The right way to do desk research: use search operators

If you want to solve complex problems, desk research is a necessary evil. After all, before designing a solution, you first have to fully understand the problem. But how do you find the information you seek when there are well over a billion websites to consult? What’s the right way to do desk research? The answer: search operators. With search operators, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.

It all starts with proper research

Proper research is the basis of almost any good solution. It’s nearly impossible to solve complex problems if you don’t understand the situation you’re trying to improve.

While researching the problem situation, you generally go through different phases: interviewing, observing, experiencing and desk research. Not necessarily in that order.

1. Interviewing

To understand what’s going on, it’s always a good idea to talk to many different people; experts, stakeholders and other people who know what’s going on. What can they teach you about the problem, the causes and possible solutions?

2. Observing

Don’t just ask around. Go to the scene to have a look yourself. Observing what’s going on will generally give you insights you would never have gotten from just talking to people. Details that you will find eye-opening might be obvious to those who see it every day. Chances are they consider these details unimportant and would never have mentioned them.

3. Experiencing

Whenever possible, try to experience what your target group experiences. Follow the customer journey to uncover new insights. What grabs your attention when following the steps? You’ll be surprised by what you’ll discover by taking the place of the people who have to deal with the problem on a regular basis.

4. Desk research

Last, but not least; what can you uncover from behind your desk? When exploring a problem, desk research is essential. Books and reports offer a wealth of information, and there is little information that can’t be found online. What can you uncover about the problem and about what’s causing it? What positive exceptions can you find? Are there situations where the problem doesn’t occur? And what might explain this? Don’t forget to look for solutions that have already been tried. How do people in other countries, regions or professional fields solve similar problems?

Desk research is extremely important to collect a lot of useful information and insights. And it seems so easy. But appearances deceive. Simply entering some ‘logical’ keywords in your search bar won’t lead to the best results. If you aren’t using the available tools properly, you will certainly miss important information. To find truly useful insights, you’ll have to find a better way to do desk research.

The problem with desk research

The main problem with searching online is that there is simply too much data. Most people drown in the endless stream of, mostly irrelevant, information they find. The right way to do desk research is a skill that, even now, few people have mastered. Knowing how to properly do desk research will give you a great advantage over most other people doing research.

How do you make sure you don’t have to go through a jungle of useless information in order to find something that’s helpful? Well, by making use of the free online tools at your disposal. By using ‘search operators’ when doing your desk research you’ll be able to search much more precisely.

The right way to do desk research: search operators

Search operators are advanced search commands; simple formulas to filter the results of a search. The right search operators allow you to proactively dismiss any information that’s irrelevant for your cause. This way, you’ll end up with much more precise results, meaning you’ll find what you’re looking for in a fraction of the time.

Below, I’ve listed some of the most useful search operators out there. Personally, I use Google to find what I’m looking for, but the commands below also work in other search engines like Bing or Yahoo!

The most useful search operators in a handy list

Imagine, you’re researching the decline of wild bees. You’re wondering what the causes of the problem are and what solutions have already been tried. The following operators will help you find the answers you seek:

Caution! Don’t use spaces between the operator and the corresponding keyword.

For example, use instead of site:


The right way to do desk research - search operators


Combine for better results

Experiment with the search operators above. You’ll be surprised by how specific your search results suddenly will be. And the great thing is; you can combine several search operators in your search bar. This way, you’ll have even more spectacular results.

Surprise! If you use many search operators in a row, you might be confronted with a captcha. Nothing to worry about, just prove you aren’t a robot by following the simple instructions, like checking a box, and you’re on your way again.

Pro-tip: search in other languages

Don’t limit yourself to one language. In fact, don’t even limit yourself to the languages you speak!

Use Google Translate (or any other translation program) to translate your keywords from English to any other language. Pick a language that is spoken in a region of the world where people might have very different insights or unusual ways to solve your problem. For instance, translate your keywords into Japanese. Use the translated terms to search for information. The foreign websites you’ll find can easily be translated back to English. Google offers you this option with the button ‘translate this page’ that you’ll find next to each foreign result. The translation won’t be perfect, but it will usually be good enough to understand.

Desk research is just the first step

Sure, now you know the right way to do desk research, but what do you do with all the information you’ll find? Solving complex problems is about more than just uncovering causes and opportunities. To find creative solutions, you’ll need some other skills as well. Would you like to know how we might be able to help you develop a creative solution to solve your (social) problem? Send an email to or give us a call on 0031 10 3070 534. We’ll gladly help you solve your problem!

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Showing 2 comments
  • Freek Zilvold

    Thanks for the tips! I use google often as a calculator. This is done like this: =(12+3)/5
    Also I use the strings AND, OR & NOR to include or exclude certain keywords and to make my search more specific.

    • René de Ruijter

      Hi Freek, thanks for these valuable additions! Those words are certainly useful to make your search more precise.

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