Email directory inquiries


ONE problem for Internet newcomers is how to find someone's email address. Unlike the phone system, where's directory inquiries? In fact, where's the directory?

At the end of the day, you could always ring the person and ask them for their address. Or if you know which Internet service provider (ISP) they use, you could guess their address. Or look up the ISP's Web site in the unlikelihood that it includes a directory of users.

If the person is in the States you are spoiled for choice, with dozens of Web-based search facilities (see panel). The Lycos site, for example, allows you to search for anyone with a US phone number or email address - what makes the service spooky or sublime is the extra option to zoom in on a map showing where the person lives.

On this side of the Atlantic, several major projects such as X500 have attempted to compile email directories, but unlike phone directories most of these email ones are based on voluntary registration. Such is human nature that they have a hard time attracting many people to fill in the details. So the bulk of them are far too incomplete.

E-Search is a new Irish email directory which is due to go live on the Web this morning. Like many other directories, its success or failure will depend on email users voluntarily registering and filling in the background information.

"It is primarily a directory for Ireland and Irish people living both at home and abroad," says E-Search's Andrew O'Shaughnessy, a freelance computer consultant. "It does not attempt to be a world directory or a European directory. By restricting its scope, I can improve its effectiveness.

On the surface, an email directory might seem to be a straightforward enough operation: use computing power to suck any addresses with ".ie" at the end of them off the Net, then bash them into a searchable database.

O'Shaughnessy already has some 20,000 Irish email addresses, culled from publicly available sources such as Web pages, existing directories and newsgroup postings. But with email directories there are delicate questions such as junk mail-outs and data protection legislation, so the Web site will start off with only around 500 addresses

"Originally I decided to automatically register all addresses I found in the public domain," O'Shaughnessy says, "but now I have decided that no one will be entered in E-Search without their prior consent. I am getting cooperation from most of the leading Internet service providers, who will mail their customers with details of the directory in early January. I will mail others directly from E-Search."

Besides names and email addresses there are categories such as company/organisation, address, phone, Web home page and fax. "There may be many John Murphys in the directory. If the John you are looking for has entered his address or some other details that you may recognise, it will help you to determine the correct email address.

"If you get no reply to your email you may wish to follow up the contact with either phone, fax or conventional mail. The extra fields are to make it a truly useful email directory, and not to attempt to be all things to everybody."

With a database of a possible 20,000 names so far, how big is that compared with the total number of Irish email accounts? Indeed, can anyone say for certainty how many email accounts there are in Ireland?

"My estimate is roughly 45,000 accounts provided directly by the ISPs. Of these, over 75 per cent will receive a direct mail telling them about E-Search. There are probably at least the same again within the large corporations, but these would mainly be internal mail systems and would not be entered in a public directory. These will be followed up by E-Search to register those address which the company wants in the public arena, i.e. Sales, After Sales, Marketing etc."

The service is free - they hope to raise revenue through advertising on the site. As for that growing problem of junk email, he emphasises that "E-search does not pass on address details to direct mailing companies or anyone else."

The result from any query is limited to 30 replies, which don't appear tgether on one page, thus making it an inefficient source for mailing lists.