VA Days: Refining web research process for virtual assistance

I do a lot of web research, and I’d like to be able to outsource that to a virtual assistant. Web research is also one of the common services offered by virtual assistants. My coworkers tell me that I find information on the Net very quickly. If I can teach those skills to virtual assistants I work with, then we’ll all benefit.

What’s different about the way I do things? I think the following factors affect my speed:

  • I come up with alternative queries and am good at detecting information scent. After a bit of background reading, I can get a sense of what things are called and what I can use in my search queries to find information. I’m also good at finding interesting links that lead me to more information.
  • Speed-reading lets me quickly look for relevant portions. I don’t read entire webpages. I skim them to find things of value, such as case studies and good quotes. There are two parts to speed reading: the skill of reading quickly, and enough familiarity with the subject matter to know which parts of the text don’t add anything new to the body of knowledge.
  • I use tools to find, organize and share content. I make the most of tabs in Mozilla Firefox, and I sometimes use other browser features and extensions to work even faster. In addition to regular information sources, I search bookmarks and blogs to find information that other people have filtered. Del.icio.us lets me bookmark webpages worth revisiting, storing excerpts in the notes. With the Ubiquity add-on for Mozilla Firefox, I can bookmark things without using the mouse. =) End result: I don’t waste time copying and pasting documents into a master document and trying to make sure that I can find things again, and I accumulate an archive of useful information.
  • I use breadth-first search. I often branch out from the search results and open a dozen tabs at a time. This lets me explore a lot of sites, then go deep on one or two sites that have good information density.

I want to help my virtual assistants learn how to work like this, or to refine their own process for finding information on the Internet. Here’s the process I’ve documented so far.


There are several kinds of web research I might ask you to do. Sometimes, all I want is a brief overview of available resources, with excerpts for ease of scanning. Other times, I want to find specific examples. Yet other times, I want to fact-check something, or re-find something I’d seen before.

These instructions are for doing web research to get a brief overview.

Output: At the end of your Web research, I would love to get a list with lots of hyperlinks and with the key excerpts from your reading. You can create a page on this Google Site. I would also greatly appreciate it (and you probably will too) if you use a social bookmarking website to bookmark interesting pages as you come across them.

Preparation – using del.icio.us:

I’d like you to still be able to take advantage of your bookmarks and your research even if you decide to stop working as a VA or work for someone else. One way to do that seems to be to use social bookmarks. I find that del.icio.us is the easiest one to use and share.

  1. Go to http://del.icio.us and register for an account.
  2. Follow the instructions to add the buttons to your browser. If you want, you can also install the del.icio.us extension for your browser.
  3. Go to http://del.icio.us/sachac and click on Add to my Network. E-mail me your user ID.

Now let’s try bookmarking.

  1. Go to one of your favorite sites for learning. (If you don’t have one, now is a good time to quickly look for one!)
  2. Click on the Bookmark on Delicious button to pop up a window. Copy an excerpt or type in a short description of the page in the Notes text field. For Tags, use for:sachac plus whatever other keywords you feel describes the content. You can use as many keywords as you wish. Separate keywords with spaces. If this is for a web research project, add the keywords for the project too. It may help to have a text editor open with for:sachac and the project keywords, so you can just copy and paste them in.
  3. Click on Save.

See my bookmarks at http://del.icio.us/sachac for examples. In particular, I tend to be good at remembering to grab excerpts for http://delicious.com/sachac/web20forbiz . Compare a few of those bookmarks against the original pages to see what I focus on.

ADVANCED TIP: If you’re comfortable with Mozilla Firefox, install the Ubiquity add-on and go through the tutorial. You will then be able to create del.icio.us bookmarks by typing Ctrl-space share-on-delicious description tagged tags. Bonus: It remembers the tags from the last time you called it. You don’t have to type in the full “share-on-delicious” command – use TAB to autocomplete.

So here’s my recommended process for doing web research:

  1. Start by searching Google. Google News (http://news.google.com) and Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com) often give you newer content than a straightforward search on http://www.google.com does. On Google Blog Search, try both Sort by Relevance and Sort by date to find interesting and recent posts.
  2. Quickly scan the first page of results. When you see a promising page, use Ctrl+click to open it in a new tab. Continue scanning the first page of results, opening pages in new tabs. You’ll probably have lots of tabs open.
  3. Go to the first tab and scan the text. You don’t need to read everything. Just look for the key point(s) of the webpage or article. This is usually near the end. Keep an eye out for specific examples, results, and tips. Sometimes, there’s nothing worth copying, because the article or post just repeats other things you’ve already read. If there is something worth saving, though:
    1. Click on the Bookmark on Delicious button and make a bookmark for it, following the instructions outlined in the previous section.
    2. If I’ve asked you to prepare a report in another format or a longer format, copy the information into that document or spreadsheet, including a link to the webpage.
    3. Use Ctrl+w or the tab close button (if any) to close the tab, and process the next one. Repeat until you’ve finished all the tabs.
  4. Look at the next page of results. Repeat the process until you feel that it’s getting hard to find useful articles or posts.
  5. Try a different search query and explore. As you briefly scan the webpages you’re bookmarking, you’ll get a sense of other words people use to describe things. Try searching for those synonyms. By looking at the first few pages of results, you can get an idea of whether that search will get you new information. You can also check your del.icio.us bookmarks list by going to http://del.icio.us and clicking on your username. If any of your bookmarks have a number in a box on the right side, that means more than one person has bookmarked the same page. Click on the number to see the list of people and the tags they’ve used to categorize that bookmark. Explore by clicking on people’s tags to view _their_ bookmarks, and so on. You can follow links from interesting articles, too.

At the end of this, you’ll have:

  • a whole list of bookmarked sites, which I can automatically check out (with your excerpts), and which will be available to you even if you decide to work with other people or stop working as a VA, =)
  • maybe an additional report (documents go in this Google Site, spreadsheets should be created in Documents and shared with me at [email protected]; files can be e-mailed to me if you run into problems or can’t figure out how to share the information),
  • and a lot of new knowledge. Hooray!

If I asked for a report, I’ll look at that first, and I’ll also look at my del.icio.us inbox (which contains all of those things that were tagged for me).

Please feel free to ask questions or make suggestions on how we can improve this process!


We’re going to try this new process out next week. =)

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  • http://coevolving.com David Ing

    If you manage to really outsource your web search to a virtual assistant, I’ll be really surprised.

    There’s relevance determined by machine learning, and there’s relevance determined by human experience. Google will take care of the former, but your personal education and experience influences the latter.

    For my day job, I sometimes use the Practitioner Support Network for searches, not of web content, but of analyst reports. This is a model of virtual assistants, and it works pretty well, but has to be approached with the right attitude. Almost invariably, the first results are poor. I respond with narrowed search terms and what I didn’t find useful, which gives a second set of responses. This is still a bit rough, which then requires a third search … which finally gives good results.

    The response time for the first search is about 3 days, and then 24 to 48 hours for each of the subsequent responses. I now factor this into my schedule, so I start asking questions at least a week before I really need the answer.

    Social bookmarking is good. I use Delicious, too for bookmarking, and have started using other tools, too. I’m using Digg for headlines that are topical, and Diigo for finds that more durable. I don’t have a problem separating out my use of the three different — but similar — technologies, and I’m sure that other people use multiple services in different ways.

  • http://mylenesereno.blogspot.com Mylene Sereno

    This is excellent information! Thanks for sharing Sacha. This will be very helpful to VA’s like me.. :)

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    My pleasure. I hope you put that to great use! =D