The Internet is about a great many different things, but when it really comes down to it, the Internet is about people. People creating websites, putting up content, writing emails, posting to newsgroups and interacting with each other. Since that the basis on which the whole of the Internet works, I thought it might be quite interesting to have a look at ways we have of being able to find all of these people, using a variety of different types of search engines.
Consequently, I spent a few interesting hours trying to find myself (in the context of searching, rather than New Age) using a variety of different resources, and I hope that you'll be interested in the results. Not particularly of how easy it is to find me, of course, but by extrapolating a little to see how easy or difficult it is to find you, your partner or your friends.
There are basically four different ways of looking for people on the Internet. You can use the standard search engines to just look for references to someone's name, and then visit the website(s) that are returned to you, you can use search engines that look for a name and relate that to an email address, you can use a 'People Finder' to look for particular individuals, or finally a small number of very specific resources. In this article I'll cover all these methods, and try and assess (in a very non-scientific way) how useful each of these happens to be.
First of all, I tried doing some searches for 'Phil Bradley' using AltaVista , HotBot , Lycos , and Northern Light  just to see what turned up. The results were as follows; the first number indicates the number of web pages returned, the second number in brackets relates to the first time that 'my' 'Phil Bradley' turned up.
This was a pretty reasonable result I felt. All four engines worked well, and since I write my webpages so that AltaVista in particular picks up my name it wasn't surprising that I did so well with that engine. If course, if you don't know me in any detail, it will mean that you'll have to spend some time visiting the returned webpages before you can find me, which shouldn't be that difficult since I'm neither a Baseball player, or a gay porno star! Consequently, I thought this approach worked reasonably well, though it would be less effective with a slightly more usual name such as 'John Smith', but further search terms should reduce the number of hits returned.
There are a number of search engines which, as the name implies, are simply databases of names matched to email addresses. They collect their data from a variety of sources - from USENET newsgroup postings, from web pages, and from people who register directly with them. Some of these are independent engines, while others are associated with the more general search engines. For example, HotBot has a list of over 15,000,000 email addresses and when I did a search for my name it returned 9 hits, the third of which was mine. HotBot makes use of a third party engine called Switchboard, which is also used by AltaVista's people finder, which I'll be talking about later. It does also have the ability to search for email addresses and it turned up a total of 9 Phil Bradleys, with my email address being number 3 in the listing.
Both the global Yahoo!  and the UK version  used the same search engine, listing 45 email addresses each, with mine being 11th. They give a little more information, but limited to general geographic information (you only learned that I'm based in the UK for example).
There are some specific engines that you might find it worth trying; Bigfoot has been going longer than most engines of this type and it returned a total of 32 Phil Bradley's, with me being 9th in the list. The results are basic, just giving email addresses, although it sometimes also returned a rough guide to the physical location of the individual, such as the name of a particular city in which that individual lives. Reasonably comprehensive, though short on information.
The Internet @ddress Finder  only returned 4 results (mine being the 2nd on the list), and it did not give any further information, but it worked, though it could scarcely be called comprehensive.
These are rather more common than email search engines, and they attempt to provide users with rather more information than just an email address. When possible they will also give you telephone numbers, street addresses and in the case of US residents even maps of how to get to someone's home; all rather spooky. They are usually connected to other services, allowing you to send virtual cards, or even gifts to the people you find.
Once again, the big name search engines come back into the picture here. AltaVista has a people finder, but the emphasis is on the United States; you can either do a global search or limit to a US city or state. The global search that I ran gave me a total of 151 hits, but they were all versions of Phil Bradley (Phil, Philip, Phillip, Phillippa) in the US, so no luck there.
Lycos  was rather better, in that it found over 100 references to Phil Bradley, but unlike most of the other engines, it also gave me a chance to look for books about, Web pages of, Pictures and Sounds. The mind boggles for what it would have returned for the last two options if I'd been looking for the porno star! Lycos also has a 'Whowhere' people finder which listed 10 namesakes, with me being 7th on the list. It also gave quick and easy access to searching for phone numbers and addresses (US only) and web pages (which didn't work when I tried it).
Excite also has a People Finder  at which allows people to search its own member database, AT&T white pages and also email addresses. Consequently, it is of limited value, unless the person you're trying to locate is based in the US or you happen to know that they are registered with Excite.
192.com  attempts to give a comprehensive coverage of people based in the UK, by using information from a variety of different sources, both from the net and from other listings. A search for Phil Bradley returned 77 results, with addresses and telephone numbers, but none of them were for me. They also have an email search facility which oddly enough did locate me - twice, once near where I used to live (it listed Croydon instead of Sutton), and where I currently live (Feltham), but was unable to give my full address or telephone numbers. It did however work perfectly well in providing my email address. I have to admit to some concerns here, since it would be quite possible to track people down to their home addresses, or to find all the people called 'Jane Smith' in Birmingham, and while I'm sure that almost everyone would use this information for legitimate purposes, I do have some nagging doubts about it. I also think this is recognised by 192.com, since they do provide an option to either correct or remove the data from their database - but of course you need to know that it is there in the first place!
Populus  is described as the 'Intelligent People Locator' and provides facilities to search by name/email address/personal interests/college or university/date of birth. However, it is very US biased and only listed American colleges and universities. However, it did find me, giving a total result of 10 Phil Bradleys, but with a lot of duplication - the first 8 email addresses were all mine, and the same one!
Four11 , like Bigfoot has been around for several years and it uses the Yahoo! search facility, giving the same results.
Another engine, called Anywho  again offered information on a large number of namesakes, but once more these were all in the US.
I did locate a number of other search engines, but these all seemed to be commercial services, offering the ability to search through public records databases (American once again), university records and so on. The charges were very reasonable, at about $1 upwards a search, but of no use to individuals searching for people outside the US. However, if you're interested, you could visit: The Ultimate People Finder  or Find a Friend  but have your credit card handy!
Running a search at Yahoo! for 'people finder' or 'email addresses' does return a variety of other search engines, but these tended to be very specific indeed, such as Celebrity email addresses, contacts for US government officials, people lost in the Balkan war and so on. If those are the kind of people that you're looking for, it is certainly worth while having a look at them, but I chose two other ways of finding people. The first was to go to our old friend Mailbase  in order to see if I could find references to myself. Mailbase does have a search facility for finding people, and it did turn up three references to myself (one for each list I'm a member of), although I believe that you can request to be kept off this service. However, if you're either looking for an academic, or for a library/information person, it would be a good place to start a search.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, some people post to newsgroups, so my final port of call was to DejaNews, or to be correct its new name 'Deja'  to see what there was to see. I used the power search to look for my name, and ended up with 700 matches, either with the name embedded in the body of a posting, or as the name of the author. Clicking on the author then allowed me to do a search for the authors posting profile and I could see the newsgroups that I'd posted to, and read posts that I'd forgotten I'd sent, going back several years. What it didn't do was really indicate that I was the 'Phil Bradley' you might be looking for, so it would be very possible to jump to the wrong conclusions - there were certainly namesakes who were posting in entirely different newsgroups about things I know nothing about!
Well, there is no single perfect search engine that I feel I could recommend. Most of them either gave a large amount of information on Americans, or scant information about people located in the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the databases appear to be limited in size and you would need to search several of them if you wanted to be comprehensive. It does of course depend on the type of information you want to find out about someone; if you just want their email address you may be better off in terms of speed to use one of the specialised search engines, but if you wanted more general information as well, you'd need to consider using a people finder. If really pushed, I'd go for AltaVista, since it gives a variety of approaches and does seem to be reasonably comprehensive, although I still think it falls short of the mark.