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Research on the web

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One objective, many findings - a mindmapping guide to focused web research

Web research, whether you're using search engines or browsing from on-topic sites, can leave you overloaded with useful pages and distracted by irrelevant but interesting items. Here's a way round that, to help you focus on what you're looking for without losing those 'must see' sites. And there's a big bonus: Your research will be organized just the way you want it when you go on to the next stage of your project.

This uses mind mapping, a technique that is very helpful when trying to organize some unstructured information or get your head around a confusing subject.

The first thing you need is mindmapping software. FreeMind is free and there's a wiki that tells you all about it, as well, but it is not hard to use. Xmind is another free option that produces good maps.

Once you are running your chosen mindmapping software, start with a box or bubble in the model of your mindmap with the subject of the research project named in the box.

Make a first topic branch from that bubble called "Later". That's where you will put all the items that don't relate to your search but are of interest for other reasons. Having an area like this can help in focusing on your search subject and avoiding digressions without losing genuinely interesting pages that you find along the way.

For each web page that's relevant to your research, decide on how it fits into your mindmap -- adding topics if necessary, then drag its favicon to the mindmap and drop it on the right topic. If you're a visual thinker, you'll find this a very satisfying process as you see the research material build up, and with it an overview of your research target.

As you're working and you find there are too many links attached to one topic, it's a good hint that it's about time you broke the topic down.

You may like to gather all the material you can before starting to read up the detail, or just read as you go. Either way, when you start to use the material you've found, you can record key points from the content in the mindmap as well. This is the time when you should probably be starting to outlining the output from your project. It might be a report, a presentation, or a project plan, but whatever it is, you will need to plan its content and structure. In the same mindmap, you can have a topic (or node) called "report" and start building the content for your final output.

Most mindmapping software can export your mindmaps to other forms -- formats like text, web pages (HTML) or OPML (outline-format data). Deciding which to use will depend on how you want to use the results of your research. If you need a report, you will want to output to text. Freemind provides text output in HTML and Open Office Writer formats amongst others. There is no provision for a plain text (.txt) file, surprisingly.

You may want to show your results at a web site, on an intranet or to the world, and many mindmapping software packages support that.

Some even allow the results to be exported from the mindmap as a series of folders, structured to match the hierarchy set up in your map.

Here is an example of one real-life use of mindmaps for web research. This was a large project with a great deal of information to collect and analyze from several countries, so the mindmap-like topology of Topicscape was chosen instead:

Research on the Web.jpg

There is a free students edition of Topicscape.

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