Surveying The People Search Landscape

Can you imagine trying to sort through billions of web pages without a search engine? Inconceivable! They make it easy and fast to find information. Now how about finding one of the six billion people on the planet. Where’s the Google of people search? As it turns out, an entire industry of people search engines […]

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Can you imagine trying to sort through billions of web pages without a search engine? Inconceivable! They make it easy and fast to find information. Now how about finding one of the six billion people on the planet. Where’s the Google of people search? As it turns out, an entire industry of people search engines is ramping up. In this series, I’ll be looking at the people search engines: existing ones that are revitalizing, brand new ones that have emerged and yes, whether or not Facebook will be the one to consume them all.

People search certainly isn’t new. As Michael Tanne, CEO of Wink, points out, in the days before mainstream transportation everyone knew everything about everyone else in a village. And if you didn’t know someone, all you had to do was ask around: low-tech but very effective people search. But the world got bigger and eventually came tools like white pages and public records. With the internet, this data was ported online and made more easily searchable. Internet communities that enabled people to create profiles populated with their interests added a whole new facet to people searching. The latest services take all of these elements and throw social networking, blogs, Wikipedia, Flickr, and the proverbial web 2.0 kitchen sink into the mix.

Talk to these companies, and you’ll hear terms like “semantic indexing”, “structured data”, and “social graph” tossed around. Nearly all of them attempt to provide some aggregation and organization to the plethora of social networks that exist every place you look and many employ social networking aspects of their own — from community tagging and voting to social connections and content generation. Looking at them, you might wonder if they bring order to the chaos or contribute to it. But they’ll tell you there’s a method to the madness, and their hope is to help you sort through the web and find everything you might want to know about any person out there.

You can also go straight to the social networking sites to search for people (even Twitter says it now does people search), but since those sites aren’t built to be search engines, it may be more difficult to find who you’re looking for, and of course, they will only return results for that single site. Facebook in particular has touted itself as a people search engine, but calling yourself such doesn’t make it so. Unlike many other social networking profiles, very little Facebook information is available to those not in the person’s network. At best, you can use a Facebook result to find friends you want to add to your network. It’s not ideal for mining data.

All this talk of Facebook opening up to search being a people search killer is so far just a lot of talk. In fact, their recent push to open up their data to search engines may benefit people search engines, who may now more easily add Facebook profiles to their data aggregation.

Todd Sawicki, who spent some time as VP of Marketing for Spock and is currently an advisor for Facebar, sees the people search landscape at a crossroads. “When people search companies started, the assumption was that they would help aggregate and distill the multiple identities people were creating online.  The goal was to create the complete view of you—likes, dislikes, background, friends, etc and since that information was spread around the net—aggregating that disparate information potentially provides a ton of value.

What none of the people search engines expected was Facebook.  In a social network like Facebook, users willingly handing over all the information that people search engines are trying to cull and aggregate.  Thus in a world where everyone is on Facebook, Facebook becomes the only place people need to go search for people.  Now, if everyone doesn’t flock to Facebook and other dominant profile-based networks emerge, then people search engines provide the important layer on top of those networks helping to connect the dots across them.”

While it’s true that Facebook apps enable users to aggregate much of their data from across the web (including blog posts, Twitters, and Flickr photos), only friends can view this data, which doesn’t make the results ideal for non-friendship searching. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said as much in a recent Wired article: People already have their friends, acquaintances, and business connections.” “So rather than building new connections, what we are doing is just mapping them out.” This is far different from what some of the people search engines are attempting to do. Not all people searches are about connecting with friends.

What about privacy? Do these sites encroach on privacy by making information about people easier to find? For the most part, people search services are just providing aggregation for what you and others have put online. Google and other search engines have been doing this for years. If you’re concerned about privacy, you should check out the policies of any social networks you use to see what information is available to those you haven’t explicitly opted-in to your friends network. LinkedIn, for instance, makes everything public unless you choose otherwise.

In some cases, these services also enable the community to add information about you. Spock, for instance, allows the community to add tags that describe you to your profile. But someone could almost as easily create a web page about you that others could find through Google, so even that’s not new. All have policies around removing information if you request it. ZoomInfo notes that people often use their service to find out where on the web they’re being discussed and use it as a list of sites to contact. They then request removal from ZoomInfo last.

So, what of people search, old and new, should you try out? I’ll be going through them all in this series, but in general, the service that might benefit you most depends on the type of searching that you’re doing.

Connecting with friends. If you’re looking for friends (old or new) or for background on that person you just met at the bar, you can get dirt—er, information—using any of the people search engines out there. Anyone without a strong web presence may be difficult to find, particularly since consolidation can be problematic (Spock and Wink seem to be doing the most in this area). You may need to do double check your findings with a major search engine or search social networks directly. 

Genealogy. The newer people search services may not be all that helpful, since they rely primarily on web data and generally don’t include offline information. For historical information, you’re better off with some of the more traditional people search services or a genealogy service. However, these newer services might give you lots of eye-opening data about your current relatives.

Research. Each people search engine has a particular niche within the vertical and not all types of research are created equal. Want to find all the RSS feeds for someone? Wink may be your best bet. Want a golf partner in Seattle who’s also a venture capitalist interested in investing in a new widget company like yours? You might check out Spock. Looking for a VP of Marketing who’s worked in both the biotech and telecommunications industries in Miami? ZoomInfo may be the search engine for you.

Spock’s CEO Jaideep Singh points out his engine’s component of discovery. If you’re looking for information on Tony Hawk, you might use the categorical tagging system to get a list of other skateboarders, and from there find out about Shaun White and the entire 2006 U.S. Olympic snowboarding team.

One caveat: These services are at various stages of beta, comprehensiveness, and quality, so relying on just one at this point might lead to less-than-ideal results.

Reputation Management. If you care about managing your online reputation, you should check out how all of these sites represent you. Most of the newest ones rely entirely on crawling the web and anything they find is fair game. These sites can sometimes rank fairly well in the mainstream search engines, not to mention that they are used independently for searches. You should definitely claim and fill out your profiles.

Search engine optimization. Since profiles from these services can rank fairly well, you may as well beef up your profiles and add links to your blogs and any other sites you own that you want to drive traffic to. And since many of these services allow for keyword searches, potential customers just may find your business from your profile. It’s hard to tell how much traffic these sites will be able to generate, since the adoption is still in early stages, but making sure your information is up-to-date and accurate surely can’t hurt.

Job and industry search. If you’re looking for a job, to fill positions, or for information on particular industries or companies, searches using these services might produce data that would be difficult to find in the noisier search results you might get from a major search engine, which returns information for various contexts.

LinkedIn is likely the most well-known site of this type, but some of the other services augment a LinkedIn search in that they provide not only user-provided data, but also data found from crawling the web. You may still use LinkedIn (or these days, possibly Facebook) to make the connection, but you might do the initial research elsewhere. As Wink’s CEO explains, you can get a richer context for the person before you make the connection.

What’s next? Look for these services to become more comprehensive and improve in both aggregation and relevancy, at least in part by leveraging community involvement. New services are likely to pop up that have foundational elements of the semantic web or natural language processing, and that attempt to solve the problems of disconnected social networks. I’ll explore how the old and new school people search engines are doing in these areas in upcoming articles in this series.

Vanessa Fox is product team lead for She was product manager for Google Webmaster Central before joining Zillow in mid-2007.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Vanessa Fox
Vanessa Fox is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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