Dr. Harry Potter? The SEO Name Game In People Search

On March 12, 2008, the name of Eliot Spitzer’s pay-for-performance paramour, Ashley Dupre was finally sniffed out by a New York Times reporter. Immediately, our Avvo profile page for Texas Attorney, Ashley Dupree Russel was inundated with traffic. The site was hit by millions and millions of people trying to find out anything about the women who could command $1,000 an hour trysts with the NY Governor.

Note that the spellings are different:  Dupre vs. Dupree and one is a middle name – yet the Avvo profile was Google’s best guess (for a little while at least) for what people were looking for. The traffic spike lasted for a few hours. I suspect the bounce rate finally may have tipped off the search engines that the users were looking for a different type of professional.

On Avvo, a legal and medical directory, you can find, Dr. Harry Potter (who sadly, isn’t a pediatrician), Dr. Suess (admittedly, the u/e transposed from the famous author), and 64 different attorneys named Robert Shapiro.

Tom Brady is featured 20 times in our Doctor Directory and 33 times in the Attorney Directory (although you can’t find any pics of the Patriots hunky quarterback).

LinkedIn will show you similar results. While many of the 40 results on LinkedIn for “Harry Potter” have titles like Potions Master at Hogwarts or Chief Broom Pilot; I count a student counselor, a bank teller, a cashier, a PricewaterhouseCoopers auditor, and even a Google developer all sharing the magical moniker.

LinkedIn Harry Potter


This naming confusion can have some unintended consequences when online reputation management comes into play. I’m told that SEO superstar, Vanessa Fox has occasionally been confused (ironically by the engines – not, as far as I know, IRL) for the the sometime porn starlet with the screen name, Vanessa Fox (what did you expect… pictures?).

In general, I hate the simplistic ranking-reports-driven mindset pervasive across many in the SEO industry. However, with name search and the growing importance of online reputation management, name rankings actually become very important.

In my line of business, helping consumers find the right doctor or lawyer, we know that many prospective clients or patients will carefully comb through all of the 10 page-one entries on search results for a name.

Two major issues arise in name, aka, people search: name competition and name domination.

Name Competitiveness

First, understand that every name falls along a curve of competitiveness. Think “Thomas Smith” vs. “Conrad Saam”. Because the last person who shared my name died in 1847, it’s very easy for me to rank.

This can cut both ways – imagine those rowdy college keg stand pictures showing up every time someone searches for your name instead of the bio page of your business. (Note:  this Conrad Saam was neither rowdy nor did keg stands.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum are all of you named Smith or Johnson – especially those of you born in the 50’s where the distribution of first names was immensely concentrated among 30 or so standards. In contrast, today we have much more variability among fist names – even within different spellings – Ashley, Ashleigh, Ashlee, etc.

Here’s what name competitiveness looks like in the legal world, with 282 Thomas Smiths currently practicing law:


Name Domination

Thank your lucky stars that you aren’t the cursed SEO tasked with marketing the Hilton in Paris. Think you’re going to be able to get that click for someone looking to view “Paris Hilton bedroom pictures”? Perhaps not (or expect a close to 100% bounce rate.) Name domination comes into play when a name is owned at the celebrity level.

At first glance, name domination can be extremely difficult to overcome. However, most users know that if they are looking for Attorney George Bush, they should probably be adding the “attorney” part to their query. It gets much more difficult for lesser known semi-celebrity names that can dominate search results.

I have a friend, cardiologist Scott Haugen, who is regularly mistaken for famous-in-his-own-circles big game hunter, Scott Haugen who owns the domain www.scotthaugen.com. Is this the guy you want to stumble across when vetting a doctor to stitch your aorta back together?


More importantly, do people checking out Scott (the doctor) know to search for “doctor Scott Haugen” or “cardiologist Scott Haugen” or do they find a picture of an immense dead elk and decide to move on to the next doctor on their short list?

Note that the engines can treat names very differently. In an admittedly unscientific study I did a while ago, the search engines responded fairly differently to nuanced name search. In a search for “Attorney Tom Brady”, Google returned the hunky quarterback and references to his legal situation, while Bing sent me to lists of individuals who had suffered through state bar exams.

To get back to my anti-ranking report rant:  ranking for a specific name is really about ranking for all of the variations of that name.  Getting a feel for those variations (including misspellings if your last name is Ashrabagaddie for example) can be very helpful.

Analytics for name search traffic on my wife’s website show that among 119 visitors, there were 36 different name variations, 20 of which only delivered one visitor. (Let’s ignore the creepy Freudian coincidence that both my mother and my wife are named “Jennifer Saam”.)

Understanding the popular variants and optimizing a bio page for those variants is name / people search 101.


Speaking of people search 101 – every person should have their own bio page optimized for their name. This seems too obvious to include in this column, yet I see this basic rule violated repeatedly.

To wit, here is a page from Columbia University Medical Center listing forty doctors with their complete bios crammed onto a single page - http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/pediatrics/genpeds/fac.html (I give you the link as I don’t want you to wear out your mouse scrolling finger to read the witty conclusion of this post.)

Name Search Fundamentals

  1. Understand how competitive the name is – a good benchmark is to use something like LinkedIn to see exactly how many similar names you are dealing with.
  2. Try to determine if, given that competitiveness, searchers are naturally modifying the name to narrow in on the specific individual for example: “Attorney George Bush” or “Mary Johnson Poughkeepsie, NY”.  Analytics, keyword research and basic common sense should all be employed (not necessarily in that order). Optimize bio pages with these descriptive additions to key on page elements.
  3. Piggyback on domains that already rank well for name search. LinkedIn, Google Profiles, Facebook, Twitter and even some vertical directories like, if-I-must-say-so-myself, Avvo, do well.
  4. Every name that should rank in your organization should have its own page. This is an obvious, but frequently ignored SEO tenet.

Ahh people search. I’m looking forward to the day my son tries to explain to me that he was doing some online research on his math teacher . . . . Ms. Jenna Jameson.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

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