Doing a search for people on the Internet is not difficult and you needn’t pay a service like Intellius or KnowX. This article details search techniques with links to dozens of public databases that will yield more information than any online service could ever assemble.
Good Reasons to do a Search
Doing a search for people on the Internet is not difficult and you needn’t pay a service like Intellius or
KnowX. After all, they are using databases that are largely publicly available – and there are many places that they can’t see information, including association databases, news archives and many federal/state/local databases. In addition, they’re subject to many errors.
People search is also referred to as “social search” when you’re looking to using the Internet to gather information about someone else. When you’re checking on yourself it often is called “vanity search” or “egosurfing”. But there are many valid reasons to know what’s available on the Internet about you, your family or acquaintances:
- Prospective employers will likely use it in a background check.
- A proper display of professional information also may lead recruiters or employers to contact you.
- With an increasing number of community editable sites, like Wikipedia, you may find information that needs be corrected. The most-famous case yet of incorrect information appearing is that of John Seigenthaler Sr., the former editor of the Nashville Tennessean. Seigenthaler, father of the well-known NBC news reporter, was named as a suspect in the assassinations of Pres. John F. Kennedy and his brother in a Wikipedia article, a slanderous and incorrect statement that was on the site for more than four months before Seigenthaler discovered it.
- It is always a good idea to know how visible your family members are on the Internet, which goes without saying if your household has teenagers in it.
- There’s a surprising amount of public information about houses, genealogy, professional backgrounds and even hobbies on the Internet. You can use it to determine what to pay for that next house – or simply to reconnect with family members. Our family history had been scattered about the dozens of cousins, with only the barest outlines of a family tree. In 1996, I made contact with two of my cousins in Ohio on a genealogy forum after not seeing them for more than 25 years. We assembled a family tree that now extends to about 2,000 people and reconnected a large part of the family with a mix of email and snail mial. We also started sharing old family pictures and eventually made the distribution easier by putting up a family website. Though my parents died 25 years before Tim Berners-Lee would create the “WorldWideWeb” there are now more pictures of them online than of me.
- There may be money waiting for you. Companies that have given up trying to find you because you’re owed a refund, an inheritance or have funds sitting in an old savings or insurance account are required under the laws of most states to turn it over to the state treasury. It happens commonly if you’ve moved, as the post office only forwards mail for 12 months. But I used the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) website to let a sister know that Tampa Electric couldn’t find her to send her $35 that was owed – and she hasn’t moved in 50 years.
- If you’re dating, it’s just obeying the Boy Scout motto to “Be prepared”.
- Who isn’t curious about old classmates or former loves?
Even when a person is widely visible on the Internet, there are many public databases that are invisible to searchbots. And search itself has become highly specialized, so that a Google search might ignore important items about people that are in its own database. I found two dozen news articles in the Google News archive that aren’t visible in an ordinary search. And several more in the Google Books database.
Below you will find a number of websites to examine, as well as techniques to make sure that your search doesn’t miss anything that might be important. And we’ve put a checklist in each section to aid the process. But don’t be hesitant to let us know what works for you (and which links have changed or are dead). Email: email@example.com
Next: be flexible in your search terms …
Exactly Who are You Seeking?
What do you know about your search target? All of it can be important, especially if you’re searching for a common name like “Steve Smith”.
- Is Steve likely to be listed as “Steven Smith” or “Stephen Smith” or “Steve A. Smith”?
- Don’t forget maiden names and married names. An old high school friend went back to her maiden name after her husband died but searches for earlier articles need her married name.
- With a common name like Smith, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with candidates. But if you know school or work affiliations or know where they were living, you have a chance to locate them more precisely. You’ll also stand a chance of finding a database that might include them. Almost every high school in the country sets up a website for alumni. Often they’re “semi-private” – the information is viewable from your Internet but often behind a database that is invisible to search robots.
- Consider searching by email with “firstname.lastname@example.org” or “email@example.com”
- If your person is associated with a company or a school, there may be an email convention that is commonly used. Being an early Microsoft employee, Bill Gates got firstname.lastname@example.org, as the naming convention at the time was “first initial, last name”. At my daughter’s school they use a 6.2 naming convention starting with the last name, so he’d likely have been email@example.com – if he hadn’t dropped out of college.
- Consider trying an email search database.
- Particularly in social networking sites, people tend to use a screen name repetitively. My daughter uses ann3cakes, so if I’m looking in Facebook, YouTube, eBay or MySpace, it is one of the aliases to check. Also, be aware that some sites search not by user name but by email address.
- If a name is commonly misspelled, make sure that you check alternate spellings. In the case of “Stephen Smith” you might also want to check for “Steven”, as any source can be guilty of a mistake or typographic error. Indeed, misspellings are common in old census records.
- A final point to remember, particularly for genealogy searches, is that names get misspelled or even changed over time. A grandmother might be known to the whole family as “Mae” but have a different legal name, such as “Maude Mae”.
People Search: A Continuing Adventure
You’ll start out knowing a few things about your search target: perhaps just name, age and where they grew up. In the process of the search adventure, you’ll add new pieces.
If you run into some web sources, it is important to grab the content and the web link or URL (uniform resource locator). I’ve seen a Time Magazine article appear, disappear and reappear on the Internet. Some databases will go from being freely-accessible to being fee-based.
More often a website will disappear entirely for two reasons:
- the webmaster reorganizes it the pages or changes URLs.
- the owner no longer maintains it or has deleted a page.
___ Schools attended. Classmates.com www.classmates.com is an excellent school affiliation site in which members can post information about themselves and any of the schools that they’ve attended, from elementary through university-level. Registration is free and the information will be as complete as the member wishes. Outside the United States, Friends Reunited is an extremely useful resource – and it tracks former co-workers too. In addition, you can often track people through high school reunion websites – and don’t forget the alumni association. For a college get-together several years ago, the alumni association was able to provide the mailing address of about 75% of “lost” classmates. And, finally, many professional web pages list education, particularly college and university degrees.
___ Job affiliations. Both current and past job affiliations can be important, particularly if you’re looking at archived or historical information. Remember too, that a person’s profession may have licensing procedures and your search target may be in their database.
___ Spouse’s name
___ Marriage or divorce dates.
___ Parents names
___ Siblings names. It may help you isolate a person when a name is common or they may be helpful if your search is of such a critical nature that it’s worth sending them an email or contacting them by phone.
___ Hobbies or non-work affiliations, such as church or professional organizations. For example, if your search target is a pilot, you’d want to check the FAA registration database. You can also check the FAA’s aircraft database to see if they own a plane and where it is based. And you can even go further to see if a plane that they’ve owned has ever been in an accident at the NTSB Accident Database and Synopsis database.
Genealogy searches amplify the need for historical information, particularly places of residence. Census records in the U.S., now public through 1930, are generally available every 10 years. They have addresses attached but it can be hard to find people without knowing at least the town in which they live. But more on genealogy searches in another knol, as they present unique problems and opportunities different from people search on those of us still alive.
Next: some tricks to focus your search …
Narrowing — or Expanding — Your Search
THE “NOT” OPERATOR
If you’re searching for Prof. Michael Jordan, a quick search for “Michael Jordan” shows that there are millions of results – and most deal with the former National Basketball Association (NBA) star. The quickest way to deal with that problem is to eliminate pages mentioning basketball and structure your search this way:
Michael Jordan -basketball
Note that there are no spaces between the “minus” or “NOT” sign and the word ‘basketball’. Also be aware that by doing the search this way, any research that the professor might be doing on basketball or his participation in recreation basketball leagues will be excluded as well.
In this way we reduce the number of potential pages and Prof. Michael Jordan, a Berkeley statistics professor pops to the top of search results.
Another way to approach the Michael Jordan “problem” is to use a search string. Here, when you put information in quotes, all of the text in the quotes has to appear together. We could try these techniques to find the professor:
“prof. michael jordan”
“michael jordan” professor
There are drawbacks to this technique, including the fact that the Berkeley professer uses « Michael I. Jordan” as his given name on his website. But this is a powerful tool if you’re seeking a woman who might have changed her name upon getting married. If a Susan Smith married and changed her surname to Jacobs, you may profit with a search like:
“Susan Smith” Jacobs
In this latest example, you’re actually using the Boolean operator “AND”. You’re asking the search engine, “What results are there for the text phrase ‘Susan Smith’ that also have ‘Jacobs’ somewhere on the page?”
For almost all personal searches, the major search engines return only two results per website. They do so simply to provide you with the broadest array of results. The search designers assume that you’ll dig deeper if you get close to your search target.
Let’s go back to Prof. Jordan and see how much detail about him and his classes is on the Berkeley website. Note that here there is NO space between the URL and the full site name:
Michael Jordan site:berkeley.edu
Now more than 8,000 documents emerge, including class syllabuses, PhD candidates that he is overseeing, and publications. Documents that are deemed too minor or even out-of-bounds for English search results might emerge, such as an article that you child has authored in French for a school newspaper.
You can use these advanced operators on all of the major search engines either as indicated above or by clicking on “Advanced Search” links on the page. But remember that if you’re working with a database other than the popular search engines, it is likely that they’ll require another format for Boolean search. I find myself constantly checking the search operators when dealing with the New York Times or Proquest databases.
Where Do You Start Your People Search?
Three major search engines dominate English-language search: Google, Microsoft Live and Yahoo Search. My experience is that you should use all three, as they will find slightly different results.
More importantly, remember that each has specialized databases that should also be checked:
· News – and equally important the news archives.
· Books, which returns many magazine articles from the decade before the World Wide Web was invented
Are people search engines worth the effort?
There are several social networking sites that provide valuable information because they’ve built a substantial free database. The most-notable are Classmates.com; two professional sites Plaxo Pulse and LinkedIn; and the popular “friends” sites, Facebook and MySpace. After using a general-purpose search engine like Microsoft Live or Google, these are the next places to try.
With the boom in social networking sites, we’ve had a boom in “people search” engines. Some are fee-based sites, including Intelius, Bigfoot directory (acquired by Intelius), KnowX and Reunion.com. But there are a scad of others. To test the free ones, I looked at my own name, which shows up in hundreds of Google search results. And I tested a friend’s name: he appears about a dozen times in a Google search. He also appears 60-80 times using a unique screen name repeatedly. Here’s how the search facilities scored:
PIPL: the response on this site, which is still in beta, is slow. But the top-level results are good for my vanity search, finding birthday and even a rarely-used middle initial. However, it returns only 113 links vs. 900 for Google. For the friend, only two links. For their screen name only three links – though it traps an Amazon.com account that Google misses.
Wink: no “Wink” results, as I’m not registered for that service and only affiliate links for Intelius and Reunion.com and a half-dozen Google results are produced. For my friend: a Classmates.com link and a subset of Google results for his screen name.
Spock: this service, also in beta, turns up a subset of Microsoft Live search results. There are links to 275 pages total for my name in Live search but it does find an old Yahoo! profile that I wasn’t aware existed. The “friend” results are strange: it can’t find him when both names are in quotations but finds a few results without “firstname lastname” in quotes. For screen name searches, there are no results.
Yahoo! People Search: using the email section, I get what are apparently bogus email suggestions for firstname.lastname@example.org and even Yahoo.com – even though I have a valid Yahoo email address. Yahoo claims 1,890 results or more than Google but by page two of the results there are pages with no relationship to me because Yahoo! isn’t performing a string search with “firstname lastname”. There are no results for my friend, though the screen name search turns up more than 50% of the same pages that Google finds.
PeekYou: a clever user interface that even prompts you to search by “username” or screen name. But this is the slowest of the people search facilities used. It returned only phone number and home town in three minutes – then I just gave up.
Zaba Search: close to useless, it returns only white pages directory information and Intelius affiliate links. Use a telephone search instead at WhitePages.com
ZoomInfo: this search facility is intended to make professional associations. Unfortunately it implies that I’m an employee of Mooney Aircraft Corp., when all I do is to run a popular Mooney pilot website. There are no results for my colleague or his screen name.
Adam Ostrow, in his Mashable article, comes to similar conclusions. He only gives one people search engine a passing grade, Wink, while my results were substandard on that site. The conclusion: do a complete search with one of the top three search engines and follow trails from there to other public records.
What about email directories?
Similar to using people search engines, my results in hunting for email addresses are poor. For me, the Bigfoot Directory lists an address that has been defunct for more than five years. The ICQ White Pages and my.email.address.is are similarly hopeless.
Genealogy searches have some special tricks
Genealogy search is a rich enough topic to deserve its own knol. But some basic principles apply:
- Names change over time, sometimes because people use a different first name and sometimes due to errors in recording spellings. It is one of the reasons that Soundex records were created for the U.S. Census.
- If there’s one search area where it is important to connect with others, it is in genealogy search. Precious little of the historical record is on the Internet and even distant relatives are essential to filling out the family tree, sharing pictures, doing record searches and leafing through old newspapers or microfilm. As an example, if it weren’t for a privately-published book from the Herbert A. Young family, I’d never have seen pictures of my own great grandparents. The many online genealogy forums will be a major asset in networking with relatives.
- Don’t expect oral histories to be accurate. They provide tantalizing clues that can be profitable. Here’s a case where a family tale told of a great-great uncle saving two children while losing his own life during the sinking of the S.S. Golden Gate sinking in 1862. While we’re still missing some personal details, we were able to tell the story, list the survivors and most of those killed, and open up contacts with researchers around the world. But oral histories will also lead to some of the great mysteries in your family when you can’t substantiate any part of them.
- Double check the accuracy of family trees as well. Genealogy.com publishes family trees in a CD collection and there are also family trees available from the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The published versions of both for our family contain substantial errors.
- Record everything, especially the source of new information. You will run into conflicts over names/dates/addresses and having the original source helps reconcile the differences.
As your family history begins to grow, you’ll want to use software to organize information and keep track of vital statistics on members. Family Tree Maker, published by Ancestry.com, is about $45 and it provides the ability to keep detailed notes – while still being easy to use. It also allows you to embed pictures, though I’d recommend avoiding this because files become too large for efficient transfer.
- The U.S. Census
A census enumeration by household has been taken every 10 years in the U.S. since 1790. Though the early census information includes only the location, the name of the head of the family, and age brackets for wife and children, later enumerations are much more detailed, with profession, individual names, ages, and even whether the family owns a radio. Census details for each household are now available through 1930, though most of 1890’s data was lost in a fire.
The richness of the surveys can’t be under-appreciated, as you’ll see family members living with each other while establishing household and even adoptions that take place after a neighbors’ death. In addition, if you collect the enumeration pages, you’ll often find related families because in less-mobile times than today marriages would happen so often with neighbors or schoolmates.
For decades, the standard source has been the microfilms of census records at the National Archives Record Administration (NARA). NARA has 22 regional reading rooms outside of the capital, which include many unique records, including immigration and veterans’ records. In your first trip to the reading rooms, it is strongly advised to spend some time with one of the volunteers and to describe what you’re seeking. Not just do they understand what is available in microfilm, they have tricks up their sleeves that you might take years to discover.
U.S. Census Bureau, “Age Search Service”
Online Census Records
Over the past decade all of the available census records have been scanned and fed into optical-character recognition (OCR) equipment, so it is now available online. Two popular fee-based services, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.com make the information available for a fee. However, many public libraries pay for access to those services, so they still may be available to you a no charge (and my library has a large format printer that’s perfect for printing the detailed enumeration pages).
Again, it is highly recommended that you print out entire enumeration pages and retain them in your research files. One of the best recommendations that I ever had from a NARA volunteer was, “Also print the enumeration pages before and after your relative. You’ll find families of future spouses in the neighborhood.” He was right – dozens of times.
Ancestry.com, “Census Records”
FamilySearch.com, “Census Records”
2. The Social Security death index (SSDI)
Most people who have died since 1963 who had a Social Security number and when their death has been reported to the Social Security Administration, they are listed in the SSDI. It contains the records of more than 82.3 million people and is continually updated. Ancestry.com publishes the database online and it includes names, birth date, date of death and city/town where they last resided. Some files include occupation.
Ancestry.com, “Social Security Death Index (SSDI)”
National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), “The Soundex Indexing System,” (May 30, 2007)Wall Street Journal, “ New Sites Make It Easier To Spy on Your Friends,” (Vara, May 13, 2008)
Mashable, “6 People Search Engines Tested: Can They Find Me?” (Ostrow, July 18, 2007)