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Use Google to Research Data for Your Infographics

A good infographic can visually tell a story or make some abstract or numerical point easy to understand, but none of this happens without a good base of data. The single most powerful tool in a researcher’s toolbox today is the Internet.

The Internet search market still bows before Google. The name itself has become a verb — as in, “Just Google it” — placing Google alongside the likes of companies like Xerox and Band-Aid whose brands are synonymous with a whole category of product. And for good reason, too, because Google is still widely considered the best online search option available.

Perhaps the best thing about Google is how easy it is to use. It ignores capitalization and punctuation, so no need to worry about that. It also has a built in spell-checker and will automatically search for the correct spelling, which can be helpful if you’re looking for, say, statistics on appendectomies and forget that the word is spelled with two p’s.

Google doesn’t do all the work for you, though. To use it effectively, you need to keep a few basic principles in mind. Here are some helpful tips that will get you the search results you’re looking for:

  • Keep it simple. Avoid using unnecessary words. You don’t need to search on a complete sentence. In fact, doing so can result in Google looking for words that aren’t important. Also, the simpler your search, the broader the results will be. If it turns out to be too broad (too many hits), you can later add additional terms to narrow the results.

    Another highly effective way of narrowing your search is to put quotes around the exact term you’re looking up. For example, a search for “John Quincy Adams” will prominently display information specifically about him. Typing john quincy adams, without quotes, will get you some of the information you need, but it will turn up lots of extraneous information, too.

  • Use linguistically appropriate search terms. In other words, think about the sources most likely to have the information you want and what terminology and jargon they use. Those are the terms you need to search for. A government or medical database, for instance, will probably use more technical language: for example, searching on “influenza” rather than “flu.”

  • Be exact in your phrasing. If you want to know how many people are murdered each year in Hawaii, murder is one of the terms you need to search for. Using terms that are close may not get you the data you want. For example, looking for death rate is much too broad; crime is better but still too general given the very specific figure you are looking for.

  • Employ some creative thinking. Ask yourself whether there are ways to find what you want by using other terms. If you’re looking for data on murders in Hawaii, you could also search with the term by state. What you find may not be restricted to just Hawaii, but Hawaii’s figures should be included.

The rise of Internet advertising and search-engine optimization calls for some critical reading skills. When you do a Google search, “results” at the side of the page are advertisements. The “results” that have tiny yellow boxes with the word “ad” in them? Those, too, are ads.

Some of them may, in fact, turn out to be decent sources, but bear in mind that someone paid to put them there. Google is good about sniffing out the best content to display high in its search results, but you need to be on the ball, too.

Here are a few examples of searches you might enter to find that information:

  • How many people are killed per year in Hawaii: Not good. This string isn’t exact enough. People are killed by causes other than murder, so this search doesn’t focus on murder. In fact, the top results are all about shark attacks.

  • How many people murdered per year Hawaii: Getting closer. At least now the search specifies “murder.” But it’s still too wordy and isn’t using the best language possible.

  • Murder rate Hawaii: Great. The search string is simple and directly to the point, using the terminology likely found in a government database, which is the best source for this sort of information. Compared with the previous two search strings, this one returns the best results.

  • Murder rate by state: Also great. The same merits of the preceding bullet apply here as well, only this version uses a little creative thinking to come up with different search terms that will still get you the information you want.

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