Essential guide to using the internet for research

A businesswoman carries out market research online

The internet is probably the first place you turn to when you're looking for something, with literally billions of sources of information. Searching online can help you find people, learn more about your market and keep up to date with news and regulations that can affect your business, but how do you know what's trustworthy?

In this overview, we provide some common-sense tips to help you get the best from the online experience. We show you how you can access information, advice and insights from trusted sources.

Recruitment and finding people

Customers, suppliers and competitors

Market research and trends

Laws and regulations

Using search engines

1. Recruitment and finding people

The internet is the best place to find new employees and build useful connections for your business.

There are many ways to recruit new staff online

  • Major recruitment sites like Monster, Jobsite and Totaljobs allow you to post job advertisements.
  • The professional networking site LinkedIn can also be a good place to advertise jobs, particularly if you can get people who already work in your company to spread the word among their networks of friends and former-colleagues.
  • Most recruitment sites allow you to automatically filter applicants based on qualifications and experience, so you can streamline the selection process.
  • There are many industry-specific recruitment sites that help you target jobseekers with relevant experience. Search online or ask an industry association to find yours.
  • You can also advertise vacancies on your company website.
  • Many companies encourage staff to share vacancies via social networks. You might consider offering incentives, such as a bonus payment for successful referrals.

Social media is a good way to stay in touch with people

  • You can use social media to stay in touch with current and former colleagues, friends and clients.
  • Your digital network might be able to help you reach jobseekers, recommend new customers, help you generate positive PR and more.
  • The main social network for business is LinkedIn. However, Facebook and Twitter are widely used by small businesses too.
  • Try not to advertise too directly or aggressively on your company social networking accounts. It's generally better to use them to spread news, ideas and insights.

You can use the internet to search for an individual or business

  • Searching for someone's name online and on the main social networks can provide valuable background before you meet them.
  • For instance, if you're going into a pitch with a potential client, you might want to check the client's website to learn about the people you'll be meeting.
  • Business owners sometimes check social media profiles of prospective employees. However, this can put you in a questionable position when it comes to defending the legality of your recruitment process.
  • You can also use the internet to learn about other businesses who you may work with or for.
  • If someone has called you but failed to leave a message, you can search online using their telephone number to identify them. This can help you screen or block potential nuisance callers.

2. Customers, suppliers and competitors

The internet can give you access to a wealth of information about existing and potential customers and suppliers. It can also help you learn about your competitors.

You can get information about other businesses, like new clients or prospective partners

  • Online credit checking services like Experian and Equifax allow you to assess the creditworthiness of potential customers.
  • The Companies House database is online and fully searchable with details of company directors and accounts.
  • You can also access information about company financials and creditworthiness via DueDil.

Searching online can give you a sense of what kind of company you're dealing with

  • Use Google News to find out whether a particular business has been mentioned in the news recently.
  • You can search Twitter for mentions of a company's name to find out what people think of a company. You can also view the company's Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook pages (if they have them) to see what comments people are leaving.
  • Online review websites such as Reevoo and Trustpilot can provide further background on a business's products or services.
  • However, don't judge a business solely by what you read online. Review websites can sometimes be 'gamed' by competitors. And people may tend to comment on the negative more than the positive.

The web is the best place to start any competitor research

  • Check your main competitors' websites regularly. It's a good idea to sign up to any newsletter they offer.
  • Search blogs, forums and social media to see if they are mentioned – and whether the mentions are good or bad.
  • Careful searching may allow you to identify some of a competitor's clients. You could then get your sales team to target them with special deals.
  • Sites like Alexa will give you indicative traffic levels for a competitor's website. For example, you can see if their site gets more visitors than yours. This information can be used to improve your website.
  • For more in-depth information about visitors to a competing site, you could consider purchasing data from a company like Experian.
  • If you want to see how a competitor's website has changed over time, The Internet Archive may have old versions of their site that you can access.

3. Market research and trends

The internet can provide you with an enormous amount of helpful information when you are performing market research.

Online services can help you understand and identify your target customers

You can use the internet to analyse your market and identify new opportunities

  • Industry associations often publish research, news and reports on their websites.
  • You can run online surveys using free tools. For instance, you can use Survey Monkey or Typeform to create a survey for your customers.
  • Tracking what keywords people search for online is a good way to identity demand for information or products. Keyword Tool and Google's Keyword Planner will help you understand what people are searching for.
  • The British Chambers of Commerce and FSB (National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses) offer advice and information.
  • Use Google Alerts to monitor the internet for mentions of your industry, business or competitors.
  • The UK Government's Contracts Finder provides information on all current contracts out to tender. Applying can take some time, but the contracts are secure and often high-value.

You can keep an eye on wider trends in society and technology.

  • Staying aware of developments in your industry, and in particular new customer trends, can provide new ideas to help your business grow.
  • Technology websites such as TheNextWeb and Trend Hunter provide good ways to find out about new tech trends and businesses.
  • Google Trends lets you dig into what people are searching for and how those terms are changing.
  • Trending topics on Twitter can be a good indication of short-term trends - what people are currently talking about.

4. Laws and regulations

Keep up-to-date with new laws and rules that may affect your business.

There is a wealth of legal and regulatory information available online

  • Industry trade bodies and associations often publish information on regulations and how they will affect businesses like yours.
  • You can get assistance in areas such as employment law from business organisations such as the FSB, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors.
  • You can check reputable sites like Law Donut and Out-Law for up-to-date legal information.
  • Keep in mind that it's important you interpret legal information correctly. Always consult your lawyer if you are in any doubt.

Government websites will give you the official line on new initiatives, rules and regulations

  • GOV.UK is the main government information resource. On the site you can access a wide range of news and services.
  • Many of the main government department websites have been integrated into the GOV.UK website including the HM Revenue & Customs site. You can view tax information and file returns online via the GOV.UK site.
  • The Department for Business and Trade is the Government department responsible for supporting UK importers and exporters.

5. Using search engines

Search engines are the main way people find information online. If you're having trouble homing in on the information you need, there are a number of techniques that can help.

Using basic search operators can produce a more specific set of results

  • Search operators tell the search engine to narrow or broaden the search.
  • If you enter a search term in quotes (""), most search engines will only return pages based on that exact term.
  • Putting a plus sign (+) in front of a word usually tells the search engine that all results must contain that word. Similarly, a minus sign (-) means pages containing that term will be excluded.
  • Often, putting a tilde (~) in front of a search term means you'll search for related terms. For instance, '~school' might also search for pages including words like 'university' or 'college'.
  • Each search engine will list its search operators in the help section.

Use the advanced search

  • Most search engines offer an 'advanced search' page. These will allow you to narrow your results further. For instance, you can search only a specific website, or websites located in a specific country.

Can you trust the internet?

Anyone can publish practically anything online, so it can be hard to verify the information that you find.

When relying on data you've found on the internet, you must be confident that it can be trusted.

Get a second opinion

  • Ask colleagues or contacts what they think of the information you've found. Are they familiar with the source? Have they ever seen conflicting data?

Find the original source

  • Statistics often get repeated online without reference to the original source or piece of research. Use search engines to try and identify where a piece of information originated and whether it's trustworthy.

Identify who's behind it

  • The internet is full of 'sponsored content' created by companies or individuals that have an agenda. This information is often reliable, but it's important you understand what motivations were behind its creation. Only trust information from reputable and established sources.


Expert quote

"Twitter is a handy way to connect with customers, make announcements and listen to feedback. Try searching Twitter to find your company name, or people talking about your sector. You might learn something useful!" - Richard Dale, Crafty Devil Web Design

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