A test to see how effective the people search engines really are...
“How to track down anyone online” was the emphatic headline in lifehacker.com. When a business colleague drew this to my attention to this I got to wondering just how far people search engines have actually progressed. I mean, I have tried them in the past but all too often had been left wondering why I had bothered. They were typically great at finding the latest seedy articles on Britney, Angelina and Paris but I had never found them even remotely useful for anything in real life.
Perhaps it was time to give them another try. What could they tell me about me?
Step One: reality check
Ok, so I’m no longer young enough to fit into the under 35 demographic prized by my marketers, but I am a very frequent Internet user and I have been around the traps in the computer world for a long time. I am too young to be put out to pasture just yet; I am still an active participant in that world; and I am a user of on-line banking, on-line shopping, eBay auctions, and a range of other on-line services.
Step Two – Decide which engines to try
Ten minutes of trawling around produced a list of over 100 social networking and people search sites. Since there is no guide to which of these is any good, and with each seemingly certain that it has the ‘latest technology’, I was left to my own devices to select which to try. I opted for those in the lifehacker list plus a further 10 for good measure. To select the extra 10 I chose a time-tested and reliable low-tech solution – a throw of the dice.
Step Three: Find myself!!
Pipl: I was a little relieved at first that apparently I don’t exist in the “deep web” - wherever that may be. (Was it important to be there, I wondered, or should I feel a little left out?) Anyway, I wasn’t there so I pressed on.
Explode: Nope. I don’t exist. (I pinched myself to confirm that I wasn’t just a figment of my imagination, and on again).
Facebook: Nope. Not here either. (Still, to be fair, I knew that I hadn’t signed up so I was actually relieved to find that they hadn’t invented me). Onwards.
MySpace: Same story. At least my name hadn’t been hijacked by anyone. (Still, a few pangs were developing as I started to wonder if I really had any on-line presence. I mean, I’ve even published several articles . . .)
PeekYou: Surely I would rate a mention among the 50,397,199 profiles that they’ve assembled from who knows where. Yes! I’m here! Well, at least their robots have read my articles! (Could it be that the bigger the database the better chance I’ve got of being found? Which engine claims the biggest database – Wink?)
Wink: Well, I am certain to be here among the claimed 205,038,914 people profiled on Wink. Well, yes – sort of. It seems that Wink also has robots that read articles, but Wink also reads your del.ici.ous bookmarks. That gives me a total of three entries on Wink. (Does this also imply that I should actually divide the 205 million by some factor to get the number of real profiles on Wink?) I wonder, but press on.
Peoplefinders: No good. I don’t exist. (Apparently real people only live in the USA!)
Spock: It seems that Spock robots don’t read articles, but they are happy to scavenge information off LinkedIn. (Strange. Isn’t Spock supposed to be the latest, greatest search engine . . .)
InternetAddressBook: Well it seems that I don’t have entries in the major social networking sites so I got a big zero here, but apparently it’s much more significant that I once got planning approval for renovations to a house. (Aren’t these sites supposed to be helpful?)
YoName: Well it seems that the aggregated search results from no less than 26 other sites has also failed to find any trace of me. (My confidence is starting to take a hit by now).
Ziki: Just the one article again, and my bookmarks again.
ZoomInfo: Am I among the 39,257,240 people on file? Nope. Missed out again!
Google: 2 articles and my bookmarks again.
Yahoo: 1 article, my bookmarks again, and my planning approval.
Zabasearch: Again, no hits – but then it seems that if you don’t live in the USA they don’t want to know you anyway.
Step Four: Assessment
I have now spent over half an hour trying to find myself among a claimed 250 million profiles across about 40 websites using the latest and greatest technological marvels. Of the 15 sites I tried I found myself mentioned on only 6 of them, and I found nothing useful – to anyone!
I mean to say, I am a citizen and therefore certainly documented on no end of government and commercial computer systems. I have a typical range of subscriptions, memberships, accounts and interests. I have a work history, an education, and I have owned properties. Yet not one of these ‘marvels’ of information assembly could provide anything on who I was, where I was, how to contact me, or what I did. At best, it appears that each has borrowed heavily from the data found by the others – a sort of cannibalistic merry-go-round.
Now I know that much of the information about me is protected by privacy legislation – and I am relieved to find that it appears to be effective – but at the very least my phone number and address have almost always been available in public directories.
Isn’t this the first place that these search engines should look? Why wouldn’t such information be found?
Once again I am left with the overwhelming impression that the last thing these search facilities appear to be interested in is delivering current, accurate and useful information. Rather, their focus is on simple exploitation of anything they can easily get their robots into – whether useful or not. You can almost hear the mantra: “Quantity not quality”. They certainly leave me the impression that they will happily crawl over each other to stake their claim to being the biggest or the most pervasive, and given the sheer variety and number of them I’m all the more concerned at where their revenue is coming from.
The people search verdict: apart from voyeuristic distraction, they fall a long way short of being useful.
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