How to be a Web Detective

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‘In cyberspace, it’s as if we have a camera on our back following us around, recording our every move’ – Jeff Rosen

This page introduces various methods for undertaking investigative research work on the internet. It will show you how to find information and statistics by using accurate search terms and how to obtain more in-depth information about specific websites.

Google Syntax Guide

The majority of researchers in the UK use Google for basic searches, but these can be improved by bearing in mind the syntax you use. For example, putting words into inverted commas keeps names together, which means that typing "John Major" (instead of John Major) will screen out results such as ‘John Travolta’s next major film will be released’.

Using a tilde (~) before a word will find pages with related words; for example, ‘~doctor’ will produce results with related terms such as ‘care’, ‘clinic’, ‘medical’.

Using a minus sign (-) before a word you wish to eliminate will ensure that pages containing that word are omitted from the results. For example, ‘doctor -who’ will eliminate the eccentric time traveller from a search for ‘doctor’. The minus symbol needs to be next to the unwanted word, with no space between.

Using OR between words will ensure that either or both words appear on pages in search results. For example, typing ‘tourism expenditure OR revenue’ will help produce information about money spent by tourists.

Typing ‘SITE’ before the address or domain name in a search box will ensure the results relate to a specified address or domain. For example, ‘tourism’ would limit results to Scottish government websites while ‘tourism’ would restrict the search to UK universities. Ensure there are no spaces between the search characters.

By the same token, ‘poverty’ will restrict the search to poverty reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

Typing the term ‘filetype’ before a data file extension (.doc .rtf .pdf .xls .xlsl .ppt) will ensure that a certain kind of document appears in a search. For example, ‘poverty filetype:xls’will restrict the search to Excel spreadsheets which mention poverty within the Scottish government website. Ensure there are no spaces between the colon and domain address and filetypes.

Format Selector for Finding Statistics

A similar search term format can be used in any of the search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing etc.) to find collated lists of information such as statistics, expenses etc. In the search box, state the filetype you wish to find. For example: Compare: house prices Greenwich With: “house prices” Greenwich 2007 filetype:xls Compare: MPs expenses With: “MPs expenses” filetype:xls

If you are looking for experts in particular fields, it may be possible to identify them from a PowerPoint presentation they may have made. So, for example, to find experts in the field of terrorism, type the search terms ‘terror* filetype:ppt’ (use * so that the search will find all words beginning with ‘terror’, which will include ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’).

Detective Work on Sources

When you visit websites, remember to identify and verify the sources and ask questions, such as:

  • Who is the author/publisher of the article?
  • Are they an authoritative source?
  • What are their credentials, qualifications, background and experience?
  • What are their motives for publishing the information?
  • What is their standpoint?
  • Who sponsored or funded the site?
  • Click on ‘other links’ to discover who the website has relations with and investigate for bias

or partisanship.

Websites for Investigating

If you have the email address of the person you are investigating, you can search for information about them by typing in the ‘Email’ category of the search box at Try typing in your own email address to see the kind of information that is brought up.If you are undertaking political research or investigating your MP, a good place to start is They Work for You It may also be possible to find people who contribute potentially useful information through the photo-sharing network, Flickr Try a tag-search for ‘participation’ or for ‘pollution’ and follow the links to other interesting pages.

Tracing Website Owners

Generally, there are four kinds of websites: owned domain names, university servers, free webspace and sites hosted by ISP.

Owned domain names

The owners of these kinds of sites are usually easy to track as every domain name owner must supply contact details to the authorities. A domain name and its owner can be searched at For example, if you have someone’s email address that belongs to a dedicated domain, such as ‘’, insert the domain ‘’ into The search result will show the full name of the domain owner, such as ‘Govanhill Baths Community Trust’. This information will usually allow you to undertake further searches on both the person and the organisation. This search may also reveal the name of the person responsible for the site and its upkeep, their address, phone number and email address. Every scrap of personal information is useful when trying to trace people. Don’t forget to look in Google Groups. You can also perform a search for information on websites at

University Servers

You will often find personal web pages hosted on sites owned by universities. Let’s say you have found a site with the address: If you edit the web address back to you will probably find yourself at John’s home page (hopefully with biographical and contact details). If you edit the address back further, to you will find yourself at the home page of the university. You can then go to the staff directory section and see if there are contact details for John Doe. If not, then John Doe might be a student. Either way, you may still find extra details by doing a keyword search for ‘john doe’ Harvard.

Free Webspace

Various companies offer free webspace, the most popular being Geocities, Fortune City, Angel Fire and Tripod. The people behind these sites are often harder to trace than the owners of ISP web space sites. However, some of these sites are owned by the ISP so there is the possibility of tracing an individual from the url address as shown in the next section.

Hosted by ISP (Independent Service Provider)

ISPs such as AOL and Yahoo offer their clients access to ‘space’ on a server for the hosting of their website. For example, Yahoo owns and uses it to give members free web space. The website address can give you information about the person, so will be owned by someone with the Yahoo user name ‘johndoe’. This will appear in his email address as – of course, this is generally searchable, but you may be able to find out more information about him by searching for his user profile at

Sourcing Communities for Information about Individuals

Using what we already know about websites and their provisions, let us see what information we can find out about John Smith, for example, who has access to the internet and is a fanatical birdwatcher.

Finding Homepages

You can trace someone’s personal homepage by looking at their e-mail address and familiarising yourself with the ISP’s homepage address format. If John’s e-mail address is: his home page address would be: If his e-mail address is: his home page might be found at:

Tracing Home Addresses and Phone Numbers

The obvious way to find someone’s home address is to look in the phone book. provides links to many online telephone directories around the world. The United States has more freedom of information than the UK and so, if John lived in the US and all we had was his phone number, we could trace his home address by doing a ‘reverse number search’ at This service is not available for UK phone numbers, however a search on may give you the full address (see How to Find People Online). This information can help you with further searches for information on the web and in newsgroups. You could see if John has been involved in criminal activities by checking the online archives of his local paper. You can see if he has been made bankrupt by checking the disqualified directors database on the Companies House website or the register of insolvency via the Accountant in Bankruptcy Finally, having found John’s address, we can perhaps gauge his standard of living by profiling his local area. By entering his postcode in you will be supplied with property prices and crime rates. You could even see if John has a swimming pool by accessing an aerial photograph of his house at


John Smith may not realise that his every message to a bird watching newsgroup is being stored. He may be mortified to find out that, by simply clicking on his name in Google, anybody could see the messages he has sent to other newsgroups. These might be just as mundane as his birdwatching messages, but, with so many sexually and politically orientated newsgroups in existence, John’s contributions could reveal a side to his personality that would normally be hidden. See the section on newsgroups in How to Find People Online for searches in social network sites.

Protecting Your Privacy

The amount of online information that can be dug up on any individual is frightening. If you are concerned about your own privacy or worried about being traced and profiled, there are a number of golden rules to follow: • If you are considering contributing to online forums, avoid using your home e-mail address. • Register different free e-mail addresses for different forums. Never give out details about yourself that you don’t want to see printed in a national newspaper. • Exercise your rights under the Data Protection Act to have personal information removed from online databases.


This page is based on a presentation by Paul Myers:

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