ALTOM: What's available about you online may surprise you

November 7, 2009

I found myself today. Several times, in fact. You’d think that by my time of life this wouldn’t be so noteworthy and in fact it probably isn’t. It was easy, perhaps unnervingly so.

I found myself online. If you ever want to find somebody there, you can use the same tricks I did. Many of us have needed to locate a lost e-mail address, or had to find someone whose name we were given, but with no contact information. If the person has a phone, an e-mail account, or even just a street address, they’re probably on the Web. It’s all perfectly legal to snag, too.

For basic contact information, start with some obvious sites. Whitepages.com (www.whitepages.com), for example, will get you pretty good results for addresses and phone numbers, but it often accesses old data, so if your target has moved around a bit, you may have trouble picking out the right address.

Yahoo (search.yahoo.com ) has a similar search service that includes e-mail addresses. Intelius (www.intelius.com) has e-mail lookup, too. There are many such sites: People Lookup (www.peoplelookup.com), and Zabasearch (www.zabasearch.com) are just two. Many have reverse phone lookups, so if you know the number, you can find the person.

But on occasion you may want more than just an e-mail because you’re not just searching for someone, but looking into their lives. Luckily for you, there are huge mines of data just waiting for you to drill into. You may be a member of them yourself. They’re social media sites, such as LinkedIn and Zoominfo.

Few members realize that their listings aren’t restricted to the sites, but are endlessly searchable from the outside. Using Google, you can search these two sites, plus Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and more.

The search works like this. Type the name you’re looking for, plus the kind of information or place you want to search, preceded by a plus sign (+). The plus sign suppresses Google’s hyperintelligence and tells it not to use synonyms, but to stick to the word you’ve typed.

For example, you can search for “Mortimer Snarglegarf” at several places, but if you want to restrict them, use something like “snarglegarf + linkedin.” That makes Google search for those two terms together, although it doesn’t tell Google to look at that site specifically. To do that, modify the search to “snarglegarf site:linkedin.com” and Google will look only at LinkedIn. Usually, the first type of query is good enough.

Since it’s unlikely there are many Snarglegarfs on LinkedIn, you might well hit Mortimer on the first shot. But let’s say there has been a spate of Snarglegarfs on LinkedIn. Then you’d be wise to use a third word to restrict the search.

For example, when I attached the additional term “whiskey” to a LinkedIn search for my own last name, I found that a presumable relative was involved in a whiskey-tasting event. You can use the same trick to search other social sites, such as Zoominfo (name + zoominfo) and even Twitter (name + twitter).

A half-hour perusing the various media sites can give you carloads of information about your sought-after individual: where he went to grade school, when he graduated from college and with what major, how many kids he has, his job history, his e-mail, and even music preferences. You can scan tweets and blog posts to get an idea of what stimulates him. You can find old Web pages about him, even anything he’s published online. For a bunch more Google tips, go to the Google support site (www.google.com).

If you don’t want to wander around sites one at a time, you can try 123people.com, which looks nearly everywhere for information about nearly everyone, and gives it away for free. It’s known in the trade as an “aggregator site.” Not only does it have addresses, e-mails and phone numbers, but photos culled from Google images, Bing and elsewhere.

Perhaps the most powerful people-finding search engine today is Pipl (www.pipl.com). It searches what has come to be known as the “deep Web” or “invisible Web.” The deep Web isn’t scanned by standard search engines. Most search engines find new pages to crawl by following hyperlinks. But a lot of the Web doesn’t have hyperlinks. Documents usually don’t, for example. Pipl is designed to go there.

A search for my name on Pipl turned up things I’d forgotten I had even written. Much of the specific data is now too old, but anyone wanting to put together a dossier on me would find huge amounts of starter material here.

Keep in mind that we’re still sorting out security versus availability issues on the ’Net, so, although all this is free stuff and open to the prying public, stalking laws may apply if you dip in too frequently.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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