Appendix F. Quick and Dirty Search Practices
(We continue publishing tentative refinements of our book, What You Don’t Know… )
No single search technique can guarantee research success. However some procedures are “best practices” and are a starting point. It often helps to have a generalized search plan that you can modify as the needs require. A generalized search plan outlines, but does not define, much of what you will want to track and methods you will want to use. It is the “80% solution” you can alter it to fit your unique needs. Having a a well-designed generalized search process and “best practice” in your SOP is crucial, but you are well advised to also have a “speed plan” for those occasions when best practices and planned searches have to be set aside. Consider how you would alter the “quick and dirty” procedure below to fit your unique needs.
Start by creating a file or folder where you can store all you know.
Know what you are searching for – that’s the first thing. But then figure out where the information is, who has it and how you can obtain it. If you have been following a particular subject for some time and collecting documents in your own library, you may already have it. Never overlook obvious sources, including your own resources. Spend some time – even if it is minimal – strategizing.
Determine the best search tools and most likely sites that will reveal the information you need. Always read instruction and help files on any site. Plan to use two, or three, browsers for security reasons but also in the event that a page doesn’t display properly.
Outline a tentative search plan including techniques, sites and probable key words. Include non-digital resources such as city directories in the search, when appropriate. Give thought to where, on the hidden web, information might be located. Databases and sites closed to search engines are major resources. If necessary, guess what URLs might reveal information or change URL address endings to test for likely pages.
Start – and keep up to date – a log of where you went, what you did, and the search words or techniques you used.
Plan to use the most obscure search terms first, where possible, in order to limit the number of returns. But when using more than one search term put the most important – read likely – search term first because many search engines give extra weight to the word in first place. Search singular terms when appropriate because many search engines do not find singular terms when you use a plural one.
Plan to concentrate your search in the physical area of the person or entity. Think locally and utilize regional services, databases, and directories where possible, using the language of that area. If the search is in a country or area with a different language – in Canada, for instance English and French get equal treatment – search in all native languages. In countries where English is not spoken as a first language always search for pages in the native tongues. Don’t limit yourself or your search by being an Anglophile. At the very least, learn the words likely to appear on any local web page such as “search’ or “links” so you can effectively use local web pages. Be conversant with local alphabets, languages and writing systems.
Follow the “look around rule” on any page you visit or find useful; make at least a cursory test of every link. Run “link:” searches where possible to see who else might be linking to the page.
Consider and test for possible misspellings or typing errors – for instance where a backslash has been changed into a forward slash or “foreign” is misspelled as “foregin.” When on a page, start removing the last page in the URL and continue backward movement until you reach the home page. It takes little time and you never know what you will find.
Begin with what you know and use advanced search techniques where appropriate. On any site where it is available, advanced searches will invariably will help you drill down. Use the outline below to develop a plan or create a mashup of this suggestion list, and the lists on sites such as Who is John Doe: http://www.reporter.org/desktop/tips/johndoe.htm
When searching for information on individuals use names, addresses, phone numbers or email identities. These are common beginnings you can plug into several, not just one, quality search engines or search surrogates such as Facebook.
Select three to five search engines for a “quick and dirty” run through of just the name. Some basic ones might include:
- Ask (Also directory): https://www.ask.com/
- Bing: http://www.bing.com
- Cluuz: http://www.cluuz.com
- Dogpile: http://www.dogpile.com/
- DuckDuckGo (Does not track user): http://www.DuckDuckGo.com
- Google: http://www.google.com
- Google Advanced Search: https://www.google.com/advanced_search
- Ixquick (Does not track user): http://www.ixquick.com
- Lycos: http://www.lycos.com
- Yahoo!: http://www.yahoo.com
- Yahoo (Advanced): https://search.yahoo.com/web/advanced
- Yamli (Arabic search engine): http://www.yamli.com
- Yandex (Russian-European): http://yandex.com
- Yippy: http://yippy.com/
Build your search; start with the basics and move up the scale. For instance use:
- Whole name
- Whole name inside quote marks
- Whole name and city or state of present residence
- Whole name within quote marks plus city or state where presently living
- Whole name plus city or state of any previous residence, when known
- Whole name inside quote marks plus city or state of previous residence, when known
- Name of individuals and the businesses, groups or organization they reportedly belong to or are employed by
- Name of the person inside quote marks plus employer, groups or organization they reportedly belong to
Include all information you find in the in file or folder.
Search court records thoroughly:
- Local civil court records and court records of previous home locations.
- Local criminal court records and the court records of any previous residences
- Federal court records, using government Pacer service
Include all information you find in the in file or folder.
Search online sites that claim to provide address, phone or email information. Double-check and triple-check all information you obtain from commercial “people finding” sites as they often mistake people of similar names and confuse identities. They are useful, but their word is not gospel.
Check any directories at the person’s workplace if you know that. Search the website of the person’s workplace, or that of any groups the person is known to be affiliated with, for mentions; gather basic information about the business or organization. Include the information in the file or folder.
If you know of property the person has – such as a house, car, or aircraft – that is likely to be registered with some government agency, search for it. Check values, co-owners and previous owners. Those might be clues.
Conduct a search for former residences using city directories; gather information on identity and contact information of former or present neighbors. Scour school yearbooks. Include the information in file or folder.
If the person is a professional who requires licensing by a government agency, look up pertinent information there. Many such sites have records of disciplinary actions. If the person engages in some activity requiring a government license such as ham radio or flying, check appropriate agencies and databases. Include the information in your file or folder.
If you know the person’s hobbies or interests, check special websites that the person may be linked to, Include the information in file or folder.
Do file type searches on names, businesses and organizations as above, looking particularly at files in:
- PowerPoint (ppt, etc.)
- Portable Document Format (pdf)
- Spreadsheet (xls, etc.)
- Databases (mdb, db, etc.)
Conduct image searches using names, or checking against similar images to those you already have.
Search likely Social Media sites using the person’s name, any handle” or sockpuppet identity you have discovered. Look for:
- Friends and relationship information
- Messages and postings
- Employment information
- Links or pictures of interest
Search all Social Media platforms that appear to be possibilities. These might include:
- Facebook: https://facebook.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com
- Slack (Team messaging): https://slack.com
- Snapchat: https://www.snapchat.com
- Tweetdeck (Dashboard): https://tweetdeck.twitter.com
- Twitter: https://com
Include the information in file or folder.
Check biographical directories; Many people who are not well-known are listed. Look on Internet sites the person might be using such as newsgroups. Include the information in file or folder.
Check photo and video sites carefully for any presence of the person, making certain that pictures are indeed those of – or posted by – the person. Picture searches should include a search for similar pictures and all pictures should be checked for EXIF and tag information.
Carefully review all information in your file or folder. Determine if the collected information suggests any possible searches of new areas. Consider scanning non-digital documents and keeping them all together on your work computer.
When direct searches for people, businesses, or anything with a name do not prove profitable stop for a minute. Think who might be in their circle: family, friends, and organizations. Concentrate on the people and groups around them. Your targets may be canny enough to remain off the radar but those around them probably are not trying to do so. Look at the collected information and search names of associates and relatives, collecting information on those persons by the same method you searched the person.
Review your collected material carefully, write an outline of what you know, noting information-reliability levels and the resources where you found the information. Consider whether another research attempt might be useful.
Foreign searches about persons present special difficulties, but subject and issue searches can be equally difficult. If you don’t know where else to start, begin your search with the US State Department or government sites, the United Nations, other diplomatic sites, or sites of university-level educational institutions. If nothing else you will assure yourself there is nothing there and you might acquire some key words. Remember that many nations of the world were colonies of European countries; there is often a connection between former colonies and mother countries that can help guide your research. Non-profit or charitable organizations are often useful information resources in less-developed nations. Country-specific search engines, subject directories, guides and portals are other potentially-useful starting points for foreign searches. Always conduct foreign searches in the predominant language of the area.
Remember to always balance speed and completeness of the search. Completeness is the ideal but sometimes things are overtaken by events. When events are fast moving, the balance of an information search is weighted toward speed.
Copyright Mark Monday 2018 Text from the next edition of What You Don’t Know…