Searchable You

They used to say, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” But with today’s industrial strength search tools, it’s impossible to hide your digital footprints.

Instead of letting cold, impersonal algorithms determine what people find out about us online, social and business networking services let users help others to see them the way they’d like to be seen.

The latest launch is the beta of Yahoo 360, Yahoo’s service, which opened by invitation only on Tuesday.

Yahoo 360 is a free consumer service that combines blogging and social networking. It provides lot of options for sharing information, marrying established and new Yahoo services to social networking tools. From the start page, users can engage in instant messaging, blogging, photo swapping and e-mail; they also can create personal profiles and invite others to join their networks.

Both Yahoo 360 and MSN Spaces, another consumer social networking service, let users control access, setting privacy and permission levels. They also help strangers to meet, by letting users search others’ public profiles for common interests.

“The ability to connect and find or locate people is an important role that the Web is playing in our lives, in terms of professional, personal, and social relationships,” said Jim Jansen, an assistant professor of at Pennsylvania State University who studies search behavior.

According to Jansen, people-specific search engines are increasingly used in business, as well, for professional networking or to locate experts.

Tim DeMello, CEO of professional people search service Ziggs, agreed, pointing out that salespeople, employers and service providers frequently search for the names of people they’ll be working with. “If someone was typing ‘Tim DeMello’ into a search engine, it became very important how I was represented online.”

Search results from Ziggs, founded in October 2004, mix “official” corporate profiles hosted on company Web sites with profiles built by individuals using Ziggs’ tools. DeMello said the index contains around 2.3 million profiles, searchable by key word and attributes such as location or job title.

Bruce Hawkins, a sales rep for Solunet, made 15 appointments with qualified prospects last month using Jigsaw, another B2B networking service that relies on members to add and update its database of about 468,000 contacts.

“In the technology sales world, some IT managers we’d do business with might get 30 or 40 calls a day,” said Hawkins, who sells networking technologies. “We are very cautious about who we contact and what the message is.”

Instead of cold-calling, Hawkins carefully builds a prospect list based on a solution to a particular IT problem, then uses a mix of promotions, seminars and physical mailings to reach the list. “It starts with having the right person in the right role you’re trying to target. That’s where Jigsaw helps us,” he said.

Jigsaw lets members search for a variety of criteria, including key words, geographic location, job title and company name. It also allows non-members to modify the information posted, for example, by specifying they should be contacted only by e-mail.

Jigsaw CEO Jim Fowler said it’s important to “provide transparency for sellers and buyers so they can come onto Jigsaw, set specific contact preferences and write out specific instructions for how sellers can contact them.”

The good news for B2B profiling sites is that there is a business model. Jigsaw members pay $25 a month for up to 25 contacts a month; they also can access one contact free for each one they post. Those who’ve posted profiles on Ziggs for free may opt to pay $50 a year to place their profiles in search engines’ sponsored results, which appear above natural search results.

Ziggs’ DeMello predicted that as more people blog — thanks to services like MSN Spaces and Yahoo 360 — more of them will run afoul of their employers for taking the company name in vain. “If I run a law firm,” he said, “I don’t want [one of my attorneys] going to Friendster and building a profile using my company name.”

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