Try These 40+ Free Research Tools
Depending on what you're looking for, the Web can be a gold mine, a cesspool, or both. So how can you find answers to your questions, and the helpful, authoritative information you need? Check out my list of more than 40 of the best free online reference and research tools.
Free Online Search (and Research) Tools
There are plenty of websites with dubious experts, opinionated blowhards, and others who would lead you in a particular direction that benefits them more than you. So where do you turn when you have a problem and you need to find reliable answers from true experts, researchers, and the recognized leaders in a particular area?
I've got a list of websites that I have personally found to meet those criteria. Some are newcomers, but most of them have been around for over a decade (or two), proving their worth by their longevity. Check out my long list of FREE online reference tools, covering more than a dozen areas of expertise.
Artificial (and Human) Intelligence Tools
Artificial Intelligence is popping up everywhere you look. Tools like ChatGPT, Google Bard, and Bing Chat let you pose natural language questions on almost any topic, and will generate human-like responses. In addition to answering questions, these tools can write complete articles, tell jokes, or generate computer code.
Just for fun, I asked ChatGPT to write a 5000-word essay on the pros and cons of feeding squirrels in urban settings. It whined a bit, but got the job done. Bard dutifully churned out a Fortran program to generate the fibonnaci sequence, but couldn't list the first 100 prime numbers. ChatGPT and Bard both refused to tell me a blonde joke, but Bing Chat happily complied.
Wolfram Alpha, which bills itself as a computational engine, has been around for over a decade. It can solve mathematical equations, has knowledge of chemistry and physics, and will generate answers related to finance, nutrition, linguistics, and many other topics.
Quora relies on humans to answer questions. Users can ask questions and get answers (or opinions) from people who identify as experts on a given topic.
General Reference Tools
In a library, if you don't know where to look for a reference book, you go to the Reference Librarian. On the Internet, if you don't know where to look for answers, you go to RefDesk.com. At first glance, the sheer amount of useful links on the 1995-themed Refdesk home page can be overwhelming. But it's really quite well organized, useful and up to date. I recommend that you click the dropdown next to REFERENCE DESK at the top right, and select an option from the list.
Encyclopedia.com gives you credible answers from published reference works. Enter you search words and it will search multiple encyclopedias, dictionaries and thesauruses. (Thesauri? Thesaurus Rex?)
The Britannica Online Encyclopedia is another very credible source. Today the home page highlights Julia Child and "The French Chef", the first program aired on PBS. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
At Dictionary.com, you can look up a word in either a dictionary or Roget's Thesaurus (to find synonyms and antonyms). The site also offers Word Facts 101, the Word of the Day, daily crosswords & word search puzzles, and a huge list of links to other online dictionaries, including hundreds of non-English ones.
At the Infoplease Homework Center, students will find useful information by subject area, develop better writing, note-taking and study skills, and search through previous questions and answers from other students.
WordReference offers free online translation dictionaries. Enter a word and it will first translate it into
Spanish, French, Italian, German or Russian, then it will display the dictionary definition for that word in the chosen language.
The Internet Archive has been building a digital library of Internet sites and other "cultural artifacts" since 1996. You can search through 700 billion web pages, 40 million books, 15 million audio recordings and live concerts, 8 million videos, 4 million images and over 800,000 software programs. Of special interest is the Wayback Machine, which has snapshots showing how many websites looked in years past. (Take a look at AskBobRankin.com from June 2005.)
Need a synonym, antonym, or related word? Try this RhymeZone.
The Farmers' Almanac is filled with entertaining short stories, good cooking, fun, facts, forecasts, timely household tips, calendars for fishing and of course gardening. "Guessing the future since 1818."
The CIA World Factbook, published by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, has data on almost every country in the world, including maps, background, geography, people, government, economy, and military.
Medical QuestionsWebMD is one of the leading medical reference websites. This authoritative website contains thousands of articles on medical conditions, diseases and how to stay healthy.
The Mayo Clinic's Symptom Checker prompts you to choose a symptom, enter related factors, and view possible causes. (I heard one comedian refer to this as YouProbablyHaveCancer.org)
MedlinePlus is a service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world's largest medical library. You'll find information on health, wellness, disorders, prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, supplements, and articles about diseases, symptoms, tests, and treatments.
Business and Financial ResearchHoover's Online provides company capsules and profiles that give comprehensive company, industry, and market intelligence to investors and business professionals. (Insert vacuum cleaner joke here.)
EDGAR - The SEC requires public companies to file registration statements, periodic reports, and other forms electronically through EDGAR. Now you can access and download this information for free.
Zack's Investment Research has tools that enable individuals to research, select and track their investments more effectively. Company news, profiles, stock prices and more.
WeatherIn addition to local weather maps and forecasts for thousands of cities around the world, The Weather Channel website offers many other useful features such as the free Desktop Weather software for Windows, Inbox Weather (e-mails you the forecast daily) Pollen Reports, Air Quality Forecast, and the Interstate Forecast planner.
For the weather junkies, Weather Underground has everything you'd expect from a weather site, including yesterday's forecast.
Check the BBC Weather Centre for weather forecasts for the UK and cities around the world.
MoviesThe Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lets you search for a movie or video by its title, and tells you everything you could ever want to know about that movie and its actors.
Ever wonder if a movie is appropriate for your family? Common Sense Media has detailed reviews and age-based recommendations for movies and TV shows.
Rotten Tomatoes is a site for both casual movie-goers and film buffs alike. Millions each month use Rotten Tomatoes as a dependable resource and objective coverage of movies and videos. With more than 100,000 titles and 360,000 review links in its ever-gro wing database, Rotten Tomatoes offers a fun and informative way to discover the critical reaction on movies from the nation's top print and online film critics, neatly summarized via the TomatoMeter.
Music and Lyrics ResearchTry Lyrics.com if you want a searchable database of song lyrics covering many different genres.
Kiss This Guy is a website devoted to misheard or misunderstood lyrics. Finally, you can find out why Manfred Mann had a boulder on his shoulder in the song "Blinded by the Light."
US GovernmentVisit Congress.gov and find up-to-date information on who's really saying what on Capitol Hill. This site, formerly known as THOMAS, is a service of the U.S. Congress to make legislative information publicly available. It contains full text of legislation (both House and Senate bills searchable by keyword or by bill number) and full text of the Congressional Record. No spin, bias, or sound bytes here... Just the raw data from which you can draw your own conclusions.
USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal, a guide to finding government info and websites on a wide variety of topics, including Benefits and Grants, Consumer Guides, Environment, Energy, and Agriculture, Health and Nutrition, Money and Taxes, Public Safety and Law, Science and Technology, and Voting and Elections.
Language TranslationGoogle Translate does computer-assisted translations from English to Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian -- and back again, sort of. In addition to entering or pasting your own text, you can select a document to transalte. Supported formats include txt, rtf, doc, pdf, ppt, and xls. Over 100 languages are supported, and it does a pretty good job of figuring out what the input language is, when you're not sure of the starting point. You can click an icon to hear the phrase spoken in the target language,
Microsoft's Bing Translator is a similar service, covering about 60 languages.
Maps, Topography and AstronomyGoogle Maps will help you find your way from point A to point B, providing detailed turn-by-turn directions. Google Earth lets you virtually fly to any point on Earth and view streets, houses, buildings, and terrain, from satellite imagery. The built-in Google Sky component lets you zoom out into outer space to view planets, stars, constellations and galaxies.
Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope turns your computer into a telescope. This jaw-droppingly cool tool blends images and data from ground and space-based telescopes to allow for seamless panning and zooming across the night sky. You can also take guided tours, narrated by astronomers, featuring interesting places in the sky.
CitySearch helps you explore city life, from Las Vegas hotels to New York restaurants, Chicago events to Seattle coffee houses. Find recommendations, ratings, reviews, tips and more.
GenealogyCyndi's List is a comprehensive index to over 100,000 genealogical resources on the Internet. You'll find a list of links that point you to genealogical research resources in many different countries, all categorized & cross-referenced. It's like a "card catalog" to the genealogical collection in the immense library that is the Internet. Over 1000 new links are added each month!
Find more genealogy resources in my article Genealogy Research Online.
Air TravelAre you meeting a friend at the airport? Track a flight, with this graphical real-time monitor that shows the flight path on a map, along with the aircraft's altitude, speed and estimated arrival time. Try the FlightAware Flight Tracker.
My article Here's How to Get The Lowest Airfares Online will point you to some specialized online search tools, and more tips and tools for flyers. Read on...
Miscellaneous Research ToolsBIBLE SEARCH - Bible Gateway is a tool for reading and searching the Bible online, covering over 100 languages and translations. It provides advanced searching capabilities, which allow readers to find and compare passages based on keywords, phrases, or scripture reference.
FINANCIAL AID - FinAid is the most comprehensive collection of information about student financial aid on the web. FinAid is free and has a stellar reputation in the educational community as the best Web site of its kind. Make it your first stop on the Web when looking for ways to finance an education.
HOUSE VALUES - Zillow.com offers free automated house valuations on more than 80 million homes across the United States. You can see the estimated value of your house, your neighbor's house, or just about any other home in the country -- whether it's for sale or not. Zillow pulls information from public real estate records, tax rolls and other sources to compute a house value. Zillow also offers a forum where you can chat with pros, as well as other home buyers and sellers.
PEOPLE FINDERS - Need to find someone's phone number, address, or other personal info? Check out FastPeopleSearch and search my name, phone number, or address. In the past I've recommended WhitePages.com, but I've found this site offers more information, fewer ads, and doesn't constantly try to sell "premium" services.
SPECIALIZED GOOGLE SEARCHES - Just visit Google and type in a phone number, stock symbol, or Fedex tracking number, and see what happens. Learn more about Google's secret search tools in my article Here's How to Strengthen Your Google Fu.
Got a favorite online reference, research or search tool? Post a comment below and tell us about it...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 5 Oct 2023
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Try These 40+ Free Research Tools (Posted: 5 Oct 2023)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved