Local Search: A Stalker's Guide

In testing the limits of local search, is there such a thing as too much information? A recent request by a friend to help locate an address ignited a journey from the major search engines to the jungles of government sites. Ultimately, we found out nearly everything we wanted to know--and a few things we were surprised to discover.

The mission: Andrew "Cuse" Marcus of Berkeley, Calif. sought to send a wedding gift to a couple whose address escaped him. He didn't like the gift options available on registry sites, and, in the spirit of discretion, didn't want to outright ask them where they live.

Cuse provided me with the only three pieces of information he had: the names of the bride and groom, the general area where they lived (Washington, D.C.), and the fact that they own a house. This would be fun.

Here is the instant message conversation, slightly excerpted, between Cuse and myself, reprinted with Cuse's permission. Note that I've withheld some personal details, such as the couple's address and our screen names; if you want to send the couple any wedding gifts, I'll gladly accept them in their stead.


Cuse: I thought there might be a way to look at house purchase records.
Me: She didn't go to Brown by any chance, did she? [I was searching in Google and Yahoo! for the bride and groom's names.]
Cuse: She did.
Me: DC has a record of deeds [found via Google]. Free registration and then $2 a pop for records. Register and see if it gets you close.
Cuse: Okay, I'm searching under "deed."
Cuse: They bought their house on April 7, 2005.
Me: It doesn't say where?
Cuse: No, I need to pay $4.
Cuse: Well, I can see how much they paid for the house, who sold it to them, and the lot and the square number.
Me: You should write on the gift card, "Enjoy the pot holders, and send Renee at Century Coldwell Banker my best."
Cuse: I just need to find where lot #201, square #0849 is.
Cuse: Okay, this is a long shot, but Google has the previous owner listed at [a N.W. Washington, D.C. address], which is near Georgetown.

This was decent validation of the address. We had the lot and square, which was now matched to an address. Cuse and I then found a PDF from DC's Office of the Chief Financial officer, "Notice of Real Property Tax Sale," via Google at cfo.dc.gov, though this provided no new information. Then Cuse came close.


Cuse: Got it. That's the address.
Me: How did you confirm?
Cuse: I checked other documents with the same lot/square on the deed site.
Cuse: The only problem is that it looks like it could be a condo-type deal, so there might be several apartment numbers.
Me: It's a condo or something, but not different apartments. Each has its own address.

Looking up the address in Google Maps, the hybrid map/satellite view seemed to show some sort of housing development. Adding two to the street number, it came up in Google as a valid location, though at the same address.


Cuse: The problem is that it looks like the same guy sold the deed for 1417 to a few people.
Me: There's another sign.
Me: Go to usps.com, ZIP locator [the site for the US Postal Service].
Me: If you look up a ZIP for my building without the apartment number, it lists a series of apartments and their ZIP codes. If you look up the DC address, it's a single listing.
Cuse: You know what? I should just send it there.
Cuse: A Google search for the address reveals that a house was listed by Coldwell Banker at that address for approximately the price paid by the couple.
Me: Seems like a pretty safe bet
Cuse: Okay, done. We'll know if this works when I get a thank-you card.

In the postmortem conversation on the mission, I asked Cuse how he felt about being able to complete his mission, at least within a reasonable degree of confidence. After polishing up his quote, he got to the heart of the bittersweet triumph: "It'd be nice if everybody else's info was available but my own," he said.

Even if all of this information was available before, the ease at which it can be accessed allows people to follow through on impulses. For Cuse, it was the impulse to purchase a wedding gift. Another could undertake a similar process for a malicious impulse.

Most search practitioners and analysts feel as if search technology is still in its infancy. A former LookSmart executive told me in 2001 that regarding search, "We're in inning two of a nine-inning game." We're still there, and we're in inning one with local search technology.

Are you ready for what you'll be able to find once local search reaches the third, fifth, or eighth inning? By the fifth inning, if not sooner, I'll be remembering Cuse's quote. I may well join him in wishing for a personal opt-out vehicle for search.

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