Wednesday, July 26, 2006

4 1/2 ways to find people

I went to a reunion last weekend—actually, I organized it. About three years ago, I started tracking down people from a summer camp program we all attended in 1981. I started with a 25-year old address book and a web site. By now, 21 of the original 25 have been located, and we've been catching up online, on the phone, and in person. How it happened is an example of how a research project can combine online and offline techniques.

Here are four and a half free techniques I used to find these people from my past. If you want to spend money, it's even easier.

Reverse vanity search
The whole project started when one of my old friends found himself on one of my web pages. He was conducting a vanity search—looking himself up on Google. A reverse vanity search uses this tendency of people to look themselves up to find them. You create a web page that includes the names of people you want to find, and caption it with something like, "if you find yourself on this list, send me a note!" I've found a couple of people this way, but it's obviously slow and unreliable.

A chance encounter
I ran across another of the guys in the office parking lot after lunch. I hadn't seen him since the mid-80s, but we were working at the same company in 2000. I don't count this as a research technique, but it made a big contribution to the overall success of the project.

Google, Yahoo, and the rest
Finding people on Google, Yahoo and the rest was a major effort that led directly to a few people and contributed to finding more. Nobody was all that easy to find, but when I knew a little something—an employer, or where they went to school—I was able to add search terms that sometimes led to the right people. I knew everyone's age, so I sometimes searched on name and assumed graduation year (high school and college). I knew home towns, so I added those for other searches. If I found a reference to a city, I moved on to the phone book.

Phone book
Local phone numbers are easily available from many web sites. I always forget the URL, and I haven't bookmarked it, so I usually start at Excite and follow the white pages link. (The actual lookup is at InfoSpace. Maybe I'll remember it now.)

I was starting with 25-year old addresses, and in a few cases, my friends' parents were still there. Those were easy. In other cases, I guessed or followed leads on states of residence and starting combing the online phonebooks. I apologized for wrong numbers when I guessed wrong, and I found a lot of the people I was looking for.

The guy in the parking lot knew an email address for a woman who had moved to Seattle. The one who found me through his vanity search knew of another who had been a Marine pilot and had become a lawyer. Some others were still in touch or able to find people later in the project. The nice thing about finding people in an old social network is the help the others add as you progress. Even if they don't know how to reach someone, they may be able to add enough information to make the other search techniques work.

The other kind of offline networking involved finding and contacting people and organizations who knew how to reach my friends. From a quote in a newspaper article (found in a Google search), I determined that the ex-Marine lawyer is back on active duty. The Marine Locator Service had useful information that pointed in the right general direction. From there, I called several bases and offices in the Navy and Marine Corps until I found someone who looked him up in a directory and gave me a work phone number. I got phone numbers and email addresses from the alumni affairs offices at a few universities, once I knew where someone went to school, and in a few cases, I found a relative who knew how to reach the right person.

Most of the networking searches combined telephone contacts and Internet searches based on what I learned on the phone. It was usually an iterative process, not a single step.

The final four
There you have it. Four and a half techniques that reunited 21 of the original 25 participants in a summer program 25 years ago. The remaining four are women, probably married with new surnames. One was named Smith, which is one of the most effective ways to hide on the Internet or in the phone book. None has family at the old address, and all of my search tricks haven't worked. The reverse vanity search is still in place, and we still hope to add them to our ongoing activities.

I like to help people learn how to make more effective use of the Internet search tools available to them. There's a lot more to Internet search than typing a simple word or phrase in Google. In addition to the fancy techniques, though, the most important attributes of a successful search are persistence and iteration. As you research a topic, you learn bits and pieces that can help you refine your search or guide you in new directions. A little applied curiosity can lead to a lot of useful information with today's tools.

We had a very nice weekend in the mountains.



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