Why Is People Search So Lame?

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Searching Google for John Q. Public in Alabama or Jane Q. Citizen in Massachusetts? Good luck. A proliferation of data brokers, people search engines, and social networks have made the task of finding a person's phone number and address via a Google search (or a search on any other major search engine) a minefield of less-than-useful links.

When you use Google to search for a name, why do data aggregator sites such as Intelius.com, MyLife.com (formerly Reunion.com), and Spokeo often appear at the top of the results page? Rather than save you a step and provide a person's name, address, and phone number--a Google White Pages, if you will--the world's biggest search provider directs to you a motley crew of third-party sites that typically offer the information for a price.

Try it yourself: Pick an obscure name from your past--a former flame, friend, or foe--and enter it in Google Search. Assuming that your quarry isn't famous and doesn't share a name with someone famous, the links you're likely to see at the top of the results page will go to people-search services such as Intelius, MyLife.com, Pipl, PeopleSmart.com, Radaris.com, and Spokeo, as well as to social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. (I tried this myself by entering my deceased mother's name: Three of the first three matches were to MyLife; the fourth was to Pipl. My mom, who never owned a computer, died three years ago.)

Facebook's high placement in Google's results is understandable, given the immense popularity of the world's largest social network: It boasts more than 500 million active users. But why do lesser-known people-search sites consistently appear at the top of the page? Many such sites are legitimate services that offer information in exchange for a subscription or a one-time fee; nevertheless, numerous customers, consumer advocates, and government agencies have expressed dissatisfaction with the business practices of some of these outfits.

"If you look at the success rate of [people] searches, they're really low," says Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft's Bing search engine. "It's well under 25 percent. It's one of the highest dissatisfaction queries we see." People queries account for about 4 percent of all searches on Bing.

Gaming Google?

Why do these people-search sites tend to rank so high in Google's search results?

We asked Google this question, but the search giant declined our request for an interview. Instead, a company spokesperson provided this statement: "Site quality is one of more than 200 signals we consider when ranking webpages, and we're constantly tuning search to provide the most relevant answers. We don't generally comment on how specific sites rank in our search results or on future product plans."

With Google dominating the U.S. search market with a two-thirds share, according to ComScore, wondering why it's so weak at people search is only natural. Unfortunately, Google's secrecy makes determining why certain sites like MyLife.com often rise to the top of name-search results nearly impossible for outsiders.

"Obviously Google keeps changing their algorithms, and how they calculate page rankings," says IDC search analyst Hadley Reynolds, who believes it's "a little fishy" when the same data-aggregators appear in the top three and four responses all the time. But MyLife and its ilk have obviously made a science of remaining at the top of people-search results.

Yahoo More Accurate

Unlike Google, Yahoo provides a separate query tool for people searches. The aptly named Yahoo People Search supplies a form with separate boxes for first name, last name, city, and state. It performs reverse phone number and e-mail address searches, too.

"By having people go to the people-search [page], Yahoo already knows the intent of the user is to find a person," says Reynolds. It then can "gather the right kind of data through the use of a form, and all of the responses coming back are going to be people, not miscellaneous documents and other services."

For millions of Internet users, social networks like Facebook are the real people-search engines. "I think the answer to the problem of people search, at the moment anyway, is that you use social networks to find people, or find out things about people," says Reynolds.

And while other social sites, including LinkedIn, MySpace, and Twitter, are effective for tracking down personal and business contacts, Facebook's sheer size makes it the logical first stop.

Bing says that its integration with Facebook, which launched in October 2010, gives it an edge in people-search effectiveness over Google. In particular, a feature called Facebook Profile Results is designed to help Bing users find the right person faster by listing their Facebook friends--or friends of their Facebook friends--atop a name-search results page.

"We're trying to leverage the trusted network that people have built on Facebook," says Bing's Weitz. "Leverage it to help you find a person you may have met at a party or seen at a business meeting--but forgot their contact information."

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