May 26, 2010

Reputation Management and Social Media

Part 3: Searching, Following and Friending: How users monitor other people’s digital footprints online

Searching for others

Seven in ten online adults have searched online for information about other people.

While users have become more curious about our own digital footprints over time, they have also become more likely to search for information about a range of other people in their lives. When asked about eight different groups of people they may encounter in everyday life, 69% of online adults had searched for information about others in at least one of these various groups. As a general rule, internet users under the age of 50 are more likely than older internet users to have sought information about other people in their lives. Three in four internet users under age 50 have searched for information about at least one of these groups, compared with 64% of online adults ages 50-64 and 53% of those ages 65 and older.

Another trend that is consistent across every one of these questions is that social networking users are far more likely than non-users to say they search for information about others in their lives. Overall, 84% of SNS users have searched online for information about at least one of the groups we asked about compared with 56% of non-SNS users. Likewise, those with more tech assets—such as broadband access at home, wireless connectivity or multiple internet-connected devices—are more likely than other internet users to search online for information about the people in their lives.

Few searchers say they seek out online information about others on a regular basis, and most have done so only once or twice.

Among the 69% of internet users who have searched for information about people in their lives, very few make a regular habit of it. Just 5% of these seekers of others say they search for information about other people on a regular basis, while 53% say they have done so only once or twice. Another 39% say they search for information about people “every once in a while.”

There is not great variation according to age in the frequency of searching, though young adults are somewhat more likely than older adults to say they search either on a regular basis or every once in a while.

Who we search for

Reconnecting and rekindling: Nearly half of online adults (46%) have searched for information about someone from their past or someone they have lost touch with.

As was the case in 2006, people with whom we have lost touch are the most commonly sought-after group. While 36% of internet users had searched for information about someone from their past in 2006, now 46% say they have done this. Re-establishing connections and gathering information about people we have lost touch with is a hallmark of people search in the digital age. In a similar question, we asked respondents if they had ever personally been contacted by someone from their past, and 40% say yes (up from just 20% in 2006).

Among those users who have been contacted by someone from their past, most are also taking steps to revive connections themselves; 73% say they have personally sought out information about someone from their past.

These groups stand out as significantly more likely to seek information about people with whom they have lost touch:

  • Younger internet users - 53% of internet users under age 50 have sought information about someone from their past compared with just 36% of those over age 50.
  • College grads – 55% of internet users with a college degree seek out information about those they have lost touch with online compared with 35% of those with a high school degree.
  • Parents – 51% of parents search for information about those with whom they have lost touch, compared with 44% of non-parents.
  • Broadband users – 50% of internet users with broadband at home search for information about people from their past, compared with 28% of dial-up users.
  • Wireless users – 52% of wireless internet users search for information about past connections, compared with 34% of non-wireless users.
  • SNS users – 64% of social networking users have searched for information about someone from their past, compared with 30% of non-users.

Online reputation matters: 44% of online adults have searched for information about someone whose services or advice they seek in a professional capacity.

Increasingly, the internet is being used as a point of reference not only for the people we know or used to know in our lives, but also for those with whom users may be interacting in the future. In the business world, where people seek out services from competing people and companies with whom they have had no prior interaction, a positive online recommendation or a negative review can a crucial deciding factor for a potential client. In all, 44% of online adults say they have searched online for information about someone whose services or advice they seek in a professional capacity, like a doctor, lawyer or plumber.21

There is not great variation for this activity across age groups, although internet users age 65 and older are considerably less likely to use the internet for this kind of search. While 49% of internet users ages 30-49 have searched online for information about someone whose services or advice they were seeking, just 23% of internet users ages 65 and older have done this. However, the following groups display a greater tendency to research those whose services they seek:

  • College grads – 58% of those with a college degree have sought information online about someone whose services or advice they were seeking, compared with 29% of high school grads.
  • Higher income groups – Among internet users living in households earning $75,000 or more per year, 58% have sought info about someone who would provide professional services, compared with just 34% of those living in households earning $30,000 or less.
  • White internet users – Whites are more likely than Hispanic internet users to have researched someone whose services they seek (46% vs. 31%).
  • Parents - 49% of parents search for information about those whose services they seek, compared with 40% of non-parents.
  • Broadband users – 49% of internet users with broadband at home have searched for information about someone whose services or advice they were seeking, compared with 21% of dial-up users.
  • Wireless users – 50% of wireless internet users have done online research about those whose services they seek, compared with just 30% of non-wireless users.
  • SNS users – 56% of social networking users have searched for information about someone whose services they seek, compared with 33% of non-users.

Social background checks are growing in popularity, but are not yet the norm: 38% of internet users have searched online to find information about their friends.

Over time, internet users have become significantly more likely to search online for information about their friends. Well over a third (38%) now say they do so, up from just 26% in 2006. The propensity to search for information about friends is closely linked to age:

  • Young adults – 53% of young adult internet users ages 18-29 search for information about their friends, while 42% of those ages 30-49 do so. Likewise, only 28% of internet users ages 50-64 search for their friends’ digital footprints, compared with just 18% of those ages 65 and older.
  • Broadband users – Internet users with broadband at home are twice as likely as dial-up users to search for information about their friends online (42% vs. 21%).
  • Wireless users – Internet users with wireless access are also twice as likely as non-wireless users to search for information about friends online (45% vs. 24%).
  • SNS users – 58% of social networking users have sought information about their friends online, compared with 22% of non-users.

Curious about our kin: Nearly one in three (30%) internet users have searched for information about their family members online.

Searches for family members have also grown over time, such that 30% of internet users now say they have searched for information about people in their family, up from 23% in 2006. Many of the same tendencies that apply for friend searchers also apply to those that seek out information about their family, though the differences are not as stark:

  • Young adults – 34% of young adult internet users ages 18-29 search for information about their family members, compared with 32% of those ages 30-49. However, only 25% of internet users ages 50-64 seek out information about their family members, which is the same incidence (24%) among those ages 65 and older.
  • White internet users – 31% of white internet users have searched for information about people in their family online, compared with just 22% of Hispanic internet users.
  • Broadband users – Among internet users with high-speed access at home, 32% search for information about their family members online, compared with 21% of dial-up users.
  • Wireless users – 34% of wireless internet users search for information about their family members online, compared with 20% of non-wireless internet users.
  • SNS users – 40% of social networking users have sought information about their family members online, compared with 20% of non-users.

Digital footprints at work: One in four (26%) internet users have searched for information about co-workers, professional colleagues or business competitors online.

Internet users are now more likely to say that they have sought information about their co-workers, colleagues or business competitors online; 26% now report this, up from 19% in 2006. Looking specifically at employed internet users, 31% have searched online for information about co-workers, professional colleagues or business competitors, up from 23% in 2006. Unlike the other groups we asked about, there are significant differences in the responses to this question according to gender, and the age differences among internet users under the age of 65 are modest. The figures below refer to subgroups of all internet users:

  • Men – Male internet users are considerably more likely than female internet users to check up on the digital footprints of their co-workers, colleagues and competitors (31% vs. 21%).
  • College grads – Those with a college degree are more than three times as likely as those with a high school degree to seek out information about work colleagues and competitors (42% vs. 13%).
  • Higher income groups – 35% of internet users living in households earning $75,000 or more per year search for the digital footprints of their co-workers and competitors, compared with just 19% of those with a household income of $30,000 or less.
  • Broadband users – 29% of internet users with broadband at home have searched for information about their co-workers and business competitors, compared with just 12% of dial-up users.
  • Wireless users – 31% of wireless internet users have searched for information about colleagues and competitors, while only 15% of non-wireless users have done do.
  • SNS users – 36% of social networking users say they have sought information about their colleagues and competitors, compared with 17% of non-SNS users.

Nosy neighbors or just well-informed? One in five (19%) internet users say they have searched online for information about neighbors and people in their community.

While the sources for seeking out information about our neighbors have grown, including neighborhood listservs, sites like Rottenneighbor.com and more easily accessible information about sex offender registries, the number of internet users seeking this information has not changed significantly since 2006. One in five internet users say they have searched for information about their neighbors or people in their community, which is about the same as the 17% who reported this in the previous survey.

All internet users under the age of 65 are equally as likely to seek out information about their neighbors, while just 10% of internet users over age 65 go online to search for people in their community. Other groups who are more likely to be interested in their neighbors’ digital footprints include:

  • Parents – Among online parents, 23% have searched to find information about their neighbors on the internet, while 17% of non-parents have done this.
  • Broadband users – Those with high-speed connections at home are more likely than dial-up users to seek out information about their neighbors online (21% vs. 13%).
  • Wireless users – Those with wireless connectivity are also more likely than the wire-bound to check up on their neighbors (21% vs. 14%).
  • SNS users – One in four (25%) users of social networking sites have sought information about neighbors online, compared with14% of non-SNS users.

New connections inspire new searches; 19% of internet users have searched for information about someone they just met or were about to meet for the first time.

Overall, one in five (19%) internet users have searched online to find information about someone they just met or were about to meet for the first time, up from 11% in 2006. One of the practical uses of people search tools is to learn basic information about someone—such as contact information or place of employment—either before or soon after meeting that person. However, even simple name searches can reveal much more detail than that, including photos, videos and social media profiles. As noted in the previous chapter, 42% of internet users say that photos of them are available online for others to see, while 10% say they know that videos of them are available. Likewise, 46% of online adults are users of social networking sites who have created their own profiles for others to see.

There are little or no differences across different racial and ethnic groups as well as across income categories for this question. However, several groups are notable for their tendency to seek out information about those they have just met or are about to meet for the first time:

  • Men – Online men are more likely (22%) than online women (16%) to search the internet for more information about the new people they meet.
  • Young adults – Internet users ages 18-29 are the most likely to research their new connections online; 28% of online adults ages 18-29 conduct these searches, compared with 20% of those ages 30-49, 13% of those ages 50-64 and 4% of those ages 65 and older.
  • College grads – Among internet users with a college degree, 27% search for information about new people they meet, compared with just 13% of high school grads.
  • Broadband users – Internet users with broadband at home are twice as likely as dial-up users to seek information about new people they meet (21% vs. 9%).
  • Wireless users – Wireless internet users are also twice as likely as the wire-bound to search for information about new people they meet (22% vs. 11%).
  • SNS users – Social networking users are three times as engaged with this type of searching as their non-SNS using counterparts; 29% of SNS users search for information about people they have just met or are about to meet, compared with just 10% of non-SNS users.

More daters now do their relationship homework online; 16% of online adults have sought information about someone they were dating or in a relationship with, up from 9% in 2006.

Since 2006, internet users have become more likely to search online for information about the people they are dating or in a relationship with. One in six (16%) internet users now say they have researched their romantic partners online, up from one in ten (9%) in the previous survey. Interestingly, online men are just as likely as online women to search for information about those they are dating or in a relationship with. There are no differences among racial and ethnic groups and only significant differences among the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups (with the highest income and education groups being somewhat more likely than those with lower levels of education and income to search for information about their romantic interests).

However, those who use online dating websites (8% of adult internet users) are twice as likely as non-online daters to search for information about their romantic partners online (34% vs. 15%). In addition, the following groups tend to use online tools to research their mates:

  • Young adults – Internet users ages 18-29 are more likely than older users to seek information about romantic interests online. Nearly one in three young adult users (29%) search for information about people they are dating or in a relationship with, compared with just 6% of users ages 50-64.
  • Broadband users – Users with high-speed at home are almost four times as likely as dial-up users to seek information about romantic interests online (19% vs. 4%).
  • Wireless users – Those with wireless connections are twice as likely as the wire-bound to check out their mates online (20% vs. 9%).
  • SNS users – Users of social networking sites are four times as likely as non-users to research their romantic partners online (28% vs. 7%).

What we search for

While basic contact information continues to top searchers’ lists, demand for social networking profiles and photos has grown considerably over time.

Looking at the 69% of internet users who have searched for information about others online, seven in ten say they have gone online to find someone’s contact information, like an address or phone number. This proportion is essentially the same as our 2006 survey, when 72% of those who had searched for information about people in their lives said they had sought contact information.

By contrast, searches for social networking profiles have grown by 45% during that same period—from 33% in 2006 to 48% in 2009. Likewise, searches for photos of someone grew by 39%—from 31% to 43%.

While young adult internet users ages 18-29 are somewhat less likely than older users to search for basic contact information, they are significantly more likely to search for social networking profiles and photos:

  • Contact information: 62% of people searchers ages 18-29 say they have searched for someone’s contact information, like an address or phone number, compared with 73% of those ages 30-49, and 74% of those ages 50-64.
  • Social networking profiles: 66% of people searchers ages 18-29 say they have searched for someone’s profile on a social or professional networking site, while 51% of those ages 30-49 and 31% of those ages 50-64 say this.
  • Photos: 61% of people searchers ages 18-29 say they have searched for someone’s photo online, compared with 43% of those ages 30-49 and 32% of searchers ages 50-64.

What we search for about others

While there are no significant gender differences among those who search for contact information or social networking profiles, men are considerably more likely than women to search for photos of people online. Half of men who search for information about others online say they search for photos, while just 36% of female people searchers say they have searched for images of someone.

Internet users are now more likely to search for social networking profiles than they are to search for information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests.

In the age of social media, it is now the case that a Facebook profile may get more traffic than your resume or your bio on your employer’s website. Over time, people searchers have become more likely to seek out social networking profiles than they are to see information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests. While 37% of people searchers said they had sought this kind of information in 2006 (making it the second-most popular kind of search), 36% reported the same in 2009 (making it the fourth-most popular query). That compares with almost half of people searchers who say they seek out profiles online.

Once again, men are more likely than women to initiate this kind of search; 41% of men who search for information about others say they have looked for information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests, compared with 31% of female searchers. Those who have a college degree or live in higher income households are also more likely than those with lower levels of education or income to conduct this kind of search.

Personal background information and public records interest one in four internet users who search for information about others online.

Overall, 27% of people searchers say that they have sought personal background information about someone online. That number is essentially the same as 2006, when 28% reported seeking background information about someone on the internet. Similarly, 27% say they have searched for someone else’s public records, such as real estate transactions, divorce proceedings, bankruptcies, or other legal actions. The portion who report doing this now is slightly lower than it was in the previous survey, when 31% said they had looked for someone’s public records online.

Searchers who are ages 30-64 are more likely than the youngest and oldest segments of internet users to seek out public records online. While 21% of people searchers in the 18-29 age group say they have tried to find public records about someone online, 29% of those ages 30-49 and 33% of those who are 50-64 have done so. Just 18% of searchers ages 65 and older have looked for someone’s public records online.

One in six searchers say they have gone online to find information about the relationship status of someone they know.

Sharing information about your relationship status—whether you are single or in a relationship, for example—has become a standard feature of many social networking profiles. However, this kind of information could also be gleaned from other sources, such as blogs, public records or publicly shared photos. Overall, 17% of internet users who seek information about others online have looked for relationship status information about someone. Unsurprisingly, young adults are by far the most active in seeking out relationship status information. Fully 39% of people searchers ages 18-29 have looked for someone’s relationship status online, compared with just 13% of searchers ages 30-49, 4% of those ages 50-64 and less than 1% of those ages 65 and older.

Those who use social networking sites—who also tend to be younger—are far more likely to say they have specifically searched for relationship status information. One in four (27%) social networking users who have sought information about others online say they have looked for relationship status information, compared with just 5% of non-SNS users.

Yet, for all of the people searching internet users do online, most think that it’s not fair to judge people based on the information they find.

As noted above, most internet users have searched for information about people in their lives. However, when asked if they agree or disagree with the following statement, “It’s not fair to judge people based on the information you find online,” fully 81% said they agree. Almost half (45%) say they strongly agree with that statement, while 36% said they somewhat agree with the statement. Overall, just 14% of internet users disagree, with 6% saying they strongly disagree.

Among those who search for information about others online, the results were nearly identical to those for all internet users. Overall, 83% of people searchers said they agree that it is not fair to judge others based on the information you find, while 45% strongly agree. Likewise, 13% disagree with that statement and 5% strongly disagree.

Half of internet users say it bothers them that people think it’s normal to search for information about others online.

Despite all their searching and reputation management practices, many users seem to be bothered by their own behavior. Fully 50% of internet users agree with the following statement: “It bothers me that people think it’s normal to search for information about others online.” About one in four (23%) say they strongly agree with this statement, while 27% say they somewhat agree. However, four in ten internet users (40%) disagree with this statement–13% strongly disagree, and 27% somewhat disagree.

Those who search for information about others online are less likely than non-searchers to say they are personally bothered by the practice. Yet, 47% still agree with the statement overall, with 18% of people searchers saying they strongly agree that they are bothered compared with 36% of non-searchers.

Internet users are divided about whether or not access to online information about people makes the process of getting to know them easier and more meaningful.

Half of internet users (48%) say they agree that “getting to know new people now is easier and more meaningful because you can learn things online about the people you meet.” Yet, almost as many (43%) disagree with that statement. Just 9% say they strongly agree with that statement, while 39% said they somewhat agree. Of those who disagree that getting to know new people has been made easier because of online information, 20% say they strongly disagree and 23% say they somewhat disagree.

Those who have searched for information about others online are more likely than non-searchers to think that the process of getting to know new people has become easier and more meaningful. Overall, 54% of people searchers agree that getting to know people now is easier, compared with 38% of non-searchers.

  1. This was the first time we asked this question, so there is no comparable data from 2006.