Have you experienced an increase in social media search requests? As attorneys become more likely to turn to social media during their informal discovery processes, I have found an uptick in questions like: “could you please do a social media background check on this person?” This is a growing information need I believe law librarians are excellently suited to fill, and really the next generation of public records search requests. Through conducting these searches and by leaning on the expertise of others I have put together my own toolkit on tricks to use. Below I list methods incorporating Google advanced search terms to conduct searches on Facebook quickly and with high relevancy (Part 2 of this series, where I discuss using advanced searches in Twitter, is available here).
Granted, results for social media searches are completely dependent on privacy settings. If a user has set their privacy settings very high, it doesn’t matter what type of tool you use to try to find them, the results will not populate, and the results will not be open to the public. Furthermore, one of the tricks of performing social media searches is to do so while avoiding the ethical problems of being logged into the actual social media service; the tricks listed below do not requiring the searcher to be logged in.
Facebook person search
Since it is the largest social media site on Earth, and basically synonymous with the term “social media”, I am going to start with Facebook.
Facebook has a people searching utility you can use without having to be logged in, available here. However, the full search results are not provided–users are required to log into the service to access the entire result set. The way around this is to employ Google advanced search terms and connectors, specifically on the www.facebook.com domain. Due to Facebook enabling users the ability to create custom URLs, and these URLs commonly including a user’s name, you can put together a Google search string to search Facebook URLs. For example, Barack Obama’s Facebook URL is www.facebook.com/barackobama; what makes these Google advanced searches effective is Obama’s name being contained in the URL (big thanks to Ian Cleary’s article “4 GREAT TOOLS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA SEARCH” that appeared on Razor Social that discusses conducting these types of searches). Use the following search string in Google:
site:www.facebook.com inurl:person’s name
Pretty simple!–though I usually end up incorporating a few iterations of this search to really cover all ground. Think of the iterations like putting together an advanced term and connector search for case law–sometimes a little back and forth with the results is required before you end up with the perfect search string. Again, in Facebook, users are able to customize their own URL, so the real trick in finding particular users is to try different iterations of their name for the search. This can be done through manipulating the data that will go in the “person’s name” portion of the above search string. I always include the last name, but generally add an subtract the first name, and try variations of adding spaces between the first and last names. Here are the iterations I use:
Iteration #1: inurl:barackobama
As far as finding the leader of the free world’s Facebook page, this is the way to do it. Our 44th President’s Facebook page is at http://www.facebook.com/barackobama, therefore, searching for “inurl:barackobama” leads us right to it. A little luck is involved to have this particular search be successful, it requires the user to have created their custom URL in this format: lastnamefirstname, but, this is a pretty common approach to user’s custom URL creation.
Iteration #2: inurl:obama
Successful social media searching relies, admittedly, on how unique the name is of the person you are searching for. Obama is a pretty unique name, so doing a search for inurl:obama will give us some good results, but, we are led to fan pages and one of Obama’s daughter’s page–the reason being, of course, that the term “Obama” is in the title of these Facebook pages. This search isn’t as good as iteration number one, but, if you’re searching for a person with an extremely unique name, this can get you to your result very quickly.
ITERATION #3: INURL:barack OBAMA
And the results:
Due to Barack Obama being an immensely popular figure, the actual results show there are many Facebook pages that contain both Barack and Obama in their URLs. As seen above, there are fan pages, and anti-fan pages (results 1 and 3 really show Facebook’s bipartisanship, eh?). If we were looking for someone with a unique name, that maybe wasn’t such a popular figure, this would be a good search, however, the “inurl:Barack Obama” search produces a lot of noise. Also note that when you include a space in the search, that space kind of gets translated into being a wildcard character–in the above example, searching for inurl:barack obama retrieves results for URLS with barack-obama. This leads us to the next discussion:
Spaces matter in the search string! You will get different results if you enter: inurl:obama versus inurl: obama . That little space will be enough to drastically decrease the relevancy of your search results. See the screenshots below to see what happens when you add that pesky, little space:
Having that space between inurl: and your terms appears to cause Google to search for instances where “inurl:” and “obama” appear on the same facebook page. With that additional space, inurl: turns from being a search to be conducted inside just the URL of the page, to inurl: being the terms of the search–like you’re googling “inurl:”. Trust me, I’ve unintentionally added that space numerous times–it’s an easy mistake to make.
facebook phrase search
This is another handy search that can yield very high relevancy results. Is your requester interested in finding out if people are commenting on a particular situation or person? Well, then you can use the following key terms construction:
So, rather than tell Google to strictly search inside the URLs of Facebook, you are telling it to search all public content that includes the particular search string you are putting together.
So, say you are curious to see if anybody used the phrase “someone on my bus” on Facebook, you would devise the following search:
And that would lead you to these particular results, showing “someone on my bus” appearing in various Facebook posts. Again, this can be handy if you are trying to find a trending topic and/or a trending name.
Putting it altogether: INURL + Phrase Searching
So, the inurl: searches are great unless you have a common name, and the “phrase searching” is great if you’re trying to find non-URL text in a Facebook page. You can combine these searches for those cases when you have a person’s name and some other detail about the person, say, a location. In the following search, we are trying to find Obamas that have locations of “Washington, DC”.
Interestingly, results where “obama” and “washington” and “dc” all appear in the URL will be ranked the highest, followed by results where “obama” is in the URL but “Washington, DC” appears in the text of the page. So, the http://www.facebook.com/barackobama page will appear among the results, but it’s actually the sixth result. Regardless, this is a great search when you have a name and a location.
Those are my tricks for searching Facebook using Google advanced search terms! Thanks for reading this article, in Part 2: we will look at conducting social media searches in Twitter and LinkedIn!