End User's Corner - April 1997

Jack SolockFinding a Person in a Haystack

A Selective Guide to Finding an Email Address

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

April 1997

If you are trying to find a person's email address by using Internet resources, there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the process of searching has become quite a bit easier in the past couple of years. The bad news is that it is still as imprecise and haphazard an endeavor as ever.

This article will not attempt to show you how to use every service available to you. That has been done many times, both on the Internet and in print. One of the best places to learn the nuts and bolts of finding an email address is Ed Krol and Paula Ferguson's The Whole Internet For Windows 95: User's Guide and Catalog (see the End User's Corner for December 1996 [ http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/toolkit/enduser/archive/1996/euc-9612.html]), which has a 30 page chapter devoted to detailed walk-throughs of several of the available services. This article draws heavily on that chapter.

Instead, we will attempt to help you think about which service or services to use, and when to use them. In this way, you can save time in the search, and, with luck, find the desired email address.

Why is it so hard to find someone's email address? Because there is no central email directory. To use a telephone book analogy, if you know Joe Abercrombie lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you can go to a library and find a Milwaukee phone book, or call long distance information, and look him up. Of course there may be more than one Joe Abercrombie, and then you would have to know more about Joe (such as his address) to find the right one. But if you were looking for Joe and you didn't know what city he lived in, you would have a much more difficult problem. This is the case with the Internet. Some services address this problem more effectively than others.

Another problem is accuracy. Finding someone's email address using one of the directory services is no guarantee that the address is correct. The assigning of an email address is often the responsibility of the Internet Service Provider (ISP), and the address can be changed for any number of reasons. Also, there is the problem of multiple listings. The author of this article has seven unique email accounts, each with its own address. Of these, three are redirected to the account he actually reads. He never reads the other three accounts. If you find one of the latter addresses and send him an email message, while it will not bounce back to you, he will never read it.

Another problem is privacy. Some Internet domains simply do not provide a list of their users to anyone. In this case, it would be very difficult to find an email address using some of the email directory services.

Because of these problems, the first place to go to find an email address is to the person who owns that address. If you know the person's telephone number, or can get it without spending an unreasonable amount of time or money, call the person and ask for their email address. If he or she has one and knows it, you will get the most accurate email listing available. Of course, this is just common sense, but it needs to be restated and underscored in this era when Internet directory technology tends to be the first option used to find Internet information, even though it may not be the easiest or most direct option.

These problems and advice out of the way, this article will advise you of which email directory services will be of most use to you, based on what you know about the person you are trying to find. These selected directory services are:

  1. Web-based services. There are many of these, but we will concentrate on two because of the size of their databases. Four11 (http://www.four11.com/) contains over 10,000,000 listings, and The Internet Address Finder (http://www.iaf.net/) contains over 5,600,000 listings. Both acquire their listings from a combination of Usenet postings, personal submissions, and ISP submissions. They both have straightforward interfaces and solid search features. However, it is the size of their directories that makes them powerful tools. Accuracy can be a problem though, because it is difficult for them consistently assure that their listings are up-to-date. In spite of that caveat, it is the web-based services that have most improved the state of email lookup in the last two years.
  2. Usenet News Addresses (http://usenet-addresses.mit.edu/) and DejaNews (http://www.dejanews.com/). The first is a searchable list of names culled from Usenet news postings from 1991 until February 1996. Even though the list is not kept up to date, it is still useful because of the size of the database (over 4,000,000 names) and the fact that query responses are linked to local directory services to allow verification of the address. The second is a well known Usenet archive that allows the user to compose a simple or power search limited by author field (~a) that will find that author. The advantage of the DejaNews strategy is that its author postings are much more up to date than Usenet News Addresses. The disadvantages of each of these are: 1) the person you are searching for must have posted to Usenet in order to appear in either of these services; and 2) the person's name must appear in the address of their posting (this is not always the case).
  3. CSO (Computing Services Office) Directory Servers ( http://www.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/ph/lookup?Query=.). These are directory services mostly for universities, but other organizations are also in the listings. The main problem with these listings is that it is not possible to perform lookups across multiple organizations. However, they can be powerful tools to use if you know the organization of the person you are looking for, and that the organization has a publicly available CSO server. These listings are usually, but not always, accurate and up-to-date.
  4. X.500 and Netfind. These can be found at InterNIC Directory Services ( http://ds.internic.net/wp/). They operate on the principle of a brute force, drill-down search technique that proceeds from some known name and organization information to pile drive through a number of directories (sometimes at the user's discretion, sometimes not), until an address can be found. These directories are neither easy to learn nor use, and should be consulted only as a last resort, if other directory searches fail. However, it should be noted that these directories are based on research projects that, although no longer in active development, were at one time the leading edge of network directory service technology. They can still be useful, if you have the time and the patience.
  5. WHOIS ( http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois) is a specialized directory service used to find point of contact (POC) information about people who have authority over Internet domains or networks, or information about the domains themselves. It is most often used by people wishing to find out if their prospective domain name has already been taken.
  6. Finger ( http://www.cs.indiana.edu:800/finger/gateway/) assumes you already know the person's email address. Using it will give you more information about where his or her directory resides on the computer system, and what the person's real name is. This is a tool usually used with Unix-based systems.

The key to the entire enterprise of attempting to find an email address is assessing what you know about the person you're attempting to find, and using the correct tools accordingly. The rest of this article will attempt to provide you with a "cheat sheet" order of services to use, based on what you know.

In the following scenarios, the order of search tools is based not only on what you know about the person, but also ease of use characteristics of the services. There is no guarantee that you will find an address in any of these services, or that you will find the same address in different services, or that any of the addresses you do find will be correct.

A. If you know the person's name only, or name plus a general idea of where the person resides, try:

  1. Web-based services. They have the largest databases, and allow general geographic, as well as domain searching. Four11 links to a giant phone lookup directory from its home page.
  2. Usenet Addresses or DejaNews. Even if you haven't a clue whether the person you're looking for has posted to Usenet, both of the Usenet services provide enough ease of use to try, without wasting a great deal of time.
  3. X.500 or Netfind. While these tools are theoretically better choices than Usenet addresses, their battering ram approach and difficult interface guarantee headaches. You might get lucky with Usenet and not have to use them.

     Do not try:

  1. CSO Servers. If you don't know what university or organization the person is with, CSO servers can't help you, as there is no way to search across them.
  2. WHOIS. Unless the person you're searching for is a Network Point of Contact, WHOIS can't help you.
  3. Finger. This can only be used if you already know the person's email address.

B. If you know the person's name and have a strong suspicion they have posted to Usenet, try:

  1. Usenet Addresses or DejaNews. Simply cut to the chase.
  2. Web-based services. If you cannot find them on Usenet because they don't use their name as a "handle," or they didn't in fact post, follow the order in A. (above) for the rest of the services.

C. If you know the person's name and the university or organization they are affiliated with (especially if it's a U.S, university), try:

  1. CSO Servers. Check the list to make sure the University or organization offers a publicly available CSO directory, go to it, and then find the person. It is the quickest, most accurate way to find the information. If the organization or university does not offer a publicly available CSO directory, try to locate its web or gopher site. For U.S. universities the best place to start is Mike Conlon's American Universities page at the University of Florida ( http://www.clas.ufl.edu/CLAS/american-universities.html). For international universities, Christina DeMello's massive index of international universities at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/cdemello/univ.html) is the best starting point. If you use gopher services, the "Other gopher servers" menu item on most gopher servers will eventually lead you to all the other gopher servers. Once you have located the organization or university web or gopher site, check to see if there is a public email directory. If there is, use it.
  2. Web-based services. If the person, for some reason, is not in the CSO directory, and you cannot find their organization, you are back to square one. When you don't know very much use web-based services.
  3. Netfind or X.500. These services allow you to pinpoint an organization. If the organization is slightly different from what you thought it was, these two services might help.
  4. Usenet Addresses or DejaNews. If the person has posted to Usenet, you might find them here.

     Do not use:

WHOIS or Finger.

D. If you know the person's name and the organization they work for, and the organization is not in the CSO directory try:

  1. Locating that organization (see above, under known organizations-CSO Servers). If you can find the organization, there may be a local directory, or at least organizational contact information.
  2. Web-based services. If you have some idea of what the domain name of the organization is (microsoft.com, etc.) use the domain name search field of the services.
  3. Netfind or X.500. The drill-down nature of both of these services allows you to pinpoint an organization, but, as mentioned above, the search interface is difficult.
  4. Usenet Addresses or DejaNews. If the person posted to Usenet, you might find them here.

     Do not use:

CSO Servers, WHOIS or Finger.

Specialty Searches

E. If you know the person's name and that they are a network point of contact (POC), try:

WHOIS. This is the specific tool to use to do this job. If you can't find them here, revert to the order in A. (above).

F. If you know the person's address, and want to know more about the Unix machine they're using, try:

Finger. Again, it is the specialized tool for the job.

Always remember that in order to find a person in a haystack, you will have to be prepared to use any or all of the tools mentioned above. If you find an address through these services, and you want to try it, it is good netiquette to send a short preparatory message telling the person who you are and why you want to contact them. Then ask them if they are the person you think they are. Wait for a reply before you continue the conversation.

Judicious use of the finding tools available, based on what you know and what they can find, can help you navigate the often difficult path to finding an email address. However, it cannot either guarantee success or replace the effectiveness of actually contacting the person through another medium.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

Internet Scout

A Publication of the Internet Scout Project

Comments, Suggestions, Feedback

Use our feedback form or send email to scout@cs.wisc.edu.

© 1997 Internet Scout Project

Information on reproducing any publication is available on our copyright page.