April 11, 2010

Spokeo's E-mail and People Search Sees Skyrocket

Nearly a year after the company's shift away from aggregation into a full-fledged social mining tool and personal details engine, Spokeo has seen traffic and awareness dramatically spike in the last 30 days, following the release of Spokeo 4.0, which expanded the company's digital identities search to include name search, phone search, e-mail search and friends search. As people find their own listings in Spokeo, and are routinely surprised to learn how much data the site has on them - some of which they may not have known was public - word is spreading, leaving the small team "dazed" and "overwhelmed" at the traffic spike, which has made the site among the top 1,000 visited by U.S. Internet surfers, and has frequently seen the term "spokeo" among the top 100 search terms in Google in the last few weeks.

Spokeo, an eight-person strong team based in Pasadena, California, first gained my attention in the fall of 2007 as one of the very first to aggregate data from multiple social networks, with RSS feeds to boot, all in one place. But in the face of strong competition, as well as a general distaste with the world of Web 2.0, the company switched gears a year later, leading to the service they have become now, an occasionally controversial database with tons of personal data - much of it right, and some of it wrong.

In March, Spokeo quietly introduced version 4.0. Only two weeks later, as word of the new service spread virally, the company had to reiterate their promise to keep information private, after what had to be an assault from skeptical Web visitors. They explained how they were aggregating public information, and decried the often-used but not often described approach many have taken, called "privacy by obscurity".

Much of my Spokeo Profile is Correct, and Some Is Wrong

In a blog post on March 18th, they said:
"Many people believe in a concept called "privacy by obscurity", which argues that public information is private if you don’t know how to find it. This concept is flawed, however, because the fact you, yourself don’t know how to find such information does not mean that other people are equally clueless. What Spokeo does is something that many marketing and investigative firms have done for years and years, so this information has been available for quite some time, just without your knowledge!"
In the post, they committed to becoming "the best people search engine ever", and to continue making adjustments based on user feedback.

In my own tests of Spokeo, it absolutely proves solid in terms of discovering people, relationships, online profiles, and even locations, phone numbers and e-mails, if available. It correctly found my wife's maiden name, her place of residence and her brother and mother. It also correctly stated her age and zodiac sign. For me, Spokeo listed an old address, including apartment number, where I lived a decade ago, but otherwise, gained the data from Facebook and other sites to complete a fairly accurate profile. It also works extremely well for tracking down ex-girlfriends' current residences, marital status, and even their families. I'll just ask you to trust me, instead of providing you links on those...

So if you were in the people discovery business officially, or the stalking business informally, Spokeo absolutely has value. While the service had been kicking around for a year in its newest focus, it took version 4.0 to bring a tipping point. Seeing the spike in traffic for search terms related to Spokeo in my own blog traffic, and my younger sister bringing up the service on Facebook, I reached out to co-founder Harrison Tang to get an update. He confirmed tremendous growth and infrastructure expansion to take on the new load.

"I am not sure if our business is booming, but our traffic has definitely shot up in the past month," Harrison wrote me in an e-mail. "It's a pretty crazy experience, especially for a young 8-people team. We are overwhelmed by the response, and honestly, for the first 10 days after this traffic surge happened, we were just sitting there and looked dazed. We've now gathered ourselves, and we are trying our best to tackle each problem one-by-one."

Quantcast Shows Spokeo Spike Amid 4.0's Release

Regardless of what traffic stats engine you prefer, the data shows Spokeo jumping up and to the right. Alexa showed Spokeo outside the top 20,000 Web sites in mid-February, spiking to 746th overall in the United States as of yesterday. Meanwhile, even before the spike, Compete.com showed Spokeo at more than 600,000 unique visitors in February, up from about 100,000 the year before - and Quantcast data shows about 1.2 million visitors over the same period, tripling from January's numbers.

Alexa Also Shows Jump in Spokeo Traffic

The spikes have made the site unresponsive at times (See: Traffic Surge and Spokeo - the 60th Most Popular Search on Google from the Spokeo blog), and the company reported being inundated with e-mails and phone calls about the service late last month. They seem to be fending off all the inquiries from people excited and alarmed about just how much data is available online. (See also: The Truths vs. Myths about Spokeo)

"We (are) taking our time to add in new features to improve the site usability," Harrison said. "The first week was uneventful, and then all of the sudden, our traffic shot up to today's level. The only reason why we couldn't get more traffic is because we limit the number of connections to our servers to make sure they don't crash."

Having first reached the public eye in 2006, Spokeo is a little long in the tooth in terms of how some Web technologies are viewed. But they have shown the ability to adapt their business model to walk away from failure and find something that clearly has gotten incredible attention. They may not be the Valley darling that you see written about with regularity, but they look like they are on the verge of crossing the chasm. They even have a business model. Advanced searches and data discovery are available for monthly or annual fees. The 12-month account I purchased last June is still in effect, so I am looking into you guys.

What do you think I will find? Check it out at http://www.spokeo.com.