While there are certainly valid concerns about privacy, and identity theft is a serious risk when companies and individuals are not careful with personal data, it is misleading to imply that simple searches can unearth sensitive data about anyone.
When journalists are trying to trace people they are usually looking for contacts, case studies or trying to get background on key people. Sometimes, we may be looking for someone behind a company or product who doesn't want any publicity. A 15-minute Google session often gives us enough, but if your search strategy starts and ends with Google you're missing out.
We all know about expert finders (such as Profnet) and services such as AlphaGalileo but often these aren't focused enough and they don't help if you're target isn't a registered 'expert'. There are a range of other ethically sound and legal tools you can use to trace people online and find out more about them.
Identifying key contacts
You've done your background for a report. Your desk is littered with cuttings and you've talked to the obvious people - but you don't have enough. Where else can you turn?
Search blogs: those who blog on your subject may be, or may lead to, key people or case studies. Search for blogs or in blog posts using directories such as Blogger.com, Feedster, Technorati and for a UK focus Britblog.
Once you've found relevant blogs and other relevant sites use Google's "info:" operator. Type "info:" before the main url (for example: "info:journalism.co.uk") and you can access the sites that link to it. Use that tool and you'll quickly focus your research on a range of relevant sites.
Are the organisations or the people behind the sites not obvious? Find them using a domain search tool such as Domain Dossier. Because all sites have to be registered this tool may give you vital contact details; but remember that web developers often register sites on behalf of clients.
Search Usenet: simply put, Usenet is the system that allows online newsgroups to exist and these archives can be accessed via the web. You can search hundreds of millions of posts to Usenet using Google Groups, which is the global archive of Usenet dating back to 1981.
Access Google Groups; find a group using your search term, find relevant discussions and authors. Google Groups also allows you to view all posts by one particular author. You can also search Google Groups for specific names using the "author:" operator.
Find and search mailing lists or listservs: Mailing lists can be goldmines of information if you have the patience to search for the right ones and then search their archives properly. The problem is, not all groups make their archives accessible. Use directories of lists such as Topica, Cata-List and the UK-focused JISCmail. Identify relevant lists using these directories and check to find out if the archive is open. If it is, you'll probably be able to search it.
Use Companies House: This site lets you search for details on two million UK companies and buy their accounts and annual returns. You can use this site to access a database listing every disqualified company director in the UK and, for a tiny fee; you can use this site to 'monitor' specific companies.
Identifying key information
You may have a name, or an e-mail address, or just a phone number. How can you access more information about someone online?
Use 'people finder' sites. There are dozens of sites that make a range of claims about their ability to track down people and information about people. Some are extremely useful while others are clearly less reliable. Those with some of the best free services include:
192.com - this accesses telephone records and the UK's electoral roll. This means that with just a name and part of a postcode you can obtain the full address, phone number and the names of other occupants. It also has one of the best map services I've seen. Type in a street name or a postcode and you can zoom in to the exact location. The satellite images are so precise the current image of my house shows the boot of my car is open. This site also allows you to search for a business by type (in a specified location) or name.
Anywho.com - is AT&T's people finder and without doubt one of the best for US searches. Again, it lets you search for people or businesses and can link those searches directly to maps. AnyWho also includes yellow and white page information for dozens of other countries. When you find the person you're trying to trace you can pay for extra services including the names of relatives, roommates and neighbours. Searches for 'nearby businesses' are free. Switchboard - is a similar service.
A useful option available on several US sites, including AnyWho, is reverse phone searching. This allows you to trace a name or address using just a phone number. Reverse searching in the UK contravenes the Data Protection Act so be wary of wasting time with sites that claim to offer this service for UK numbers - some do, but confine their search to a narrow range of businesses such as theatres. Even so, if you type the number you have directly into a good search engine such as Google or AlltheWeb then you may get lucky if that number is included on web pages or online documents.
Teldir - is a collection of telephone directories from across the world and InfoSpace combines an international phone search service with maps; reverse phone options and a tool that lets you search for businesses to within one mile of an address. This site also includes an e-mail and reverse e-mail searching. There is no single registry of e-mail addresses so e-mail searching is not reliable but, on the other hand, a search only takes seconds and may save you a lot of grief. Another site that offers e-mail and reverse e-mail searching is Addresses.com.
Search the 'invisible web': Books are written about this research strategy, it can be tricky but there are simple tools you can use. Search engines can't access entries in most databases but you can find database homepages or search forms. A simple way to do this is add the word 'database' or 'register' to the search terms you are using. For example, adding 'register' to the search term 'UK Doctors' in Google returns the UK's GMC website that includes the medical register database of doctors.
The best way to search for databases is through content directories such as the www.invisible-web.net (which is being revamped), Searchsystems.net and Buscopio.
Other good sources of information about specific people include:
The Land Registry, where for a small fee you can download information about title plans, owners and the price of the property if it was bought since 2000.
National Statistics Census 2001 carries incredibly detailed local information including statistics on services, healthcare, income crime and deprivation. You can search this using full postcodes and access data on a local ward level. Obviously, you can't access information about individuals but the information paints a remarkable picture about where they live or work.
UK Planning allows you to search current and decided planning applications for free.
Combine search tools for the best results. For example, if you're looking for the people behind a specific company look on Companies House and search using their names using Google or people finders before you talk to them. You can unearth surprising connections between contacts.
Don't spend too long using one tool. Use simple search terms in a couple of search engines before you embark on a convoluted search. Recently it took me about two hours to track down contact details for a case study in Bermuda. I later found a simple two-word search in AllTheWeb returned those details as the second hit. AllTheWeb is turning out to be one of the best alternatives to Google.
Finally, part of the key to online searching is knowing when to stop and pick up the phone. Before you rely on online search results, be sure they are correct. Map services can identify the wrong house using postcodes for example. Online searching can't replace source building and fact checking. A well worded question to an inexperienced receptionist or a quick call trawl through your contacts book can save hours online.
• Colin Meek will be running a one-day course on Advanced Online Research in London on 16 May 2007. Places are limited so early booking is advised. Click here for more details.