In Defense of Search Engines

search bar

I once heard on NPR that only 1 out of a million people ever looked beyond 5 pages of Google results. Well, each of us in prospect research is that 1 in a million kind of person! When we “google” a prospect, we are doing so much more.

I believe there is no shame in using a search engine as a primary tool in prospect research. From organizations with little or no budget for research tools, to those with an arsenal of website subscriptions, a search engine will be critical as you build a library of “go-to” websites and to do the kind of creative research which makes you a valuable member of your team.

We often use multiple search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Blekko, etc. We recognize that search engines all use slightly different algorithms to find, sort and filter the information we request, so the results for the same search term will be different in each search engine. Search engine algorithms change frequently, so a Google search today may not look like the same Google search conducted yesterday, and certainly not like the same Google search conducted in 2007. And, a search engine may tailor results to resemble past searches we have done, as if to say they know what sort of information we are looking for even if we aren’t sure ourselves. There will be times we appreciate that, and times we won’t. So we get in the habit of regularly clearing our internet cache and history files. In Internet Explorer you do this by selecting “Internet Options” on the Tools menu, then clicking Delete on the General Tab to bring up the Delete Browsing History screen:

Delete History IE

Make sure you leave the top selection, “Preserve Favorites website data” unchecked, because that will not clear the cache and history for any website you’ve identified as a Favorite in Internet Explorer.

To get the most out of our searches, we often use quotation marks and Boolean logic in our search terms. When we are searching on names, we make sure to search with nicknames, and both with and without middle initials. We create nuanced searches using our prospect’s name with additional search terms like the city they live in, the company they work for, a nonprofit they support, or simply the words “board,” “director” or “trustee” to filter the results in the direction we are looking. But it is when we aren’t quite sure what we are looking for that a search engine can be the most useful, because it can give us a huge, unfiltered view, one we can drill down into to find those little nuggets of pure gold which offer a unique perspective on our prospect and make our searches so rewarding.

For example, today I was searching to see what I could find out about a prospect for a nonprofit I help support. They had heard that the prospect’s wife was a member of a leading local family. Using DuckDuckGo, I searched on her name (she has a different last name than the prospect) and the name of the leading family. What did I find? Our prospect’s father’s obituary – the prospect’s wife’s name was in parentheses after our prospect’s first name – which identified our prospect’s mother as a member of that famous family. That’s just one easy example – it didn’t take much time or strategy to get there, what I found was not on page 5 of the search results, and it didn’t cost me a website subscription to find it.

It is in that largely unfiltered – if we have the time, and if we’ve cleared our cache – kind of searching that serendipity can often lead to strategy. For the best of us don’t quit when we’ve found what we didn’t know we were looking for. That little nugget we find may lead us to try a different search term entirely, to give us even more information. Along the way, we leave our own breadcrumbs by bookmarking the websites we’ve found, documenting the search terms and tactics we used, and putting what we’ve found out about our prospect into the database.

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