Those looking for out-of-touch friends and family often use a free people search.
A free people search is useful to Internet users seeking to reconnect with old friends, former business associates or estranged family members. Social networking sites such as MySpace offer free searches of users within their databases. On a much a broader scale, public information databases are a starting point where paid researchers and data collection Web sites often begin their searches. These public resources and the information they contain are freely available without subscription costs or finder fees. While additional information may be procured through paid research sites, free people searches are a starting point that may return enough information to satisfy a users needs.
Similar to standard search engines, people search engines comb through Web pages for sources related to the search query. These sources can include information posted on Web sites, blogs, social networks and other databases found within the public domain. The difference is these types of search engines focus primarily on past and present addresses, phone numbers and personal information (e.g., age, birthdates and known relatives).
According to the U. C. Berkeley Library, search engines do not look for information on the Internet itself. Rather, they search through databases of previously catalogued Web pages stored on servers. Likely matches to the query are compiled and run through a complex set of algorithms to sort the information by relevance. Results are generally returned to the user as links sorted by match probability. When the user selects a link, the current version of the page will display.
There are two ways for a Web page to become catalogued into a database. First, a person can manually submit a request for inclusion. This could mean submitting a blog to Google or voluntarily adding contact information to Yahoo White Pages, for example. Second, a page can be discovered by robotic programs known as spiders. Spiders comb through previously catalogued Web pages in search of links. They follow these links to find new Web pages for database inclusion. Once a new page is discovered, a secondary program scans the content and indexes the page within the database. Using this technology, people search engines find contact information posted on blogs, social networks and professional biography pages; or simply through public records published online.
Free people search sites can appear as online database directories such as AnyWho, White Pages or Yahoo People Search. Some directories may not offer search options for people outside the United States if their databases are compiled from public telephone listings and similar sources within the United States. To search for people in other countries, international directories and search portals found on sites such as White Pages and Yahoo International can be useful starting points.
Another form of free people search sites is the public information search engine. Web sites such as Zabasearch have the look and feel of a standard search engine, but with search capabilities programmed around personal contact information located within public domain.
Some people search engines allow free inquiries, but limit results. Sites such as Intelius and Acme People Search are designed to sell their services. These sites typically return minimal information that is insufficient to contact the person queried. They usually inform the user that contact information is available for purchase. Depending on the site, this might entail purchase of a report, subscription, temporarily enhanced access or other membership. These sites can be useful to obtain information, but are not truly free people search sites.
The minimum information required to perform a search varies by site. A last name and state (or country) is generally necessary, but additional information can narrow the possibilities and may produce more accurate results. Depending on the site, information such as maiden name or alias, birth year, e-mail address as well as previous physical addresses and phone numbers may be useful in completing the search.
Free people search results can be outdated or have limited accuracy. Search spiders do not fact-check data, but instead gather available information. Stored data in the public domain can contain typos, or may not be properly updated. For example, the home address and phone number shown for a closed account will likely never update, even if the individual changes residences several times.
Privacy is a serious concern in the Information Age. Those seeking other individuals online are still bound by state, federal and international privacy laws. Use of search sites implies acceptance of their Terms of Service, which generally prohibit any behavior that could be construed as harassment or other abuse.
Free people search capabilities may change in the future. Time Magazine Online featured an unprecedented Argentinean court case regarding the privacy of public figures. In 2008, in the interest of personal privacy, a court order suspended search results for 110 celebrities on the Argentinean portals of search giants Yahoo and Google. As of this writing, the case does not affect U.S. search portals, but such a legal precedence could affect future decisions by lawmakers on an international scale.