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Searching for People with ZoomInfo

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ZoomInfo is a free service that's gathered information about more than 25 million people—including you, if you have even a minimal presence on the web.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members describes how to create your own ZoomInfo profile, or edit or delete information in your existing profile, if the company has already created one about you. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Searching for information about people is one of the most common things people do on the web. Look at any of the query reporting services, such as Google's Zeitgeist, the Lycos 50 or the Yahoo Buzz Index, and the names of celebrities or notorious people invariably crowd the top the lists.

Searching for information about people you know, like friends, neighbors, ex-lovers (and admit it—yourself!) is such a common activity on Google that it has become a verb. Problem is, Googling someone who hasn't accumulated a lot of PageRank or other Google cred du jour is at best a crap shoot, with results that make it all but impossible to distinguish between John Doe and Jon Doh.

ZoomInfo was created specifically to help searchers locate accurate, reliable information about people. The service crawls the web much like others search engine, but focuses on information about people. Using a combination of artificial intelligence and natural language techniques, ZoomInfo connects information about individuals from disparate sources and gradually builds up online resumes that include employment information, educational background and other details.

It's a useful service, but not without flaws. Because ZoomInfo profiles are assembled by machine algorithms, without any human or editorial intervention, they essentially amount to a "best guess" collection of anecdotal information about individuals.

Start with a search for a name, like Chris Sherman. There I am at the top of the result page: "Chris V. Sherman at SearchDay." A promising start, but my middle name is James.

What about the rest of the information ZoomInfo has collected? Here's its profile of me. The information in the profile is mostly accurate, and I'm impressed with some of the things the service has uncovered. All of the information was gleaned from the web.

Others have found more serious flaws in their profiles. Searchblog author John Battelle, for example, found ZoomInfo reported that he was the founder of WebMD, CEO of Northern Light and CEO of A9 among many others. Battelle is no slouch—he was a co-founder of Wired Magazine, publisher of the Industry Standard, etc. But ZoomInfo mistakenly bloated his vita in bizarre ways.

ZoomInfo provides tools for focusing the scope of your searches, which can be very helpful when searching for information about someone with a common name. Next to every search form is a drop-down menu that allows you to narrow your search for people associated with a particular company or university.

For even more options, the advanced search page lets you find profiles ZoomInfo has collected for all employees associated with a company, alumni from a university or people mentioned on a specific web site.

ZoomInfo caches the pages it crawls, allowing you to examine the sources from which information is extracted. A link on each web summary that tells you the number of sources that were used to compile a profile; click this link and you will get a page that looks like search results showing summaries and links to the full text of the web pages.

What about privacy issues? The information ZoomInfo has collected is all freely available on the web. The company doesn't buy data from information brokers or other sources. And the focus on professional and educational details, rather than personal information, combined with a straightforward privacy policy, should alleviate most concerns.

"The information we're collecting is to a large extent the stuff you're proud of," said Russell Glass, ZoomInfo's director of consumer products. Glass rightly points out that once information gets on the web there's not too much anyone can really do to control or remove it.

To help assure accuracy, ZoomInfo allows you to edit your web summary, or create a new profile if the company hasn't yet built one about you.

ZoomInfo publishes some interesting statistics about its service. For example, nearly two million of the 25 million people profiled are board members. Nearly half a million are consultants, 30,000 are store managers, 1,727 are mimes (!), and there are even web summaries of five award winning novelists.

ZoomInfo says that it plans to expand the scope of its service by adding many more profiles of celebrities sometime this quarter. Later in the year, it also plans to launch a search site for company information, showcasing a database it has built on more than 4.5 million businesses.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members describes how to create your own ZoomInfo profile, or edit or delete information in your existing profile, if the company has already created one about you. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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