Tuesday, 29 March 2005

Zoominfo people search

Zoominfo, a search engine for info about people, was launched a week ago. Its slogan is "people information summarised" and indeed, one may well take the p.i.s. Why? For starters, search results aren't exactly the best. And the way ZoomInfo have set out their site raises my "consumer protection" and "user freedom" hackles.

Try Zoominfo's people search tool out for yourself (it's free for personal use) and you'll see what I mean. For instance, here's what you get (if they don't they tweak it [added 1 April 2005: i.e. tweak their algorithms] after this post!) when you search for "Tony Blair" - who as you'll know, unless you've been trapped in the Dungeon Dimension for the last decade, happens to be Prime Minister here in the UK (at least for another month or so, anyway). There's just ONE entry in the results list:
Tony Blair at Salina Human Relations Commission
First Sergeant (Ret) Tony Blair enlisted in the Army in 1975 at Ft. Polk, LA where he attended Basic and Advanced Individual…

And when you click on the name, the summary on "Tony Blair" says:
Mr Tony Blair
Salina Human Relations Commission

Now try searching for "Anthony Blair" (by the way, whether you use quotes or not makes no difference to the search results, I've found, so you can save your fingers and omit them. Hey, every little helps...). The Salina bloke still comes up first (search results are ranked by "Web Popularity" - the number of mentions on the Web). Ah, but then next in the search results list we get:
Mr Anthony Charles Blair
Biographer and Political Editor
New Statesman magazine

whose "Additonal Current Employment" is listed as:
Labour Representation Committee Leader Youngest British Prime Minister

And he's also down against "WIP Inc" as "Prime Minister". That sure beats "Director" doesn't it, as a corporate executive's title. C'mon, wouldn't "Imperial Chemical Industries PLC, Prime Minister" sound much better than "Chairman"?

Funnier still, the third entry in the search results list is "Tony Blair at Number", which you figure out is the site for No. 10 Downing Street. At which "company", if you click his name in that list, he's said to be "Top Economist". His "Other Titles" are "Position In Office , Foreign and Commonwealth Office". And the extract from the top source for that web summary includes "Exploring Leonardo" and - wait for it - " Parliament- explained to children". If you'd like to explore further, there's also a summary of the company (No. 10's summary starts with "We have made some progress. Such as reducing payroll burdens for 1.2 million businesses through our plans to pay Working Tax Credit direct to individuals rather than through employers, in response to CBI concerns").

Links are provided to the web sources for these people/company summaries, and you can even forward a particular person's summary to a friend (the Tony one's probably worth a laugh or two), link to it, or send ZoomInfo feedback on it - though what action they'd take in response to feedback I don't know, especially if the person sending them feedback isn't the person summarised. [Added 1 April 2005: thanks to Brian Payea, Director of Corporate Communications at Zoominfo, who in his comment on this post explained what they use this kind of feedback for - to edit and improve their search and recombination algorithms.]

Gordon Brown however fares rather better, Tony's arch-rival coming up first in the "Gordon Brown" search results list (so clearly Tony B's a bit behind Gordon in the "Web Popularity" stakes) and being described as:
British Chancellor
United Kingdom

(But as for "Exchequer", sadly " No additional information is available about this company.")

Our Tone must be well pleased about that: some other "Tony Blair" more popular on the Web than him, and his summary not quite right, while Gordie B is the first Gordon Brown and moew accurately summarised?

The New Scientist article where I first read about Zoominfo also points out that "President George W Bush is listed as the British Prime Minister, the governor of Florida and the Governor of Massachusetts, as well as the president of the US." (And the UK is in Washington, didn't you know?) Quite. Not far off, actually, some might say. Don't believe that? See for yourself here.

I noticed that when I tried searching for his name, on clicking the name in the single search result all that came up were news item links and extracts (the sources for the automated summary). So there's an inconsistency in the search results display for different searches - when you click the name, you're supposed to get the summary. In George W Bush's case, you don't - you just get the "Sources" page, then from there you have to click the "View: Summary" link to see the summary. At first I thought there was no summary and that George W had actually got them to remove his entry, but not so.

Same with Michael Jackson. There's one and only one entry in the results: "Michael Joseph Jackson" (the "Michael Jackson" who used to be controller of the BBC doesn't even get a look in). Click the name, and you don't get the summary but you do get the Web sources, as of today mostly about the singer's molestation trial. Click to View Summary, and then you get:
Mr. Michael Joseph Jackson Sr.
District Attorney
Santa Barbara County

(Other Titles - Sherriff!)

So, you can tell I'm not too impressed so far. I found one friend accurately described at his company. Others didn't figure at all. My own name came up with nothing, even though I'm the first person on the list if you search for my real name on Google. "Improbulus" of course produced zero results on Zoominfo.

There's an Advanced Search page which lets you narrow your search down by the person's first or last name or by company (the search is quite fuzzy by the way, it seems to pick up different spellings of names or the closest it can find to what you enter). The advanced search page also sports features (in beta) such as finding employees of a particular company (lots of results if you try Microsoft for instance), or alumnis of a university - or people mentioned on a specific website. On trying my blog URL for that last one, I got "No Search Parameters Specified" - sniff - so I count as a zero to them do I, my blog URL immediately ignored in their search box as if it doesn't exist? My blog doesn't even seem to merit a "No Web Summaries were found for…" - which is what I got when I tried entering that obscure site, That's right. NO people are mentioned on, according to Zoominfo.

The setup of the advanced search page is a bit of a clue that they're really mainly interested in people associated with companies or universities and use corporate and official news sites as their primary sources. Which is not surprising, as they offer a paid-for service targeted at businesses, and tout its benefits for recruiting, sales intelligence and research etc: "The patented search technology continually scans millions of corporate Web sites, press releases, electronic news services, SEC filings and other online sources. Then, it intelligently compiles a concise summary about a specific individual or company." "Use ZoomInfo to instantly gather background information on business people and companies, prepare for meetings, assemble executive briefing books, or use it simply to build better business relationships." Their "professional" version offers the additional ability to search by job title, industry, and geography too plus ability to sort, save and export your results. They seem to have a pretty impressive list of customers too including Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Dell, Ebay, Google (?!), Microsoft and Yahoo.

While the searching is free for personal users, there are Google ads in the search results (which I don't mind). What I do mind is the extent of the restrictions they seek to impose on users. I like to control my own surfing, thank you very much. So, there is no FAQ on the front page, nor any Help link or Privacy Policy link. You only get offered those links AFTER you have started using their service, i.e. after you've carried out a search. Now that's a minor thing perhaps, but I want to be able to read and consider the info about a service before I decide to use it or not - and I mean info on its features, functions, privacy policy etc, not just bland marketing info. I guess the lack of those links wouldn't bother me so much if I hadn't found out that, when I tried to rightclick on the FAQ etc. links to open them in a background tab in Firefox (or a new window in IE) for convenience, it wouldn't let me - it just opened exactly the same page I was on before. That sort of thing really gets my goat, as you can tell. So here are the links - yes, they work if you go there directly, they just can't be rightclicked from the search results pages (or accessed at all from their home page): FAQ, Privacy Policy, Help.

Feedback and Contact etc links also work in the same way. But at least they do include all those links on the Advanced Search page (hey that's right, only people who do advanced searches might need help or a FAQ - though guess what, you still can't rightclick those links effectively from that page.) So maybe it's just an oversight that they don't include them on the front page or allow rightclicking, maybe I'm being unfair in disliking what they've done. Or maybe not.

Furthermore, did you know you can "edit" and consolidate the Web Summary of your own personal information on Zoominfo's site (and then link to your Web Summary page from elsewhere)? "ZoomInfo allows you to control your Web Identity by editing and securing your Web Summary. Now, when others search for you, you have some control of what the Web says about you." But you can register only after you've done a search (and been offered the chance to give them even more of your personal information like work and home addresses, your company's information, your work and education history, languages/skills, bio, phone numbers) - you can't register first, then try to update your Web Summary. At least they don't ask for mother's maiden name or birthdate! Oh, and if you're not on their database already, you can if you wish add yourself and give them your personal details. No thanks, I don't think so. Personal safety, identity theft, no I'm not taking the chance.

"Further, we give our users control of their Web Summaries through the My Web Summary. Once their identity is verified, anyone can edit their own Web Summary and thus control what others can view about them when searched." What this means is that you can't hijack your friend's identity and edit their Web Summary to produce some amusing results (not even with 1 April approaching). So there go my nefarious plans to pretend to be some famous person! No, what they do to get you to verify your identity is to ask for your credit card details, home address and other personal info - they say in their privacy policy that they won't charge your card and they'll only use the info to check you're who you say you are. And they also say they won't let your "update" go through until they've confirmed you are the person whose details you're trying to edit. So that's one good thing - at least they have some sort of "identity theft protection" mechanism in place, though I wouldn't be too comfortable about giving them my card details (even though their privacy policy says they don't store numbers given to them). I happily shop online, so I'm not sure why, it's probably the whole general issue about the privacy of my personal details.

Another good thing is that they allow you to request removal of your Web Summary:"If you want to remove your Web Summary completely, please send an email to" Though whether they'll accede to your request or not, who knows. And how are they going to verify your identity when you do that? Seems to me that the registration (by clicking Update Web Summary) and credit card method, much as it grates, may be the easiest way to get them to remove your Web Summary (though not the search results, of course, which come from public Web sources).

In summary, although to be fair some of it still seems to be in beta, Zoominfo's automated summarisation obviously has a long way to go. I don't think very much of it as a search/summarisation tool for us mere personal users, though it could be fun as an ego tool to see how it summarises you, or to while away a few minutes seeing how they describe your celebrity of the moment. It's more the combination of the unnecessarily controlling way they've set up their pages, plus the way they've also set it up to get info out of people first, that bugs me - even though it's not surprising, as that's what the site is for.

As you'll know if you read my ID cards posts (here and here), I feel quite strongly about privacy and data protection, and while the information that ZoomInfo searches and gathers together is public, I am not very happy about the idea of being encouraged to give them even more personal information (like home address, for goodness' sake! Gift for stalkers, helloooo?). Of course it will be up to the individual as to how much of their personal info they want to add to the site. I can see that if you are jobhunting, it might be useful to put at least your bio and work history on there. I guess I'm a little sceptical though about how much businesses would use ZoomInfo as a recruiting tool. And maybe if you're desperate for old schoolfriends to be able to find you, you might add a Web Summary for yourself, though there are better ways of doing that. Otherwise, though, I don't see why would people want to put their private details on there for anyone in the world to find.

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