When Google Fails, Try the USPTO

One of my side projects involves the crafting of a custom binder, preferably one with more then three rings. Usually, my search strategy is to use Google to learn about the subject on-the-fly, further refining my keywords as I go until I get what I want. However, with esoteric specialty items like this, it’s a little more difficult to get past the cloud of “me too!” sites and get to sites of real substance.

Getting around the cloud has been this weekend’s adventure. Notes follow!

Why Google Isn’t Working For Me

To recap, this search strategy applies to the case where I am unfamiliar with the field I am searching and therefore need to build some expertise to help refine the search keywords.

My goal is to find the best sources. The challenge is to become more of an expert so I know what I should be searching for, by searching for content that will make me an expert…the situation is something of a Catch-22.

When the topic is not one that attracts passionate writers, finding the “expert” sites becomes much more difficult. By comparison, it’s easy to find top digital camera sites, because there are lots of them and they all tend to point to the same place. However, try to find who makes the best bare CMOS digital camera single-chip sensors…you’re sunk unless popular hobbyist sources like Make have already covered this field. And “best” is a hard term to quantify, unless you know more about the problems people face. Catch-22, again.

Why does this fail? It’s because the Google PageRank Algorithm is basically a popularity contest: when a particular site has a lot of “good” links to it, it is voted “more popular” and will show up near the top of search results. Google’s algorithm is a lot more complex than that, of course, but that’s the general idea. The ranking works better when there are a lot of participants. For example, the huge number of digital camera and gadget sites create a fertile field for Google’s PageRank algorithm to work its wonders.

However, I’m interested in Business-to-Business (B2B) sites that hardly anyone links to. I want to find out about manufacturers, processes, raw material suppliers, and experts in rapid prototyping…stuff like that! The GoogleBrain doesn’t have enough link mass to make a good recommendation without very specific keywording…which again, requires expertise in the domain you are searching.

Compounding the problem is that B2B companies tend to have awful websites. There tends to be little information about the company, the writing is unclear, and the product offerings (if any are there) are hopelessly incomplete. The only sites that link to them are private intranets (unsearchable) or B2B directories, which themselves are so eye-scorchingly bad that that only industry people look at them out of necessity. [update: Seuss points out asiannet and thomasnet as the good resources…thanks dude!]

Do the industry guys have time to blog about these resources to put the word out? Hell no…they’re too busy making actual money. Which leaves me up the proverbial creek, informationally speaking.

The standard Google search, using noob keywords like “binder 5-ring” and “custom binder” returned hundreds of results of little apparent authority. The first two-dozen hits didn’t give me a good sense for who ran a quality shop; I really want to know who’s on top of the industry, and my impression was that most of these places were just using pre-built ring mechanisms with some in-shop tooling.

Pondering this problem for a while, I figured I could grow old looking at all the sites and form a tentative opinion, or I could look for another authority on the web. As it turns out, the U.S. Government had what I needed all along: the enormous patent database!

Going to the Patents!

Patent 5273: Machine for Exercising Children, Granted Sept 4. 1847I did a patent search at the United States Patent and Trade Office(aka USPTO) on “ring binder”. If you didn’t know this before, the entire patent portfolio from 1790 onwards is searchable online. You can type in a few keywords, and get matching search results in a few seconds. This includes scans of the original application, complete with diagrams, at a resolution high enough for printing, like the 1847 patent for this Machine for Exercising Children (left).

Now, how are patent results good for me? First of all, a patent application includes information like the name of the inventor, the company sponsoring the invention, and a description of how the invention works: this is exactly what I need to re-feed back into Google! In about 30 minutes, I quickly found that there was one company in Hong Kong (World Wide Stationery and Manufacturing LTD) that seemed to be a leading “innovation in ring metal binding equipment” manufacturer. They had a web site with some information about their products, and lists of retailers and other suppliers. The Patent results also included related inventions by other companies. One was “Specialty Looseleaf” who took great pride in their ability to actually manufacturer rings in-house (they say 99% of other companies have to outsource to Asia). Another outfit in London had patented a very cool high-end presentation system, and they had some really interesting products.

So the gist of what I’m saying is this: if a company is motivated enough to file a patent, they’re probably serious about maintaining their competive edge through innovation. And that’s a company worth looking at first.

Secondly, when you read the patent applications themselves, you get some insight into what the problems are, from at least the inventor’s perspective. That’s part of becoming an expert, and problems are exactly what I want to avoid :-)

One of Many Paper ClipsAlso cool: Every application also has a list of related patents. This creates a historical record of the invention, which can be used to further research key people and companies through Google. If you know the name of a company or the name of a key inventor, Google might reveal to you what industry that company is in, and that will lead you to trade journals and other specialized sources of information. Plus, it’s cool to see how everyday objects have evolved: if you’ve got Donald Norman’s writings on your shelf, you also should have some Henry Petroski; his history of the lowly paper clip, for example, is a fascinating anecdote.

Anyway, I’m happy again! The patent database gave me a quick shortcut to an online “authority”, and that gave me a new jump on Google search terms. I’ve updated my Oblique Searching Strategies article too, so I don’t forget.