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Published: Saturday, 4/27/2002

There's no big directory for e-mails

Finding e-mail addresses is light-years tougher and more frustrating today than it was a decade ago.

Difficulties have grown as the number of people using electronic mail spiraled from a few hundred thousand in the early 1990s to almost 50 million today. With no comprehensive national e-mail directory, finding an address can become a needle-in-the-haystack proposition.

Several problems are fueling the situation: One is the deluge of junk e-mail, which makes people reluctant to register their names at e-mail directory sites. Another is the online money crunch, in which once free web sites are scrambling for income.

Consider one example. A web site called Four11 used to have an uncanny ability to track down e-mail addresses. Yahoo, the popular search engine site, bought Four11 in 1997, and incorporated it into Yahoo's “people search” function, available with a click on Yahoo's home page.

Now those Four11-powered searches often are unproductive. The results of a free “basic” search seem to include an unusual number of addresses from Yahoo's own e-mail service. When the free search fails, it points users to a fee-based “enhanced” search service that starts at $9.95 and provides other information about individuals.

Is there really an incentive to maintain a comprehensive address list for basic searches? Web sites are learning that it's silly to give information away free when you can sell it.

The most highly recommended e-mail directories include Four11 (www.four11. com), InfoSpace (www.infospace.com), Internet Address Finder (www.iaf.net), Lycos People Finder (www.whowhere .lycos.com), Switchboard.com (www3. switchboard.com), Bigfoot (www.big foot.com), MetaEmailSearchAgent (http://mesa.rrzn.uni-hannover.de), and Infobel (www.infobel.com/World).

Give them a test, as I did. Search for someone who absolutely, positively does have an e-mail address - yourself. The odds should have been much better in my case, because I have four e-mail addresses. Nevertheless, I was a nonperson to those directories.

When e-mail directories fail, there are plenty of alternatives. Direct contact may be the best. For some reason, many people are reluctant to simply call an individual on the telephone and request the e-mail address: “Could I have your e-mail address so I can send some information without taking up your time on the telephone?”

If time is not a consideration, write the person a paper letter with your own e-mail address. Ask the person to send an e-mail so you can reply.

Another option involves searching for the person's name on the Internet. The results may include documents containing an e-mail address, or other information that can lead to an e-mail address.

One is place of employment. Some company web sites offer employee directories that include e-mail addresses. Most colleges and universities offer faculty, staff, and student directories that include e-mail and other contact information. If not, try searching for the individual's name with the general search tool on the web page. The results may include an e-mail address.

Educated guesses can be surprisingly accurate. Suppose you want to e-mail John Doe at the Smith Corporation, which has a web address of www.smithcorp.com. Doe's e-mail address probably is a combination like jdoe@smithcorp.com, john.doe@smithcorp.com, doej@smithcorp.com, or john_doe@smithcorp.com.

Try requesting an address via the page's “Contact Us” link, or e-mail the web site's postmaster (postmaster@smithcorp.com).

The “Contact Us” address, or other e-mail addresses on the web site, can provide clues to the exact format.

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.

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