THE MAGAZINE

Cold Cases and "Social Search"

By John Wagley

In working on a “cold” missing person’s case, Robert Rahn, president of Management Resources, a New York City-based investigations firm, is taking full advantage of social networking and other Web search tools.
 
He turned to such tools partly at the suggestion of an online marketing executive, Kathy Fealy, who was already helping him in other areas of his business. Many of the traditional investigative methods, particularly in cold cases, can grow expensive quickly, says Fealy, president of Pearl River, New York-based KF Multimedia & Web, Inc.
 
One particular challenge of cold cases, Rahn says, is that over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the attention of traditional media outlets, which used to be one of the only ways to engage the general public. Investigators hoped media attention could spur someone to come forward with potentially valuable information about an old crime.
 
Now, Fealy is hoping social media and search tools can help fill some of this void. She has posted videos on YouTube about Rahn’s cold case subject, Vernon Jones, who disappeared in 1993.
 
Fealy has also established pages for Jones on sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Potential visitors can learn about the case and post any thoughts. Fealy has employed her knowledge of search engines to bring traffic to Jones’ sites. It often helps to “frontload” site pages with the “most natural” terms people use in searches, she says.
 
Rahn says another tool he is using on the cold case is Google Alerts, which can notify him whenever relevant phrases or words are posted on forums, discussion boards, and other Google-trawled sites.
 
Rahn and Fealy were among several executives who discussed their experiences using search engines on cold and similar cases at the recent Search Engines Strategies conference in San Jose, California. Fealy says she has spoken informally with search engine executives about improving search methods. One of her hopes is that some major social networking sites could create separate cold case portals. Some sites currently devote sections to missing children, she says.      
    
Rahn says he has found tools such as Google Alerts and social networking highly valuable in many of his other assignments, including serving subpoenas and building evidence in legal cases. Now, for cold cases, says Rahn, the tools could be a “great untapped resource."

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