It's a tool we all use every day, but investigative journalists need to know Google inside and out. The Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting organized a recent seminar on the subject in Toronto.

Freelance writer Paul Weinberg checked it out. Here is his report.

By Paul Weinberg

A Google global communications and public affairs (Canada) representative offered useful research tips on the ubiquitous search engine at a recent seminar in downtown Toronto, sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.

Some of its features are readily familiar for journalists and other users. These include Google Maps (for geographic and street locations), Google Earth (satellite imagery), Google Alerts (email alerts on specific or similar references appearing in the news) and Google Advanced Search (for more granular and sophisticated searches.) But others may be less well known.

Perhaps readers already know that capitalization is not required for a simple Google search and a – (minus) sign can be added to exclude redundant terms from a search. If you want to investigate the nation of Turkey, versus the bird, for instance, the procedure is to type out the following:  turkey –recipes.

I imagine the fact that Google has replaced the calculator, the dictionary, the cookbook, the time-watch and a number of other important items in our lives in the form of quick searches at the keyboard will please a lot of users. For more information on this they are advised to consult Google.com/insidesearch/features.html.

Here, Google offers numerical calculations, currency conversions, metric conversion, local weather reports, clock time for a specific time zone and city on the planet, word definitions, flight times, FedEx delivery schedule times and recipes based on various options involving ingredients, cooking time and spices.

Image searches can lead to rich clip art. Say you want pictures of orange tulips.  The result on Google can be an attractive range of images from a similar angle or arrangement if so desired. (Don't forget to respect copyright attached to these images.)

Basic facts about such items as the official rate of a county’s unemployment or the latest population figures can be obtained from the relevant public government agency sites via a simple Google search.

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Furthermore, for journalists seeking very specific reports and studies, Google can be a gold mine under the “site to search” feature.

In an investigation of all government of Canada reports on the Fukushima nuclear disaster and atomic safety procedures, for instance, one would type out the following: Fukushima nuclear safety procedures site:gc.ca. That limits the search to Canadian government sites. Note the important word site placed after the key words.

And in another example, if you want the latest information on the proposed Keystone pipeline from the company proposing to build it, you should type out keystone site: transcanada.com. For a more exact match, quotation marks before and after the keywords for ‘must-have’ searches are recommended.

Google Scholar can provide less-known academic and expert sources and their published work for topical subjects, while Google Translate translates documents and articles from one language to another. Google will work with 58 different common languages.

Journalists tracking local, national or world trends on a specific item in a particular time frame should take advantage of Google's Insights for Search to investigate people's Internet search patterns. Here, for example, you can spot a dramatic jump in interest by Google users in Jack Layton last August, the month of the politician's death, compared to searches about the NDP leader during last May's federal election.

Meanwhile, Google Public Data Explorer and a more powerful tool, Google Fusion Tables, can help users convert huge amounts of publicly available government data into readable visual charts on the computer screen to illustrate various trends at a given time and place. The example cited by the Google representative was an online map of Mexico where a major newspaper plotted out where the majority of murders have been occurring in that troubled country.

Want to know what item has gone viral on YouTube? Check out YouTube Trends Blog for the US and YouTube Trends Dashboard for the rest of world.

My major complaint is that the handouts at the end of session could have contained more research tips and less promo stuff about the company’s search products. Maybe the presence of an independent analyst with an expertise in research might have added more to the proceedings. Yet I am still glad I ventured out on a cold Toronto night to attend this seminar.