by Daniel Buchman

Once a year our volunteers join with the Austrian Red Cross’s COI research department to discuss best practices, reinforce research skills, and explore the future of digital investigations. This year, our intern Dan brought back six essential research tips from the training.

these tools give us the confidence to say that if the information is out there we will find it

1. Make a Plan

Research can be endless. This is especially true when you’re searching for a moving target. Setting clear parameters for what you want to find will help you avoid the rabbit hole of useless information.

The most important part of your plan is the questions you choose to ask. Good questions are specific. Instead of asking “What’s the situation of converted Christians in Algeria?” we might ask “Does the Algerian government discriminate, through legislation, policy, or procedures, against those who have converted from Sunni Islam to Protestantism, and if so, how?”

Before running to Google, take a minute to think through which sources may contain relevant information. For questions related to religious freedom, Asylos researchers often consult Forum 18. The BBC also has country-specific media profiles where we can identify every relevant media outlet in Algeria.

Finally, set a time limit. Time is a finite resource, don’t exhaust it. At Asylos, we expect our volunteers to spend two to three working days on each research report. You should identify how much time a piece of information is worth, set a timer, and get to work.   

2. Use Search Operators cleverly

Search engines are powerful, but used carelessly, they are ineffective. When our researchers investigated persecution in Nigeria at the hands of a group known as the Axe Men, it was not enough to type the words axe, men, and Nigeria into Google. Instead, we used quotation marks (e.g. “axe men”) to indicate that the word order matters. A quick search reveals that the Axe Men also go by the Aye Axemen and the Black Axe. To pick up all of these variations in our search, we typed the following into the search bar:

nigeria AND “axe men” OR “aye axemen” OR “black axe”

It’s important that the OR and AND are in capital letters, as this tells Google to look for any page that contains Nigeria and any version of the above versions of Axe Men.

The quotation marks, the OR, and the AND are all search operators, meaning they tell Google how to search for the words you want. Other operators include “filetype:pdf,” which only indexes PDF files and helps Asylos quickly sift through NGO reports and government documents, and the minus sign (-), which excludes pages containing specific words or phrases from your search.

ANDs, ORs, minuses (-), tildes (~), colons (:), and quotes (“”) are here to help. Use them wisely.

Learn more about these search operators and others here. And if you’re interested in moving beyond Google,, which is often the first stop in our research process, has an extensive list of search operators you can use on their database.

3. Dig into the Web Archive

Sometimes a Google search yields the perfect result, and the Google page description seems like the perfect start to a detailed article answering our obscure question about army deserters in Nagorno-Karabakh, but after clicking onto the page, we get a “404 Error.”

In those instances, Google cache can help us crawl back in time and find what was once there. And if Google cache can’t get you where you want to go, it will link you to the WayBack Machine, which has served our volunteers well in scouring through buried documents, old legislation, and censored news stories.

4. Assess Your Source

Our volunteers often use the “Contact Us” page as a litmus test for an organisation’s reliability. The more honest a site is about the people behind it, the more trustworthy it tends to be. In the absence of a “Contact Us” page, the “About Us” page can serve as a similar barometer. There are no hard and fast rules, but in most cases, the more information there is about the organisation, the more reliable the website will be.

If your source contains a photo, consider a reverse image search using TinEye, Google (click the camera icon to upload an image), or another service, to check whether that picture depicting the aftermath of the Zanu Patriotic Front’s alleged attack on a Zimbabwean school is an authentic depiction of a tragedy or merely a stock photo geared to incite more violence.

5. Move Beyond Google

Google is a fantastic tool, but others exist too. We already mentioned TinEye for reverse image searches and as a starting point for COI research. In addition, discipline-specific databases can be useful when using search terms that have a specific definition in your discipline.

Panoramia indexes images by location, so give it a spin if you’re searching for locations that aren't on Google Street View, like the streets of Aleppo or rural Sudan.

Bing and Duckduckgo are robust search engines with different algorithms, which may yield different results. When we need maps, we tend to use Bing maps for its higher resolution images. OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia are open-source mapping services that helps our researchers corroborate mapping information. You can learn more about Geolocation here.

6. Spell Creatively

Spelling is not one size fits all, especially if you’re searching for transliterated words. Here are a few interchangeable letter groups our researchers have picked up on after years of experience: G, Q, and K; DH, TH, and D; D and T; S and C; SH, CH, and X; P and B.

Searching for different spellings of a word before embarking on your research could help make sure you’re being thorough. For instance, a quick Google search for the former Libyan leader shows Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Gaddafi, Gathafi, and Qadhafi as potential spellings. Our Arabic-speaking researchers would also include القذافي for an even more comprehensive search (and you can use Google Translate to get that term even if you don’t speak Arabic - then reverse translate your results back into your own language!) Remember that hyphens and colons may also vary with the spelling of a word, such as the infamous criminal gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS13 or MS-13.

Happy researching!

We hope you find these tips useful the next time you need to track something down. At Asylos, these tools give us the confidence to say that if the information is out there we will find it.

Have you used any of the above tools or do you have any suggestions for how you conduct COI research for your clients? Let us know in the comments.