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Who's Googling you right now?

Stalkers, the curious troll sites

Stalkers, the curious troll sites

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Savvy Web users are using Google.com and other powerful Web search tools to track down or keep tabs on long-lost acquaintances -- be they former lovers, classmates, friends or enemies.

These searches, which once might have required hiring a private detective, have become increasingly easy as the amount of data available on the Web grows. Sites like AltaVista.com, which indexed about 20 million Web pages when it was founded in the mid-1990s, now has information on billions of pages.

"If you think of the needle in the haystack analogy, that haystack has gotten a lot larger," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com.

Remaining relevant

Google's ability to return relevant information has made it the first stop for many searchers checking up on people from their past from a comfortable distance.

"This horrible guy I was dating at work (in New York) turned out to be a stalker and a freak," said Lynne, a newspaper editor in Washington, D.C., who asked that her last name not be used. "I heard from a friend that he had left New York and moved somewhere else, so I was all freaked out, like, what if he's following me?

"In paranoia, I Googled him," she said.

Lynne determined that the man was living in Chicago, after finding a link to a local newspaper there that quoted him in an article.

"The funny thing was his quote, which basically said 'I don't like women who are smarter than me,"' Lynne said. "So at least I know now why we didn't hit it off."

Going international

Juan Pousada, an information technology manager for a law firm in New York, has used Google and other search tools to track down acquaintances from his native Spain.

"I've been able to find a lot of school friends, a lot of whom moved after the European Union was created," he said. "You start thinking, 'Where are they now?"'.

Pousada said using the Web site of the main telecommunications provider for any given country, like Telefonica in Spain, is often the best way to find people outside of the United States. But sometimes even with the most diligent effort, searches can come up empty.

"I had a friend, I was the best man in his wedding, and I've completely lost track of him," Pousada said.

Foiled sometimes

With more and more personal information flooding the Web daily, only the John Smiths of the world remain relatively immune.

Searchers are often foiled by common names. If their long-lost friend is named John Smith, for example, they'd have to wade through 402,000 Google results to find him.

To winnow the results, SearchEngineWatch.com's Sullivan suggested including key words like the person's hometown, middle name, or a former job in the search.

Using the right tools also helps. In addition to Google, popular search engines include Teoma.com and WiseNut.com.

"Alltheweb (http://www.alltheweb.com) may do just as well as Google if it's someone with an unusual name," Sullivan said. "But if you go do a search for, say, Bill Gates, Google returns his own personal Web site (as the first result), which is the kind of thing you'd want. You could have been directed to the 'I hate Bill Gates' Web site created by someone who hates Microsoft Word."

Indeed, if someone's public information has never been published on a Web site, even the best search engine won't help.

Staying out of sight

And, what if you don't want your information to be found?

"If you don't want people to know about your personal details, don't put them out on the Web in any way, shape or form," said Sullivan. "People say they can't believe their resume is online, but they put it up on their homepage."

People who run their own Web site can insert codes that warn off the search engine "robots," as small computer programs that cull data from the Web are known. But not all search companies respect such standards.

Users can also contact search engines and ask them to remove results from their databases.



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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