevitably, when you're taking courses or simply doing research, you'll find yourself with a ton of reading to do and the feeling that there just isn't enough time. Speed-reading is often the answer, provided you are not consuming overly technical content with lots of formulas or diagrams.

I've read many speed reading books and found that while I was able to achieve higher speeds, the effect was not permanent. (That is, I couldn't always maintain my high speed.) To really benefit from speed-reading, start by doing a quick browse of new text, then follow up later with a more thorough read. This method will often result in persistence of the knowledge gained, whereas a single speed-read will not. If you like, you can re-read a third time, with speed.

To give you an idea of how effective speed-reading can be, I used to read 3-4 novels per week, 1-2 non-fiction books per week, and several newspapers daily. And I did most of that while riding the subway to work in the morning and home in the evening, with some extra reading on weekends and occasionally at night.

The problem is, speed reading traditionally requires you to run your finger across a printed page in a variety of patterns, often dependent upon the width of the page. Obviously, this isn't going to work when you are researching articles online. Besides smearing your finger oils across your computer screen, it really doesn't work.

Enter Zap Reader, a handy little web-based tool that lets you paste in blocks of text and set the playback speed in words-per-minute. I can't tell you what an optimum speed is. It's different for each person. Also, you won't be able to read formulas. But assuming you're reading pure text, non-technical material can be read and absorbed fairly quickly.

Try different speeds and see what's comfortable for you. If you are going to try the double-read method, start with a high speed, making sure you can at least catch some of the key concepts. Then later (day, week), read at a slightly slower speed, for better concept absorption. If you feel the need, read a third time at an in-between speed.

Note: apparently women seem to be able to more consistently read at faster speeds than men, at least for print. But this is purely based on my observations of speed readers I've met (or read about) while I was a teaching assistant at college. It may or may not apply to online text. Hopefully, a tool like Zap Reader will level the playing field. Or not.

Web-Based "Office" Software

Once you've done all your research for a project and are ready to start writing your paper, you have a couple of choices for tools. Typing on a typewriter is obviously something of the past. That leaves using one of the popular word processing tools such as Corel WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, or Open Office (free, and also has spreadsheet and other software included).

With the exception of Open Office, these packages cost money. Sometimes, a word processing program might have been included on your computer when you bought it. But if you are collaborating with another distance student, there's a better option: web-based office software. A web-based word processor allows you to share your document and even collaborate. Just assign "write" access to a document to each virtual team member.

There are actually quite a few contenders, but this time, I'm not favoring Google's. Instead I'm recommending Zohowriter. I find it easy to use, and easy to share files. The interface is sort of a cross between Microsoft Word and an HTML editor for creating web pages. In fact, if you intend to create web pages, you can actually post directly to certain free blogging platforms. Or you can export to a number of formats including HTML, Microsoft Word and others.

Performancing For Firefox (PFF) HTML Editor

On rare occasions, your online studies might require you to create web pages on a type of website known as a weblog. But even if this isn't the case for you, there's a tool that's great for accumulating information from one or more websites, simultaneously, for your research, regardless of how you'll use your finished document. The tool is called PFF, or Performancing ForFirefox.

PFF, which requires the Firefox web browser to function, is one of the simplest yet most versatile HTML editors designed for weblog-style websites (aka blogs). But you can use it to accumulate research and write documents for other purposes.

PFF was created by the guys who founded Performancing, a community website for people who want to make a living writing online for weblog (blog) websites. (Something you might consider after you finish your studies.) PFF was created to give bloggers a robust tool for collecting information, writing articles for web pages (i.e., including formatting and hyperlinks), and then easily publishing them to a variety of blogging platforms.

Keep in mind that the Firefox web browser has "tabbed" browsing, which lets you browse multiple web pages one at a time from a single browser window. PFF uses this to advantage and can be used in three different configurations:

  1. From a Firefox tab.
  2. From a separate window than the browser.
  3. From a pane of the browser window. This pane splits the window in two, vertically.

I regularly use all three forms on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. The form that beats all other HTML editors hands down is the 3rd form, the pane. If you are writing a research paper and need to include quotes and URL references from a web page, you cannot beat this tool. You don't have to be writing for a weblog or website to use it.

You can view your document edit window at the same time as a web page in configuration 3. From there, using your mouse you can highlight text or links from the browser pane and drag and drop the text it into the PFF editor. Any link information will be preserved. Imagine now that you have multiple tabs open in Firefox, each showing a different web page relevant to your research. Consider how quickly you can drag and drop quotes from each page, one at a time, into a single edit window that stays put.

It's incredibly easy to use and time-saving besides. In my ten years as a webmaster and Internet consultant, I've never seen a document editor like it, HTML or otherwise. I research at least 6-8 hours daily, and write 4-8 hours daily. So I use PFF all day long, even if I'm not writing for a weblog or website.

File Sharing Services

Once you have finished your research, maybe you want to share it (or a draft copy) with friends, an instructor, or possibly yourself (between computers). There are loads of file-sharing services, but two that work from within Firefox are GSpace and AllPeers. Both are "drag and share" services, making them very easy to use.

GSpace is incredibly clever in that it takes advantage of the free multiple Gigabytes of storage space that you get when you sign up for a Google GMail account (described earlier, under the "Google Alerts" section). What a brilliant idea. If you are on a computer that for some reason will not let you save files to a diskette, you can install the GSpace extension for Firefox, navigate to the directory that the file is in, login to your GMail account from the GSpace multi-panel window, and drag the file into your account. Or maybe you just want to share files with someone else. If they trust you with their email account password, you can login into it with GSpace and drop in files for storing.

When you check your (or your friend's) GMail account, there will be a new email with details about the saved file, as well as a .ZIP attachment. As long as you do not delete the email, the file will stay saved in your GMail file space. GSpace doesn't keep the shared file in its native form, but rather compresses it into .ZIP format to save space.

AllPeers works similarly, but uses a social network and doesn't require GMail. You can add people under your own group categories (friends, family, colleagues, study team, etc.), tied to their email address. They must be registered with AllPeers with that same email address. (Provided you and they are both registered with AllPeers, and both have the other in your respective AllPeers contact list, you can actually tell when the other person is logged in and using the Firefox browser.) You can select files from your computer and share them with one or more contacts. According to the AllPeers site, there is no file size restriction - something that many free email services have (usually 10 Mb attachment size). In fact, according to the info on their website, you can share hundreds of gigabytes if you want to.

A word to the wise: if you have any sensitive/ private documents, you might not want to use file-sharing services. While they offer some measure of security, anything really sensitive should be encrypted and sent to the intended party by other means.

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