Conduct High Quality Online Research: Process, Types, Tools, Tips & More
If there’s one constant in modern life it’s this: research. No matter the topic, it’s imperative that most of us conduct thorough research for a variety of purposes online.
We research products and options when we want to buy something. We research markets and competitors when we want to sell something. We research topics and exes when we want to know or learn something.
We do research on the internet for so many different reasons, it can be hard to think about “online research” as one task—but if you add it all up, many of us spend a lot of time doing research on the internet. So there’s some serious value in understanding how to do that research more thoroughly, accurately, and quickly.
That’s what this guide is all about. We cover everything you need to know to conduct better internet research, including:
- PROCESS: The online research process
- METHODS: Research methods and strategies
- TYPES: Some of the most common types of research you can do online
- TIPS: 7 tips for better online research
- TOOLS: Research tools and companies to improve and expedite the research process
- RESOURCES: 35 great internet research resources
- DELEGATING: How you can delegate your research to a virtual assistant (VA)
The Online Research Process in 6 Steps
Broadly speaking, the typical online research project goes through 6 key steps. While you probably don’t tick off all these steps every time you research something online, following them can help ensure your research is complete, accurate, and useful.
Let’s talk about what those steps are and why each one is worthwhile for just about any online research you do.
1. Choose and define your topic of interest
This first step is where you’ll get specific about just what it is you’re looking for. What’s your end-goal? Why are you conducting this research? What are you hoping to learn or achieve?
For market research, this might be developing a full understanding of the competitors in the space and their positioning. For product research, you might be trying to arrive at the best option for you to buy.
The key is to make a comprehensive list of the research questions you want to answer and the individual items that interest you. This list will help inform where and how you do your research and ensure you don’t wind up with a bunch of information that doesn’t help or interest you.
2. Determine which fields of study you’ll need to look into
This step will help you define and narrow down the type of journals, databases, websites, etc. that you’ll look to for information.
For example, if you’re doing product research and you want to know how valuable existing customers find a given product, you may turn to prominent third-party review websites. If you’re doing medical research, you may look into the relevant medical journals for your topic.
3. See what research has been done and conclusions have been drawn
Step 3 is likely the part of the process you most often associate with “research.” Now’s the time to dig into your research sources, read up on the topic, and look to see how other people have answered the questions you laid out for your research.
The important part of this step is to stay organized and on-task. It’s easy to get lost in all the information, so it’s best to have a clear process and to keep your sources and learnings organized.
4. Evaluate your sources and information
In today’s digital world, this step is even more important than the rest. No matter the topic of your research, you need to take the time to understand and evaluate your sources. Who’s writing about the topic? Why are they interested or invested in it? Do they have anything to gain from what they’re saying?
This step is when you can identify any biases you or your sources have. Think of these biases as gaps in your research—and fill them in with opposing viewpoints and additional information.
5. Determine additional research data collection methods needed and conduct
Whether as a result of biases or something else, it’s not uncommon to find gaps in the research that’s already been done. When that happens, you may consider conducting your own primary research to help fill in those holes in your information.
For example, if you’re missing qualitative market research, you may choose to conduct an online focus group of consumers in that market. For medical research, filling in the gaps might mean conducting an extensive clinical trial. For research into your own customers, on the other hand, it might be as simple as sending out a brief online survey asking for feedback. You can also use online survey platforms to reach a broader base.
6. Organize your full body of research and draw conclusions
Once steps 1 through 5 are finished, you’re ready to start digging into your body of research and drawing your conclusions. This is where you’ll make a final decision on which product to buy or identify where in the market to position your own business, for example.
Online Research Methods & Strategies
When you think about “online research,” what sort of research method do you imagine? Many of us likely think about Googling and reading articles—and that is one method for doing research online. But it isn’t the only one—far from it.
Below are some of the other common online resources for research methods and strategies you can draw on during your research.
Content analysis and social media or social network analysis
Content analysis is the typical web search and read method of conducting research. In this case, you’re consuming secondary research that’s already been conducted and learning from that.
A focus group is when you bring together a group of people to take part in a guided discussion—often this discussion is about their experience with a particular product, brand, political campaign, ad, or TV series/movie. You might picture these happening in-person, but they can also be conducted online using video chat or conferencing software.
Interviews are similar to focus groups—you’re asking real people for very specific information. The difference is that interviews are more often done one-on-one versus in a group. Interviews can also follow a less conversational and more transactional question-answer approach.
Questionnaires and surveys
Questionnaires and surveys share the question-and-answer approach of an interview, but they aren’t typically done live or in real-time. Surveys can be emailed or mailed out to respondents or shared on social media. The respondent completes the questionnaire on their own time and returns it to the researcher when finished.
Web-based experiments follow a more regimented and traditional set of processes designed to yield scientifically significant results. There are three main types of experiments:
- Controlled experiments
- Natural experiments
- Field experiments
While the topic varies, many of these experiments can be adapted to take place online.
Clinical trials are a type of experiment most often done in medical and psychological research. In a clinical trial, the experiment is designed to answer a very specific set of questions. The classic example of a clinical trial is a drug or pharmaceutical trial—designed to answer whether a particular drug affects a given disease or injury.
In an ethnographic study, the researcher essentially lives among their research subjects and observes their behavior, social structures, and more. Ethnography is most commonly used in behavioral research like sociological and anthropological studies. Online ethnography simply refers to the method by which the researcher interacts with subjects—online.
Common Types of Online Research
Online research comes in all shapes and forms, but talking about “research” in the abstract can feel a little nebulous. To help you wrap your head around the kinds of online research we’re referring to for our purposes, here are some of the most common types of online research.
Basic research refers to broad studies and experiments done, not to answer a specific question or prove a hypothesis, but to create a foundation for additional studies or experiments.
For example, a study of how caffeine affects the brain would be considered basic research. Its results would increase general knowledge on the topic and likely inspire more specific experimentation.
Here’s another example of what basic research looks like—and how it can often blend into applied research:
- EXAMPLE: via Verywell Mind
- RESEARCH: To start, “researchers might conduct basic research on how stress levels impact students academically, emotionally, and socially.” That might involve content analysis of existing research on the topic, empirical research around students’ moods and performance, and interviews or surveys completed by the students themselves.
- FINDINGS: At the end of the basic research process, researchers have a better understanding of how stress impacts students—but they don’t know why stress has those effects or how to change or solve the effect.
- CONCLUSIONS: Because of that, “the results of these theoretical explorations might lead to further studies designed to solve specific problems. Researchers might initially observe that students with high stress levels are more prone to dropping out of college before graduating. As a result, scientists might then design research to determine what interventions might best lower these stress levels. Such studies would be examples of applied research.”
Quantitative research involves studying something using statistical or mathematical techniques and it’s used to understand how often a particular phenomenon occurs. The “quantitative” part of this type of research refers simply to numbers.
Here’s a common example of what quantitative research looks like in action:
- EXAMPLE: via QuestionPro
- RESEARCH: “If any organization would like to conduct a customer satisfaction (CSAT) survey, a customer satisfaction survey template can be used. Data can be collected by asking a net promoter score (NPS) question, matrix table questions, etc.”
- FINDINGS: The survey method above provides “data in the form of numbers that can be analyzed and worked upon.”
- CONCLUSIONS: “Through this survey, an organization can collect quantitative data and metrics on the goodwill of the brand or organization in the mind of the customer based on multiple parameters such as product quality, pricing, customer experience, etc.”
Qualitative research, on the flipside, focuses more on observations and non-numerical qualities. It’s used to answer questions about how and why phenomena occur, versus how often.
Here’s an example of what a typical qualitative research study looks like:
- EXAMPLE: via QuestionPro
- RESEARCH: “A bookstore owner who is looking for ways to improve their sales and customer outreach. An online community of members who were loyal patrons of the bookstore were interviewed and related questions were asked and the questions were answered by them.”
- FINDINGS: “At the end of the interview, it was realized that most of the books in the stores were suitable for adults and there were not enough options for children or teenagers.”
- CONCLUSIONS: “By conducting this qualitative research the bookstore owner realized the shortcomings and the feelings of readers. Through this research now the bookstore owner can keep books for different age categories and can improve his sales and customer outreach.”
Market Research and Competitive Research
Market research and competitive research refer to gathering information about a particular industry and the companies currently doing business in it. It often involves mapping out the positioning of competing companies or products and is usually done by the companies in the market (or those hoping to be).
Here’s what a typical market research study looks like:
- EXAMPLE: A software company is looking to launch a new product into an unfamiliar market.
- RESEARCH: They conduct research to figure out the features their product will need, what price will be competitive, and where in the market there’s an opportunity to serve an underserved segment of consumers. Research includes basic informational research about competitors, their products, and pricing, content analysis of industry publications, and focus groups with potential customers.
- FINDINGS: The company finds that a small but dedicated segment of consumers in the market have a particular need that isn’t being met by any of the current competitors in the space.
- CONCLUSIONS: They design their product to solve that specific issue and create marketing and advertising campaigns targeted toward only that small niche market.
Customer research is when a business seeks to learn more about their customers (or their competitors’ customers). Often, customer and consumer research are included in the overall market research process we mentioned above.
Here’s what a typical customer research study looks like:
- EXAMPLE: via Hotjar
- RESEARCH: A software company wanted to learn more about what their customers needed from their software, and how they could build a better product and customer experience. They used on-page surveys on their website and some observational research to dig deeper into their customers.
- FINDINGS: Based on their research, the company created in-depth customer personas that exemplified their 3 most common customers, who they are, and what challenges they face.
- CONCLUSIONS: Based on what the company learned about challenges faced by one particular customer segment, they improved a particular feature of the product to improve that customer’s experience.
Other Common Types of Research
- Comparative research, done primarily in the social sciences, refers to studies that compare a given data set across different geographic locations or cultures. For example, a study may look at the differences in poverty between the U.S. and Canada.
- Medical research can make up a wide range of studies and experiments. The most obvious example is clinical drug trials, which are run to determine the efficacy and safety of new pharmaceuticals. But medical research can also involve observational studies to better understand new diseases and other basic research.
- Legal research most typically refers to two scenarios: 1) finding an answer to a particular legal question or decision that needs to be made and 2) looking for precedent to support a legal argument.
- Product research refers to research done by companies to better understand what their customers are looking for. It can be done during the ideation or new product development phase or to further improve an existing product.
- Empirical research data is collected by observation. In other words, it’s a record of someone’s experience, defined via the 5 senses. For example, an experiment done to figure out if listening to happy music improves subjects’ moods would be considered empirical research.
- Descriptive research is done with the intention of better understanding something. Customer and consumer research are often done in a descriptive way—describing customers and their attributes rather than trying to explain or quantify them.
- Experimental research refers to a more rigid research process than many other research types listed here. In experiential research, researchers follow the research method. They utilize strictly controlled experiments in which one variable is altered and the results either support or refute a specific hypothesis.
- Exploratory research is similar to basic research. It’s done with the goal of better understanding a given problem or phenomenon, and its findings typically inform further research to solve the problem.
Tips for Better, Faster Online Research
Whether you’re new to conducting research online or you’ve been doing it for years, there are always tips and tricks you can employ to streamline, strengthen, and refocus your research process. With that in mind, here are our top tips for conducting high-quality research online.
Know the Information You’re Looking For
With all of the information available on the internet, it’s really easy to get lost. Maybe you end up chasing down rabbit holes or trying to answer new questions every time they arise. Either way, you’re distracted from answering the original questions you set out to.
That’s why it’s so important to get clear about what those questions are, and hold yourself to researching those answers. This is what steps 1 and 2 in our online research process above are designed to help with.
Get Clear About Your Goal for Researching
While similar to the previous tip, defining your goal for research is more action-oriented. When you get answers to the questions outlined above, what will you do with them? All the questions you seek to answer with your online research should serve this overarching goal—helping you make a decision or choose your next course of action.
For example, your goal for travel research might be to choose and book a destination for your next family vacation. For competitive research, your goal may be to identify a niche audience to target within your industry.
Check the Abstract First
If you’re using scientific papers, medical studies, legal reviews, and other academic research, you know you’re in for some dense, lengthy reading. So before you commit to reading anything, check out the abstract first. If you don’t find anything compelling in the abstract, you can safely skip that paper.
Have a System and Stay Organized
As we mentioned before, the internet completely changes the stakes when it comes to research. There’s almost no limit to the amount of research you can do. That’s why it’s vital that you create a system for determining which information you’ll look at, plus how and where you’ll store it. Here are a few suggestions for staying organized:
- Create Google Drive folders to store PDFs and other documents
- Create a designated folder in your Bookmarks to store websites and URLs
- Use a reference management software (like Mendeley) designed to help organize extensive research
- Delegate the organizing part to a virtual assistant (VA)
Avoid Analysis Paralysis
Online research can be incredibly valuable in helping you make informed decisions on a whole range of topics—but it is possible to take research too far, ending up with way more information than you can adequately process. Avoiding analysis paralysis is the only way to ensure your research makes your life easier, instead of the other way around.
Clearly outlining your goals and questions to answer is a good first step in avoiding analysis paralysis. The second part comes down to recognizing when you have enough information to make a decision. Once that happens, it’s usually time to set the research aside and act.
Evaluate Your Sources and Check Your Own Biases
In the time of #fakenews and corporation-funded scientific research, it’s more important than ever to evaluate your sources for online research. To start, just get in the habit of paying attention to who ran the study, wrote the paper, or created an article.
From there, you can look deeper into their objectivity (or lack thereof). Ask yourself whether the researcher has something to gain or lose from the information they’re sharing. Are they interpreting objective information through their own angle? Equally important: how current is the information presented?
In addition to evaluating the objectivity of your research sources, it’s even more important to identify and be aware of your own biases toward the subject matter.
Delegate Research to a Virtual Assistant
Whether you lack the time, expertise, or just desire to conduct thorough online research, there are many reasons to delegate your research to someone else. Online research, in particular, can easily be handled by a virtual assistant (more on that later!)
Research Tools and Resources to Help with Your Online Research
When the time comes to dive into online research, most of us default to starting with an internet search on Google, followed by trying different search terms and combing through endless search result listings. That’s a fine place to start, but there are also tons of other reputable databases and search engines that can help you get straight to the most accurate and up-to-date research on just about any topic.
Below, we recommend 13 tools that can help you find reputable sources, organize your research, and even conduct your own primary research.
For General Research Articles
- Google Scholar and Google Books
- Library of Congress and LexisNexis
- Project Gutenberg
- Student’s Online Research Guide via AllConnect
- Yale University Research Guides by Subject
For Specialized Research
- Medical: BioMed Central, The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, NCBI (Nat’l Center for Biotechnology News)
- Legal: American Law Reports
- Business and industry: Nielsen and Pew Research Center
Online Research Management and Organization
Online Research Companies
Virtual Research Assistant Companies
Other Great Online Resources for Research
If you’re looking for more info on various aspects of researching online, here are a few more top-notch resources you can reference.
- For psychological, sociological, and other behavior research: Psychology.org
- For business (market, competitive, and new product) research: QuestionPro
- For market research: Inc.
- To better understand online research and “big data:” Online Research Methods, Quantitative by Hocevar and Flanagin
- On conducting your own survey research: SurveyMonkey
- For legal, news, and public records: LexisNexis online library
Delegating Research to a Virtual Assistant
The advice and resources above are enough to turn anyone into a pro online researcher—but do you really have the time or desire to do your own research online? Regardless of how well done, effective internet research always requires one big investment: time. There’s no getting around the time investment it takes to conduct valuable online research.
Instead of investing that time out of your own busy schedule, you could outsource your online research efforts to a virtual assistant (VA). That way, you get the benefit of making informed decisions without spending days or even weeks wading through abstracts and research articles.
When you work with a Delegated virtual research assistant:
- You can hand-off basic research, competitor and market research, comparative research and more from day one
- You can work with your VA and train them to handle more specialized types of research like medical and legal
In both cases, as your VA gains experience working with you, they’ll get better and better at pulling together exactly the kind of research and insights you’re looking for. Some aspects of research they can tackle include:
- Pulling together research articles and data
- Data entry
- Research annotation and summaries
- Research management and organization
- Various aspects of conducting primary research
How does this work?
We know that delegating something as broad and nebulous as “research” can feel a little foreign if you haven’t outsourced it before. Most of the concerns we hear from people are very quickly quelled by the time savings that come with delegating their research.
That said, if you’re feeling unsure, here are a few of the questions we hear frequently:
How does all this work?
Your Delegated VA is available to you whenever you need them. They can pull together research articles and sources, organize and annotate them, present research summaries and conclusions, and help with many of the tasks involved with conducting your own primary research.
What kind of research can a Delegated VA handle?
Delegated VAs can handle these types of research right off the bat:
- Basic research
- Market research
- Competitive research
- Comparative research
- Data research
- Information research
That said, with a little guidance and training from you, our VAs can take over just about any kind of research you need done.
How will my VA know what information to look for?
Initially, your VA will base this judgment on the information you provide to them. Any information you ask for, they’ll pull together for you. For basic research, they’ll be able to handle most anything you need.
For more specialized research areas (like medical and legal research), your VA may need a little more help from you in the beginning. Rest assured, after a few projects, they’ll be able to handle just about everything you can throw at them.
Can my VA handle next steps after research is done?
If you provide your Delegated VA with the access and information they need to take the next step, they can do that—whether that’s booking a trip based on travel research, purchasing their recommended product, or something else entirely.
How will my VA communicate with me?
Your Delegated VA will communicate with you any way you prefer. If you choose to communicate via Slack, email, phone, or morse code, your VA will work with your preferences to streamline communication.
Whether it’s product research, medical research, or something else entirely, conducting thorough and accurate research online takes time—and going without isn’t a great option either.
If you don’t have the time, desire, or expertise to perform your own internet research, you can easily turn the keys over to a virtual assistant. With a little guidance, they can handle a lot more than you may think.
Then, you can spend less time Googling around and more time acting on your research findings.
Glossary of Online Research Terms to Know
Research problem and research question: The central question your research sets out to answer, or the central problem your research sets out to solve.
Correlation: A connection or relationship between two variables.
Causation: A connection or relationship between two variables where a change in one variable creates a change in the other.
Findings: The results and conclusions of your research.
Scientific method: An empirical, step-by-step method whereby hypotheses are formed and experiments/observations either affirm or disprove the hypothesis.
Sampling method: A method for collecting data from a small sample of a given population.
Research methodology: The specific techniques and procedures you use to identify and analyze information about your topic.
Control group: A group within an experiment to which no changes are made in the variable being studied. Control groups are used for comparison to better identify how changes in a variable affect the other group.
Experimental group: The group within an experiment which is changed or manipulated.
Primary research: Data collected directly by you, the researcher.
Secondary research: Data previously collected by other researchers.
Hypothesis: An educated guess or theory about how an experiment will turn out.
Abstract: A brief summary of the contents of a research paper or study.
Bias: Assumptions made without credible evidence, often that skew the ultimate outcome of a study. Bias can be caused by beliefs held by the researcher or by errors in sampling or data analysis.