SEOUsing Search to Find Missing Persons: Scratching the Surface

Using Search to Find Missing Persons: Scratching the Surface

Most of us in are in search for commercial reasons. But the industry has an altruistic side as well. The search for missing persons isn't over, and search can be key to finding the missing.

by Kathleen Fealy

Jan. 2, 1993. Vernon Kent Jones, 24 — known as Cameron to his friends — left a New Year’s Eve party in New York City. He didn’t make it home. The missing person report was filed Jan. 5, 1993.

Recently, his mother wrote a letter to appeal to those who may have seen him that night: “We have missed him and wondered as to his whereabouts for 16 years. Do you have any idea how difficult Christmas and New Year’s are for me and the rest of my family? It is a pain that never goes away. The fact that my son disappeared and we have no clue as to what happened or where he is, has haunted me and my two sons every day since Jan. 2, 1993.”

Robert Rahn, a private investigator with Management Resources Ltd. of New York, has used traditional media to publicize the Jones case. But after using search to promote his private investigation firm, Rahn realized he should integrate it into his case work as well.

He has since gathered print and digital assets — photos, videos, and age progression art — to place on He’ll also use social media to promote additional interest in the case. YouTube videos, Facebook pages and optimized press releases are planned.

Feb. 9, 1989. Tiffany Sessions, 19, was attending the University of Florida in Gainesville. She left her off-campus apartment at 6 p.m. to go for a walk. She never returned. The search began within a few hours of her disappearance. Twenty years later, her father still is searching.

Lisa Buyer, president and CEO of The Buyer Group, participated in the physical search in and around the University of Florida. She has since helped Tiffany’s father, Patrick, create a website and blog,, to keep the Sessions case in front of the public and media. It features posters, news, YouTube videos, Facebook links, law enforcement information, and resources, including a book co-written by Patrick, When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide.

Missing Persons Facts

Runaway teens and missing adults are very difficult to find. “Oftentimes their investigations go ‘cold’ due to the absence of any new leads,” Rahn says. “Law enforcement will keep the case open as long as they are missing, but will not actively investigate it unless there are new developments.”

Families of cold case missing persons victims often turn to private investigators in an attempt to locate their loved ones. The older the case, the more difficult it is to solve. The investigator must review the case files and try to locate and re-interview witnesses to develop new leads. Traditional media publicizes cases, but they usually only cover it once, and will not follow up unless the person is found or new evidence uncovered.

“Making the public aware of these cases is extremely important because generating new interest in the case often leads to new leads,” Rahn says.

Some statistics include:

  • NYPD handled 9,000 missing persons cases in 2008.
  • The first 48 to 72 hours are critical to any major case investigation.
  • Most runaways are between 15 and 17 years of age: “throwaway teens,” often known as “voluntary missing,” often fall through the cracks of missing persons investigations.

Online search can potentially save lives and bring peace to those who are faced with almost unimaginable circumstances.

Search Community Involvement

  • The Need for Education and ToolsSearch can be intimidating, but with education and tools, those on the front lines of missing persons searches can make a greater impact and gain attention. For instance, websites often lack standard optimization practices, including quality title and description tags, keyword placement, and text to support information contained in missing persons posters. Videos are uploaded onto YouTube, but aren’t optimized.

    Cold cases make the need for quality search even more vital. The website of New York state’s Division of State Police no longer lists persons who have been missing since before July 1996. Vernon Kent Jones is no longer listed. Even if he was, the site’s head tags do not promote the page:

    Wanted/Missing: Missing Persons
    Guidelines and seminars need to be created and made available to families and support agencies. At Search Engine Strategies San Jose, a guide will begin to be developed for families, law enforcement agencies, private investigators, human resource departments, and non-profit agencies.

  • The Need for Dedicated ChannelsMaking information easy to find is one of the goals of search.

    The need for dedicated channels is quickly evident when searching for a missing person on YouTube, Facebook, or various search engines.

    On Facebook, when “missing person” is entered, 73 groups appear — some invalid. Fan pages are located in many categories, with a slew of subheadings: beliefs and causes, families, current events, or activities, all under “common interests;” or within community or volunteer under “organizations.”

    Progress is being made. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and YouTube recently created a dedicated channel for missing children at

  • The Need for ResourcesImmediacy and access to a vast audience is vital during the first hours, days, and weeks. Funding is often limited. For those with missing persons reports, the following resource wish list could provide answers:

    Funding for online advertising: immediate access, to a specific amount, for a specified time period. Renewals possible. Social site ads could reach teenagers and young adults.

    Alerts, for both missing children and adults, to run on local search engines, Facebook, or Twitter (unofficial versions exist). NCMEC and Google partnered to create Google gadgets (missing children,, and AMBER alerts, for web pages, increasing awareness and visibility.

Search for the Greater Good

Most of us in the search industry are in it for commercial reasons. But, search has an altruistic side as evidenced during Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, when many assisted people in searching for loved ones. The search for missing persons isn’t over, and search can be key to finding the missing.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August issue of SES Magazine.

Kathleen Fealy is president of New York-based KF Multimedia & Web, Inc., which provides website strategy, SEO, and usability consulting and training. She has specialized in organic SEO since 2001 and is a speaker at Search Engine Strategies conferences and regional events. She’s also the education committee co-chair for SEMPO and a peer reviewer of SEMPO Institute’s “Insider’s Guide to Search Marketing” and “Advanced SEO” courses.


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