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Tips on using internet search sites  like Google, alltheweb, and Yahoo.

How to Find Information About People on the Web

The web has made it much easier to get information about people, including old friends and classmates, old boyfriends/girlfriends, ancestors, celebrities, politicians, public figures, criminals, and even your next-door neighbor.   There are various opinions about this new flow of personal information.  Most of us seem quite pleased to be able to get the information we need, but we're not necessarily happy if others can get the goods on us!

What follow are a few tips about finding people via the web.  It can be harder than you think.  Although many people access the internet on a daily basis now, they often use screen names that are known only to their friends. Other people, particularly women, tend to change their last name once or more often during the course of their lives.

Who is relatively easy to find on the web?

  • People who have become famous.
  • People who post on the internet under their real names.
  • Academics and other people who publish articles and speak at conferences.  Professors also tend to have personal web pages.
  • Self-employed consultants and other people who own their own businesses.
  • Senior management of companies, especially public companies.
  • People active in community organizations.
  • Anybody with a career that causes them to get written about, cited in articles, or quoted in the press.

Step 1: Enter The Name

Although this will often be a waste of time, you might as well begin with the quick and easy type of search:  type the full name of the person you're seeking into a search engine.  When you do this, the most likely outcome is that you will get lots of hits on people who are NOT the person you're seeking. Many, many people have the same first and last names.  If the names are unusual, though, you might get lucky.  Ditto if the person you seek already has a notable web presence, with lots of webpages citing him or her for some achievement.

You have a slightly higher chance of getting good results if you enter the first and last name as a phrase, surrounded by quotation marks.   The middle name usually isn't important, unless the person typically uses her middle name.  If the person typically uses his initials instead of the first and middle name, make sure you search as a phrase when looking him up. 

Warning:  Entering names will frequently bring upon many hits on genealogical records.  Instead of getting info on a living person, you'll find yourself staring at data about someone who lived and died a hundred years ago.   Although it's great that so much genealogical data is available via the web, these webpages can hopelessly muddy your chances of finding a living person using only her name.

Step 2: Enter The Domain Name

Many search engines will list a name that also appears as a web domain name among its top results.  So if you suspect your friend may be active on the web, you can also try a search using his first and last names run together as one word.  Most people's domain names tend to use both first and last name: e.g.,   On rare occasions, you might find that your friend has registered a domain using only her last name.  Example: if you do a Google search on "Monash" the top two hits on Google will be in Australia and, which the domain name of this website.  This site is owned by Curt Monash, who registered his last name as a domain name many years ago. 

Public figures, web geeks, and small business owners are more likely to have registered their names as web domains than the average person-on-the-street.  Maintaining a domain costs money, and running a website requires knowledge of web design and programming. 

Step 3 Refine Your Search:

Remember that search engines are simply software programs who cannot anticipate your needs.  To a search engine, a name is just a collection of letters.  All it cares about (usually) is matching those letters with all the other identical arrays of letters in its database.  For example, if you enter the name "James Johnson" in Google, you will get 7,250,000 hits.

Therefore, in most cases, you will need to provide the search engine with more information.  How can you narrow the search?  It often helps to envision the result you're looking for.  If you could find a page on the web that mentioned the person you're looking for, what would it say?  If you think the person might be mentioned in a webpage that also refers to her hometown, add that, if you know it.  If the person is interested in a particular career or activity, use that activity as one of your search terms.  For me, a search on "Linda Barlow" and "novelist" bring up pages that rule out most of the zillion other "Linda Barlows" in the world.

If you happen to know where the person works, or even just what his profession is, try using the business or the profession as another keyword. Most businesses have websites, although not all employees are listed on such sites.  But if your friend owns his or her own business, they probably have a website.  If your friend is one of the executives of a public company, he or she may be listed in the company's tax filings or in press releases or corporate reports.   

Did you and your friend attend the same school or college together?  Try to get information through the website of the school or college.   If your friend is not listed anywhere on these sites, try the various class reunion websites, like

Is your friend a member of a professional organization that has a web presence?  Has he or she written a book, an article, or been cited in one?  More and more books and articles are published to the web every month.

When The Info is Correct, but Over-abundant

If you are looking for a celebrity, a public figure, or someone who is extremely active on the internet, the above Step 1 and/or Step 2 are usually enough to find real information about that person.   In fact, you'll probably find yourself confronted with far too much information.  You'll need a way to winnow it down. 

In the case of celebrities, a simple search on their names is likely to produce more results than you want.  You're likely to find fan sites, which can be excellent resources, but beware of the ones that offer nude pictures.  Generally, the offers of clothed pictures are legitimate and the offers of nude ones are fakes, come-ons to try to get you to buy a subscription to a porn site.  (In case you haven't learned it already, the many varieties of sexual content on the internet are rarely offered free of charge).

To narrow it down, put in both the celebrity's name and the name of a movie or song or book or TV show they're associated with.  Multiple titles are an even better way to find their sites.  This works particularly well for authors.

If the celebrity is an athlete in a major US team sport, several big sports sites keep pages on every single player, including links to up-to-date news.  These include Yahoo, ESPN, Sportsline, as well as the sites for leagues such as the NBA and NFL. 

For-a-Fee Searches

If the person you're looking for is careful enough about his privacy to have removed his personal info from various websites and databases, you may find it difficult to get any information about him.  You can pay to access special databases at sites like and

Anything that is a matter of public record is probably recorded in an electronic database.  Not all such databases are web-accessible, and those that are usually charge a fee.   What is available is often determined by individual state laws or policies.  What you can find from the state of Iowa might be quite different from what you can find from the state of New York.

Information that is likely to be contained in public records includes birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, divorce judgments (sometimes), home purchase and sales information, professional credentials verification, court and legal proceedings (not always), arrest records, bankruptcy filings, and other events that are recorded by public officials, state and federal divisions of vital statistics, and other public entities.

Don't Forget the Phone Book

Telephone books (white pages and yellow pages) are widely available now on the web.   This means that if you know someone's name and what town they live in, you can access their address, phone number, even their age.  There are also databases ("reverse look-up") that allow you to type in a phone number and get the name and address of the person who owns the phone.

If you know the address of the person you are seeking, you can easily get a map of his town, street, and neighborhood on the many web map sites.  Some maps are precise enough to show the exact location of his home.

Try Yahoo! PeopleSearch, which offers basic phone book style look-up and links you to a site that can execute background checks (for a fee).

Privacy Issues

The same things that you can find out about other people, other people can find out about you. 

Here's a list of some of the databases someone might access when researching you:

  • Real estate sales and ownership
  • Postal service change-of-address records
  • Telephone books, past and present
  • Automobile registration records
  • Other vehicle registration, i.e., boats, private airplanes
  • Subscription lists for magazines and periodicals
  • National marketing databases
  • National email directories
  • Voter registration lists
  • Bankruptcy filings
  • Court proceedings/judgments
  • Professional licenses
  • SEC filings
  • Tax lien records
  • Credit bureau records
  • Whois domain name registration records
  • Social Security Death Index

If you are concerned about your privacy, you can ask to have your personal information removed from web databases.  It is difficult to remove all trace of yourself, though.  Some events and transactions are legitimately matters of public record, and more of these public records are becoming available every year via the web.

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The Spider's Apprentice was conceived and written by Linda Barlow, who maintains this site for Monash Information Services. Copyright 1996-2004. All rights reserved. Updated: 05/12/04