People finder showdown

Web 2.0 is changing the ways journalists can find contributors online.


Public versions of the Electoral Roll (like and Cameo) as well as directory enquiries have been a mainstay of people finding in journalism for years.


But since 2003, the public have had the right to opt out of these databases courtesy of the Data Protection Act.  In addition, the rise of people going ex-directory and increasing use of mobile phones at the expense of landlines (here is the only directory for mobile phones – it is imho practically useless), are all contriving to make it more and more difficult to find members of the public via official (and subscription) services.


Yet ironically, just as people are asserting their right to privacy by taking flight from official directories, so too are they increasingly (and voluntarily) publishing different aspects of their personal lives across cyberspace.

Whether it’s trivial matters like tastes in music (, or books (Amazon, or LibraryThing), publishing their thoughts online (via blogging and microblogging services), social bookmarking, adding their email addresses to distribution lists, using messaging services, creating web pages, uploading their media (pictures via Flickr, video via Youtube), or communicating via those seemingly ubiquitous social networks, there is a wealth of personal information out there which journalists can use to find contributors.


Given none of the major search engines offer people-finding options, a gap in the market has opened up – leading to the development of a number of systems over the past year or so in particular. 


Here I’m going to do a general comparison of the best online people finders I’ve found – 123people, Pipl and yoname.


Each have their strengths and weaknesses. 


For example, yoname searches across several social networks (and some other sites) and so offers a good means of exploring this realm of cyberspace.  However, I’ve found it can be hypersensitive about Facebook entries, which is a major problem for UK-based journalists (given the comparative volume of Facebook users, relative to users of other social networks). 


Often if you run a search for someone you know exists in Facebook, you won’t get a mention of their presence in yoname, (though you will with Pipl and 123people).  Moreover, it applies best match (rather than exact match) search criteria to entries in some social networks (notably MySpace), so you will find either first or second name appear in a profile name, but will discover once you return a result, that the other name appears in the individual’s wider profile – so no connection.


123people offers a means of searching a wider spread of The Internet than  either yoname or Pipl, and aggregates the results accordingly (much like Addictomatic does for other web content).


For example, pride of place on the top-left of the results page in 123people, you will find a list of any email addresses found across the web which may (or may not) match your query.


This is especially useful given how few email directories are available online.


The second most noteworthy feature with 123people is squirreled away down the bottom of the results page – lists of Amazon members.  This can be a great place to discover which authors, genres, bands, or even computer games, your subject is interested in, and the results often include general details of where people live – perfect for local journalists seeking out an angle.


But there’s much more to this engine.  You can find Twitter profile results in 123people too (although yoname states it searches through the Twitter directories, 123people – from my own testing – seems to be far more consistent in finding results.


Web content on 123people is pretty interesting too – they scour the indices of Yahoo and MSN in addition to Google, to provide a better spread of the web, and they provide results in other formats,  aggregated accordingly (so Word docs, PDFs, and other formats which often contain useful biographical and contact information, are presented separately).


123people also presents its aggregated results at the top of the page, whereas with Pipl you have to scroll down the page to find the next group (yoname provides tabs for each of the social networks it searches).


But a major letdown with 123people is that it doesn’t distinguish between first and second names – a serious problem for a lot of names.  That said, it does allow you to incorporate non-name search terms in addition to the name you are after (which you can refine using their tag cloud – a particularly interesting innovation, which allows you to connect words and phrases, including names, which are connected with your initial name-search results).


One of the main advantages Pipl has over the others is that it returns results from (albeit you will have to subscribe to view them).  Like 123people results, it lets you specify the (likely) location of your name, but unlike either 123people or yoname, it lets you determine name order.


Pipl is the only one of the three which allows you to distinguish between first and second names – it’s also the only one which lets you determine them from the outset of your search.  But as with all (or certainly certain aspects of all) of these tools, it doesn’t run an exact match for your names, but a best match.  So even if your name is a popular one, there’s no guarantee you’ll find the correct John Smith.


Here’s an overview of what’s covered in each engine (it’s not exhaustive – but based on a range of searches I’ve done in each, in addition to FAQ information from each site):






Email addresses


Scans web for addresses


Search for profiles via email address (but beware – yoname will mail your subject to tell them someone is searching for them)

Phone numbers


Not UK numbers records










Indexed in Google

Indexed in Yahoo

Indexed in MSN

Yes – from Google index

Optional – deselected by default. See Advanced search






Live search





Where available




Google Video

Youtube (publishers and subjects)


Youtube profiles





Yes – powered by Google.




Indexed in Google

Publications (official)



Indexed in Google

Indexed in Technorati


Blogger profiles

Live Journal


Indexed in Google

In Wikipedia









Social Networks













grono  (Polish)





Live Spaces








Yahoo 360

Social Bookmarking






Dating sites





Given such mixed results, I continue to use all three services when people finding online. 


And while I’m discussing pros and cons – here’s a suggestion. It would be really useful to incorporate social search profiles into people search results, from sphinn, digg, StumbleUpon, or anywhere else.  It would also be worthwhile including social bookmarking or wiki profiles – being able to find people according to their web interests could be very handy.


But when it comes to the weaknesses of the three sites I’ve compared, there’s no ignoring why the pay-per-use systems will continue unchallenged for some time yet.


The 192.coms and Cameos of this world provide the researcher with structured databases, where you can specify names, street names, house numbers, towns, localities, and a range of ways to browse, search and crucially, refine your search too. 


Because they use postcode data, they provide a means of tracking people down who might otherwise have slipped through the net (their neighbours, and co-habitants). also lets you filter users by age-group, and residency in the search results (as well as providing fantastically useful financials on company directors, big and small).


For these reasons, this model of people finder will always be profitable, not just to journalists and program makers, but to marketers, policy makers, and any number of other professions.


Until the web is more thoroughly populated with meaningful (semantic) information, the present generation of people finders will forever be playing catchup with the bespoke databases.


But that’s not to say they don’t add significantly to the process of finding people to contribute to your journalism…

Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “People finder showdown”

  1. How to make contacts - The Help Me Investigate blog Says:

    […] guide (PDF) and this post from Murray Dick gives more detail on using advanced search techniques to find individuals. And […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: