People Search Engines and the tail

Web Worker Daily has a review of some People Search Engines, where (as usual) “People Search Engines” consist of the new hotness only – engines that have just appeared, get all of their data from web crawling, and (in many cases) meet the MDRP (minimum daily requirement of pastel) plus other buzzwords necessary for Techcrunch to love on ’em.

In this review, the author searches for three folks with medium-to-very-large levels of net presence, and judges that while none of them are all that useful, Wink is the “best.” I think Wink’s a solid product as well, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it turns out that if you search for three people who have LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts, an engine that’s expert at finding people who have LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts (i.e. social profiles with real names) will do great. (The author’s impressed with the remnant links on the page – those are Google results, coming from one of Google’s embeddable search products.)

When it comes to people without any sort of self-defined net presence, these engines fall flat. Search Wink for all Ruthfields, for example, and you get a bunch of LinkedIn profiles (and someone who’s using our name for some reason… I can’t access her acct on Bebo so I don’t know for sure). People in the family who didn’t go through the trouble of creating a LinkedIn profile? They don’t exist.

When the engines do access web-crawled data that isn’t self-defined – like Pipl, or of course Google – you can get a broader swath of data, but the seemingly random nature of that information brings you back to the motivation – why are you searching for a person in the first place?

If you’re stalking gathering information, then you want as much as you can find and want to pick-and-choose the most interesting data (and might be willing to pay $10+ for more information). If you’re looking for someone from your past, same deal. In either case, more information is better, and so (assuming reasonably accurate matching) Google or the ilk do fine.

But if you’re looking to connect – which, fortunately for us at WhitePages, we know is far and away the most common case – then what you need is comprehensive data, not just the things crawlers happen to find online in whatever subset they like best, and you need contact information that doesn’t require you to join a third-party service. (You also need accurate data, but that’s for another post.)

So it’s not surprising that these engines aren’t that impressive (yet?), when online data is their most common source. Try them against the members of your family or outer circle who don’t have Facebook profiles and they’re even less impressive.

(BTW, thanks to the folks who said nice things about WhitePages in the comments. I don’t believe they all work here…)

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