Searching online for an original source

While we’re on the subject of web searches

Sometimes I need to find the original source of a quote or news story (for example, that has been used without attribution or simply plagiarized by a blog). I’ve found that the easiest way is to use a randomly selected phrase from the source in hand that is long enough to be unique.

So for example, if I found this quote somewhere online without attribution (or if the attribution was a blog that referenced another blog and so on):

Lt. Brett Parson, who heads the D.C. police special liaison unit, said “Just like in heterosexual domestic cases, most of the abuse that occurs (in the case of gay couples) is punching, kicks, slaps, pushing or even threats. And people don’t think that is abuse, but it is.”

…then the following Google search (including the quotation marks)…

“punching, kicks, slaps, pushing or even threats”

… would reveal the original source was the Washington Post (though note that I’d have to click Google’s ‘repeat the search with omitted results included’ in order to see the original WashPost link).

Note also that I did not include parts of more than one sentence, or the parenthetical phrase “(in the case of gay couples)” in my search, because editing by the downstream source might have made changes that would foul up such a search.

So to recap: search, using quotation marks, for a phrase within a single sentence that is just long enough to be unique.

More on using proper nouns for searching

Reviewing my last entry, I see that literal-minded readers may think that I’m saying that using a city name and last name are usually the best query terms. Not at all.

Sometimes, if a last name is very unusual, that’s all you need. Often a first and last name together in quotes (or with a dash between them) is enough. (Although watch out for criminals, who for legal reasons are often identified with their middle name or initial.) If the first and last name are common (as in the case of ‘Larry King’), then throwing in a city name will help narrow it down. Other times a corporation name or a song title or a sports team name will work as well. What do all these have in common? They’re names — aka, proper nouns.

Use what you’ve got — but just enough to create a unique query. Adding proper nouns beyond that may exclude useful results.

Searching online to supplement what you know

One task I often need to accomplish is supplementing a little bit of information I have in hand (a news tip, a blog entry, an offhand reference, a quote, a news brief) with much more detailed information (a full newspaper write-up, an earlier news clipping, a script from our own archives). This can be hard to do if you don’t know how to formulate the right query for an online search… or it can take mere seconds if you do.

If you’re looking for a recent news story, then Google News is the right place to start. If you’re looking for general information or an older news clipping, start with a regular Google search. (Google News includes archival items, but in many cases, you have to pay.)

The quickest way to find exactly what you’re looking for is to use a query containing proper nouns — the capitalized names of persons, places or things. So, for example, if I’m looking for items on the Southern California gay teen recently shot to death at school…

gay teen shot

will get me there, but also miss some stories where he was not described as ‘gay’ and produce a lot of false leads, because, unfortunately, a lot of other gay teens have been shot in the last few years. But if I use the name of the city and the boy’s last name…

Oxnard King

I will almost eliminate false leads and produce a plethora of useful links. Note that I didn’t use the victim’s first name, because I happen to know that he was called both “Larry” and “Lawrence.” If I really wanted to nail it, of course, I could search on both:

Oxnard (Larry-King OR Lawrence-King)

Obviously, searching on just “Larry King” would be a bust, because of the similarly named talk show host.