Testing the People Search Engines

Somehow, a bunch of companies seem to have decided that “searching for people” is one of the great unsolved problems of the Internet. I admit that I do end up searching for information on people now and then, but Google has generally done pretty well for me. Still, Spock, SquidWho, WhoZat?, and Wink are all pitching the notion that they can supply some secret sauce that Google is missing in the people search arena.

In a quest to see how these services stack up, I ran three names through them all: our fearless publisher Om Malik, my own somewhat-less-famous self, and Sean O’Steen, a web developer I know who also happens to have recently penned a piece on coworking for us. Results after the jump.

Not surprisingly, Google doesn’t have any trouble finding the most relevant results among the million-plus pages referring to Om Malik. GigaOm heads the list, followed by his Wikipedia page (I’m jealous), and Forbes and NewTeeVee content. Even if you didn’t have any clue as to Om’s interests, the first page of Google results would give you a good overview and help you track him down.

If you search for Om Malik over at Spock, you have to jump through a disambiguation page to choose between two listings. After that, you get a picture, as well as pictures of some people who are closely associated with him (Liz Gannes, Dave McClure, Niall Kennedy) and a bunch of tags (“blogger”, “internet personality”, “broadband”, and so on) – it’s as if Spock does the work of scanning and summarizing Google for you. There are also direct jumps to LinkedIn, Friendster, and various “About Om Malik” pages around the Web. So, there’s some added value here, though in their drive to summarize and tag everything, the details are harder to find then they are at Google.

SquidWho struck out on Om Malik. That is, there was no SquidWho page on him until I searched, at which point the site went through a rather slow process of building one. The result stitches together searches on Wikipedia, Amazon, Flickr, and other places to draw together a bunch of Om content from around the net, and offers to let me own and maintain the page so it will be better for the next visitor. No thanks, I was actually searching so I could learn.

WhoZat? highlights social network results: there’s space at the top where links to Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Flickr, and so on are prominent. Unfortunately it doesn’t try too hard to get the links right – searching for Om Malik produced 10 Facebook pages, none of which are him. There’s also a curious “12 related people were found. To improve your results, select the one you are looking for” which includes among its suggestions Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, and Red Herring. The list of links and tags is similarly huge and poorly ordered; WhoZat? appears to be operating on the principle that more is always better, but unfortunately in this case the result is a heap of variable quality results.

Wink was a pleasant surprise. The search for Om Malik came back quickly – even more quickly than the Google search – and led off with a picture and the first sentence of the Wikipedia bio. It also picked up on GigaOm, NewTeeVee, and Forbes. There’s no depth at all here, but for a quick selection of relevant links it did great.

Moving on, I tried plugging my own name into the same set of search engines. Google, as I already knew, picked up 368,000 results leading with three weblogs, and running into Web Worker Daily and various other spots I’ve written for as well as one of my books on the first page. So, it’s no great trick to get from there into decent depth on who I am by following links.

Spock strikes out on me entirely. This strikes me as curious, given the amount of drum-beating they’ve had, but there you are. No result at all.

SquidWho didn’t have a page on me either, but at least it went to the trouble of stroking my ego by building one. However, the result was less than impressive. I don’t have anything at Wikipedia or Flickr or YouTube, but that didn’t stop the SquidWho engine from including blank sections. It did find a nice selection of books at Amazon, but it chose to feature only out-of-print titles instead of ones that I’m actually still getting a royalty on. Bad SquidWho, no biscuit.

WhoZat? did somewhat better, finding a few dozen links about me to hook together into a page. But the ordering of the links appears to be pretty random, and the related people suggestions include “Redmond Product” which borders on being offensive.

On me, Wink was also very fast, and it pulled picture and recent info out of my Twitter page to lead off with. Below that, it picked up two of my personal sites as well as Web Worker Daily. However, Wink did miss the fact that I’m moving content to a new weblog these days.

Finally, my friend Sean O’Steen. Google turns up 26,400 pages on him, with the first page of results including weblog and Twitter pages, business site, LinkedIn, and his article here on WWD – enough to get a sense of what’s going on in his life, and to set a standard for the competing search engines.

Spock finds Sean O’Steen, hands him a handful of tags, and identifies him as a male from the San Francisco Bay region. Looks to me like they ran a summarizer over his LinkedIn profile.

SquidWho didn’t have a page on Sean O’Steen, and then it built a completely empty one. Wow, that’s sort of rough.

WhoZat? actually did pretty well on Sean O’Steen. Once again, the LinkedIn profile is there, and there are a bunch of links, but not an overwhelming number. Sean’s Jaiku page turns up here, even though I didn’t see it in any of the other engines.

Finally, Wink was right back quickly, anchored by the LinkedIn and Twitter profiles for Sean, with links to his most important pages including personal and business sites. There was a bit of noise here in finding a “sean osteen” as well – Wink being the only engine on the list that apparently ignored the apostrophe when matching.

The bottom line:  Maybe searching for people is a great unsolved problem, but if it is, I don’t see a lot of solutions in this bunch. I find the tag-based summarizing in Spock to be too lossy to be useful, and in practice its coverage of people has been poor for me; if you’re not a joiner you appear to be outside of its lists. SquidWho seems to me to be a pretty badly failed experiment; the notion that people will “take over” and improve pages when they don’t already exist seems to me just plain wrong. WhoZat? may be useful on some searches, but for anyone who is even moderately famous on the net it tends to return far too much irrelevant material to be worth wading through; it’s also the slowest of the lot.

Wink was the exception in this group. It’s very quick at what it does, and very good at providing just a few, targeted results. With an easy-to-remember URL, it’s a good starting place. If you want to add just one people-searching site to your repertoire, on top of whatever general-purpose search engine you already use, Wink would be the one that I’d start with.

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