I hear “Why do I need a private investigator? I can just Google it,” so often that I’m starting to think I should make it my ringtone. Many times a client will call me back a week later, shocked that their digital savvy hasn’t brought them answers. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a HUGE fan of Google for finding nearby pizza or a good haircut. But for life’s bigger questions, I’ve discovered the great paradox of the monster search engine: It brings the power of endless information to your fingertips, but you still need context. So someone has to wade through the data – preferably an expert with a knack for critical thinking. That’s where I come in. . .
1. Google is NOT all-powerful.
As of 2011, Google estimated that it indexed only around 0.04% of the web’s 5 million terrabytes of data. With the introduction of the Knowledge Graph, and most recently the Hummingbird algorithm, the company is trying to understand the relationships between words instead of just matching keywords. So searching for ‘Charles Darwin’ brings up his Wikipedia page first, along with his name, birthday, some official sites and a recent article about his granddaughter going back to the Galapagos. But in my searches lately, I’ve discovered even more irrelevant information popping up near the top – and SEO data can be manipulated in several ways. As a PI, I often want unfiltered information.
<Recently, a client asked me to check out a cult fashion blog. He was about to invest a large sum of money, and wanted to make sure that the numbers and traffic given to him by the founder checked out. Using tools including Compete.com and the Deep Web, I was able to weed out hype from hard facts in time for his negotiation.
2. You can’t read body language through a keyboard.
Google can’t communicate body language, microexpressions, and nuances of conversation that raise red flags. Increasingly, new generations are meeting, dating, hooking up, and conducting entire relationships online.
I’m actually a fan of Internet dating, but it’s definitely a bad idea to get emotionally involved with someone you have never met face-to-face. (That’s why I always say ‘If they won’t meet, hit delete!’)
In cases like The Fake Doctor (where I discovered that a friend of mine was dating a con artist and four-time felon masquerading as a physician), face-to-face contact is especially important.
By the time my girlfriend met her man, she had already been Googling and emailing him for several weeks and built up his image in her mind. This made her more willing to overlook potential red flags and trust in Google – what she didn’t know was that he was the one who put the web pages online!
3. Many publications don’t show up in Google search and/or aren’t online.
Going deeper than a surface Google search can lead to happy endings as well as unearthing dark secrets – but sometimes you have to follow the paper trail.
When I was trying to locate someone’s long lost relative, I had to dig through very old archives of a small town newspaper – they were only available in the morgue, where I had to painstakingly request each clip and put it on microfiche. It worked – after wading through several stacks of old papers, I reunited them.
4. Google is a good start. . . but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Google couldn’t tell me much about The Fake Doctor – I needed to find out where he had lived previously, if he had a criminal or civil record, and also figure out if his medical licenses where current in the states where he lived.
Google can suggest databases – but it’s up to me to go through them, find the relevant ones and dig deeper via the Deep Web.
If I relied on a surface Google search for a background check, the page that would have popped up at the top was the one the guy made himself! It’s up to the investigator to verify facts.
In summary: Google is a great tool, and there are lots of ways to optimize web searches.
But even in the high-tech age of smart search engines, there is often no substitute for good, old-fashioned pavement pounding.