ZoomInfo Shows Promise as People Finder

Niche search engines are becoming more common these days. Instead of going broad and shallow, they narrowly focus on one area and dig deep for information. Do they really offer better results than the major general search engines, such as Google and Yahoo!? Today we examine ZoomInfo, a niche search engine that serves jobhunters, recruiters, and anyone concerned with education and employment-related information about people.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and a few others stand out as the search engines to use when hunting for any kind of general information on the Internet. Web search is a cutthroat field, and there doesn’t seem to be any more space at the top. What could these giants be leaving out that would give any other search engine some maneuvering room?

If you can’t go as broad as the general search engines, you can go narrow and deep. There is still room for search engines that specialize in one topic or field. For example, a search engine that focused on everything related to gardening could delight its users with the fact that a search on “apple” won’t return the name of a computer company. These are commonly referred to as niche search engines, and today we’ll be looking at one that specializes in people and business: ZoomInfo.

First I’ll give you a little historical background. ZoomInfo started an idea in CEO Jonathan Stern’s head in early 2000. At that time he was working for a company that makes hardware and software that scans business cards. He thought that if he could collect information about every company – what they do, what products they sell, who works there – it would be worth a lot of money. Thus was born the spin-off company that became ZoomInfo.

ZoomInfo is a search engine that finds information about people. It indexes corporate websites, press releases, electronic news services, SEC filings, and a variety of other online sources. From this information, ZoomInfo compiles a summary that covers a specific individual or company. Currently, the search engine has 27 million profiles of people and more than two million profiles of companies in its database.

While there are a number of interesting points about the search engine, two stand out for me: first, the information it compiles is all publicly available for free. That might go some way toward quelling privacy concerns (though it is unlikely to quash them completely). Second, to quote from ZoomInfo itself: “Every piece of ZoomInfo data is extracted and compiled by computer, with no human intervention.” That has a number of consequences, not all of them good.

{mospagebreak title=How it Works}

ZoomInfo says it uses natural language extraction tools to allow it to read English sentences and understand their meaning. It then pulls out the relevant pieces of information about people, such as the companies they work for and their job titles. Their algorithms let them analyze a website to understand how it is constructed, and organize the information gleaned from the website accordingly. For example, does a particular paragraph describe a company, or tell the location of the company headquarters? Is a particular page designed to offer contact information about the company, or does it discuss the company’s partners? That second question makes a big difference in how any physical addresses found on the page are handled by the index.
Once the information is pulled and categorized, ZoomInfo sifts through and organizes the data into summaries. The search engine then tries to interpret and resolve inconsistencies in the information. I say “tries,” because it does better with some names and companies than others.

The interface is easy to use. There is a search box on the home page, and you can choose between searching for a person or a company. Or, if you want, you can click on the “Find” tab. This brings up a screen that lets you enter the person’s first and last name, and their company or the university they attended. ZoomInfo didn’t find me at my alma mater, but they did turn up a total of 13 people with my name – and the last one was me, here at Developer Shed.

ZoomInfo has a very small profile for me, made up of just one item. However, the first Terri Wells that comes up in the search engine is at Google News – and that’s me, too. How do I know? ZoomInfo lists their sources of information from the web and lets you click on them. While these might have been stories that Google News picked up, the original source for them – as clearly shown from the links – is Developer Shed (or more precisely, Dev Shed, one of my company’s websites). Somehow, though, ZoomInfo couldn’t figure out that the Terri Wells that appeared at first glance to be from Google News is really the Terri Wells at Developer Shed.

There is a way to fix that if I choose. Each profile has a “This is me” link. You can register with the search engine for free, though you’ll need to give them some information (including a credit card number, which they won’t charge) to prove that you are who you say you are. Once you’re registered, you can edit and consolidate your web summary. Other people will see that you have edited your summary. Still, it’s a way to control the information that gets disseminated about you over the Internet. ZoomInfo points out that a well-written personal profile from their site will likely be the first item that pops up when someone does a Google search for you. Jobhunters could stand to benefit here.

{mospagebreak title=More Features}

In addition to the basic search, which anyone can use for free, ZoomInfo offers Premium and Power Search versions. In addition to the basic features, the Premium version lets you find employees of a specific company, alumni of a particular university, or people mentioned on a specific website. It also lets you perform “keyword pivot searches” built from titles, companies, geographical area, industries or schools. Again, this can be useful if you are a jobhunter; it can help you find the companies in a particular field, along with their competitors. It’s a little pricey, though; one month of Premium search costs $49.99. A one-week trial of this version is available for just under $20.

The Power search offers even more options. Along with all of the features available from the Premium search, users of the Power search can do in-depth people searches involving multiple keywords covering more than 20 criteria. They receive full people summaries with complete employment and contact information, which can be exported into Excel worksheets or CRM systems by using ZoomInfo’s V-card feature. They can also perform company searches based on revenue or employee count. And they gain access to workflow management tools and integrated search/email campaign tools.

As I’m sure you guessed from the description of available features, Power search is aimed at company recruiters. The search engine doesn’t list a subscription price; you have to contact ZoomInfo for that information. The company boasts on its front page that Power search customers “include over 20% of the Fortune 500, 9 of the top 10 executive recruiting firms and thousands of others.” ZoomInfo’s list of current Power search users includes Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google, as well as many other highly respected names in a variety of fields: high tech, healthcare, banking, media (Time Warner), retail, education (Boston University)…the list goes on and on.

ZoomInfo clearly seems to be a leader in its niche. It offers more information and more features than any similar search engine I’ve seen. More isn’t always better, though – and while I applaud ZoomInfo’s sophistication, it still has a way to go before it becomes the Google of human resources, as you’ll see in a moment.

{mospagebreak title=How it Fails}

Two experiments I tried, aside from the one I mentioned earlier in this article, point out the shortcomings of at least the basic version of ZoomInfo’s search. In addition to looking for myself, I did a search on the name of our chief technology officer. To say that his last name is fairly common would be an understatement; his first name isn’t exactly unusual, either. As you might have expected, ZoomInfo spat out more than 200 people with that name.

But it gets worse. Putting in his name along with the company he currently works for brought up no one – despite the fact that Developer Shed has a company profile in ZoomInfo. Not only do we have a company profile, but we have press releases that have been sent to PRNewswire that mention his name and title. When we decided to investigate further by putting in his name along with the name of the company he spent eight years working for before coming here, we again came up empty-handed.

Actually, mentioning the Developer Shed company profile brings up another interesting point. We are definitely in ZoomInfo; you can even see what appears to be a recent screen shot from our website (in thumbnail). Most of the information listed is accurate. But the only contact information that is accurate is our URL; the address and phone number are wrong – in fact, they look like they belong to the previous owner of some of our sites, which would make the information at least three years out of date.

This discrepancy points out the problem with relying solely on computers. The address and phone number ZoomInfo gives are located in Colorado. But one of the excerpts that it gives, which describes Developer Shed, explicitly states that “The company is based in Davie, Florida…” The matter could have been resolved with a Whois lookup. If this had been a person rather than a company, there would be handy links on the profile page to let a user make corrections. But there are no such links on this page. If you go to ZoomInfo’s contact form, you are given a list of topics to choose from; while updating personal profiles account for two of the topics, there is nothing for updating a company profile.

This is very annoying, though I grant that it might be difficult to come up with some way of having a person verify that they have the right to make changes to a company profile. Then again, the issue of authority is one that ZoomInfo must face with every search. One commentator referred to it as “authority control,” which is a little more accurate. Without a well organized and maintained file of authoritative sources, you run into problems. To give credit where it is due, this is not as easy to do as it sounds.

To sum up, ZoomInfo does show real promise. It seems to have developed quite a bit since it opened for business. But it could still use some improvement, and it might benefit from bringing some more human intervention into the mix. It should be used while keeping its shortcomings in mind, but recruiters and jobhunters alike should find it an excellent resource even as it stands now. I’m sure we will see more niche search engines, covering this area and others, in the years to come.

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