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Google is never enough

Why public records searchers shouldn’t rely on Google alone

Searching to uncover specific information on a single individual among the 329 million people living in the United States is no small task. Whether you’re searching to investigate a potential trial witness, vet a loan applicant, or preparing a fraud investigation for a government agency or insurance company, you need answers quickly. So, you ask yourself: why wouldn’t I just google the subject’s name and be done with it?

Powerful, but for a different purpose

Online search engines like Google can be productive when answering a question about a new restaurant, movie, recipe, or travel destination. However, data experts such as Thomson Reuters’ Eric Gerhard warn that the very strengths that are built into search engines for the public make them unwieldy, time-consuming, and too often inaccurate for the specialized needs of risk managers, fraud investigators, and other public records searchers.

“If you search for my relatively unique name, Eric Gerhard, on Google, you receive 44 million results,” Gerhard said. “Sure, there may be valuable information buried in there about me. The challenge is: there are literally billions of pages of information on Google and searchers need to be confident that they’ve reached the end of their search. What if you enter a name in Google and it returns 1,000 pages of results? With a Google search, you could keep on clicking deeper and deeper, page after page.”

The singular advantage these engines have for everyday searches is that a search for the exact same term can generate different results for each user, based on each searcher’s past search history. That benefit, however, is also the biggest disadvantage for investigators and other professional data searchers. Because Google monitors and tracks your searches to deliver personalized search results, that means that two different investigators at the same bank investigating the same person might get different search results. Adaptability is not a functionality that benefits investigators.

Google does not have every record

Far-reaching as search engines like Google may be, there are large swaths of data that they still don’t access and make available to searchers. “Public records services have information on watercraft, airplanes, and vehicle ownership,” says Gerhard, “and the availability of that data through Google all depends upon whether the subject you’re investigating lives in California with its strict rules on data or in Florida, where more data is available publicly.” Moreover, utility records such as information on whether a subject had signed up for a cable TV service can be valuable to data searchers but are not accessible through Google.

Through some data services, searchers can go far beyond what may be shown on the average search results page. For example, data services can uncover whether an individual operates a marijuana-related business if they possess a license to sell or grow, and if it’s recreational or medicinal in nature. Public records services can also access “deep web data,“ websites that aren’t indexed by popular search engines, such as wedding registries or donation sites.

And what if an individual you’re researching was arrested just an hour earlier? “The advantage for searchers with a service such as Thomson Reuters’ PeopleMap over Google is – we offer ‘live gateway data,’ such as real-time incarceration and arrest records from 2,500 agencies,” adds Gerhard. “So, you can view that data about an individual within 15 minutes of his or her arrest.”

Not always accurate

Accuracy is a perennial concern with Google searches. In a Wall Street Journal article, “Google Has Picked an Answer For You — Too Bad It’s Often Wrong,” a Google search produced a result that claimed former President Obama and Rep. Peter King were “Muslim members of Congress,” which was true for neither of them.

Not that Google can’t be valuable for investigators and other data searchers, if used in concert with public data sources. For example, Thomson Reuters’ CLEAR has a mapping tool that’s capable of revealing every address where your subject has lived. Then, you can zoom into that address with Google Maps and see a car in that parking area. If you’re in vehicle recovery, that functionality is gold.

For most investigators, it’s vital to understand where your data – a home address, a place of employment, a utility record, a professional license – came from. “If you search for my name on a database system such as CLEAR, you not only get my addresses, my utility record, credit checks – you get that information from multiple, corroborating sources, and the services tells you what those sources are,” says Gerhard.

Sometimes too personalized

Ultimately, search engines like Google are designed to deliver the single best answer to a search query. However, public records data services such as CLEAR and PeopleMap are designed to pull data together from various transparent sources and then, with a click of a button, show how they’re connected – as in, are two people married, do they share multiple phone numbers and share the same residence?

“At the moment, it’s entirely up to Google to determine which bubble you’re in, which search suggestions you receive, and which search results appear at the top of the list; that’s the stuff of worldwide mind control,” opined research psychologist Robert Epstein in BusinessWeek. Epstein referred to Google having “the obscene power to decide what information humanity can see and how that information should be ordered.”

Investigators need control

When it comes to investigators and other professional searchers, it remains urgent that you – not a search engine – have the power to determine what records a data search reveals to you. Because no algorithm can replace the insights of a professional data searcher equipped with a public records service that is uniquely, specifically designed for that purpose and the results they must find – quickly, accurately, and transparently.

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