Retracing old friends or family you’ve lost contact with can be really challenging. But thankfully the internet has made the process a lot simpler – if you know where to look.
More of us are connected to social networks, such as Facebook, than ever before – which is a great way to find people. But there are other online databases that can help you find someone. Here’s what to do.
Step 1: Gather your information
To get started, you need to get all the information you know about the person down, as well as any photos you have of them – the more details you have, the better. Ideally you should have their full name and an idea of where they might be living or where they were born.
If you have old photos that aren't in a digital format, take a photo with your smartphone or a digital camera, or get them scanned at a photo shop like Snappy Snaps.
Step 2: Do a Google search
Could your friend have been featured in a local news article? Or perhaps they’re now an executive at a big company. Make Google your first port of call as you begin your hunt, in case the person can be found on a public website.
If they have a particularly unusual name, you might get away with just searching their full name, but with common surnames like Smith you’ll have to add some other keyword to the Google search box. Try their husband or wife, children, their occupation, the company they last worked with or even a regular activity you recall them doing, such as bowling or dancing. Try different combinations of these keywords.
Step 3: Search the invisible web on Pipl
There's a huge amount of online information that Google can't see, because you need to log in or because the designers have deliberately made it hard for a search engine's 'spiders' to crawl through it and see what's there.
Pipl catalogues this information and concentrates on people, so all you have to do is enter a name and location to see what comes up. The location is really helpful, because like a lot of personal search tools it has vastly more data about people in the USA than anywhere else.
Step 3: Try a reverse image search with Google or TinEye
Google’s reverse image search may also bring up some results if you have a photo of them. This feature looks for similar photos on the internet and shows you the website it is taken from, which could lead you closer to finding them.
Go to google.co.uk/images and click on the camera icon. Click on Upload an image, select the image and click the Search by image button. Google will then try to find any photos that match or look similar.
TinEye is another reverse image search tool with an index of more than three billion images, that can also give you alerts if it finds your image or something similar.
Step 4: Use social networks: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Facebook has more than 2 billion users, so it’s well worth using it to find someone. But remember some people keep their profile private, so they may not come up in searches.
Start by simply typing their name in the top search bar on Facebook. Depending on how many results appear, you can scroll through the list, paying close attention for a familiar image of the person.
Narrow the search down according to any mutual friends, location, education or workplace. Do this by clicking on People in the top menu.
Still no luck on Facebook? Maybe it’s time to ask around. Think of any of your Facebook friends who may also know the person, and send them a personal message to ask if they have any contact details for the individual you want. They may not know, but they may know someone who does – so it’s worth a shot.
Was your friend a part of a football team or other hobby or sports club? You could also search for this club on Facebook: select Groups from the top menu and see if a group for their club exists. If it does, you can post a public message to everyone in the club asking about your friend.
Instagram has a billion users, and although a lot of people use nicknames instead of their real names, most people have a real profile photo. It's worth trying their special interests to see what comes up. Sometimes there isn't a lot of personal information, but browsing their pictures can tell you a lot about where they are now, and don't forget to look at their hashtags.
You'll need an Instagram account of your own to search the network and this could work in your favour. If you post enough of your own pictures, Instagram might suggest the person you're looking for as someone to follow, based on your interests.
Twitter has far fewer users than Facebook, but it’s still very much worth a try. You don’t have to be a member to search but you’ll have to sign up if you want to communicate with anyone on the site. Go to Twitter and search the person’s name in the top right corner. Then click on People to narrow your search down to people only.
Step 5: Look on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is a career-skewed alternative to Facebook, where professionals keep connected with one another. The great thing with LinkedIn is that users can enter their work history, so you might be able to find your friend if you happen to know something about where they’ve worked. Of course, like Facebook, this will only work if your person is a member of LinkedIn already.
To use it, you’ll have to sign up to LinkedIn to gain access to the full database of users. Once that’s complete, find the Search Bar along the top of the main page and enter the person's name. Then on the right hand side of the page you can enter as many details as you know such as previous employers and connections.
If you find someone, you can click the blue Connect button. Once they’ve accepted your request, you can then visit their profile and click the blue Send a message button.
Step 6: Search the electoral roll
Websites such as 192.com allow you to search for people through the electoral roll. Once you’ve entered the person’s full name and location, suggestions should appear – but note that you only get 10 free searches a day. If you spot a likely match, you can pay to reveal their address or phone number.
Step 7: Ask the General Register Office
The government’s General Register Office deals with birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership and death certificates.
The GRO has every such record starting from July 1837 and it costs £9.25 to order a certificate. This could potentially help you find out if the person has a spouse now.
Step 8: Contact charities
Some charities and organisations can help with your search too (although some only assist with family-related searches). These include the Salvation Army, Missing People, ASR, Reunite, Red Cross and even the police. Website look4them.org.uk contains information on all of them.