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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Google Phonebook

Google combines residential and business phone number information and its own excellent interface to offer a phonebook lookup that provides listings for businesses and residences in the United States. Google makes an excellent phonebook, even to the extent of doing reverse lookups. However, the search offers three different syntaxes, different levels of information provide different results, the syntaxes are finicky, and Google doesn't provide documentation.

The Three Syntaxes

Google offers three ways to search its phonebook:

phonebook - Searches the entire Google phonebook

rphonebook - Searches residential listings only

bphonebook - Searches business listings only

The result page for phonebook: lookups lists only five results for both residential and business numbers. The more specific rphonebook: and bphonebook: searches provide up to 30 results per page. For a better chance of finding what you're looking for, use the appropriate targeted lookup.

Using the Syntaxes

Using a standard phonebook requires knowing quite a bit of information about what you're looking for: first name, last name, city, and state. Google's phonebook requires no more than last name and state to get started. Casting a wide net for all the Smiths in California is as simple as:

phonebook:smith ca

Try giving 411 a whirl with that request!

Notice that while intuition might tell you that there are thousands of Smiths in California, the Google phonebook says that there are only 600. Just as Google's regular search engine maxes out near 1,000 results, its phonebook maxes out at 600. Fair enough. Try narrowing your search by adding a first name, city, or both:

phonebook:john smith los angeles ca

At the time of this writing, the Google phonebook found 2 business and 20 residential listings for John Smith in Los Angeles, California.


The phonebook syntaxes are powerful and useful, but they can be difficult to use if you don't remember a few things about how they work.

Syntaxes are case-sensitive

Searching for phonebook:john doe ca works, while Phonebook:john doe ca (notice the capital P) doesn't.

Wildcards don't work

Then again, they're not needed, since the Google phonebook does all the wildcarding for you. For example, if you want to find shops in New York with "Coffee" in the title, don't bother trying to envision every permutation of "Coffee Shop," "Coffee House," and so on. Just search for bphonebook:coffee new york ny and you'll get a list of all businesses in New York whose names contain the word "coffee."

Exclusions don't work

Perhaps you want to find coffee shops that aren't Starbucks. You might think phonebook:coffee -starbucks new york ny would do the trick. After all, you're searching for coffee and not Starbucks, right? Unfortunately not; Google thinks you're looking for both the words "coffee" and "starbucks," yielding just the opposite of what you were hoping for: everything Starbucks in NYC.

OR doesn't always work

You might be wondering if Google's phonebook accepts OR lookups. You then might experiment, trying to find all the coffee shops in Rhode Island or Hawaii: bphonebook:coffee (ri | hi). Unfortunately, that doesn't work; the only listings you'll get are for coffee shops in Hawaii. This is because Google doesn't see the (ri | hi) as a state code, but rather as another element of the search.

So, if you reverse the previous search and search for coffee (hi | ri), Google would find listings that contain the word "coffee" and either the strings "hi" or "ri." This means you'll find Hi-Tide Coffee (in Massachusetts) and several coffee shops in Rhode Island.

It's neater to use OR in the middle of your query and specify a state at the end. For example, if you want to find coffee shops that sell either donuts or bagels, this query works fine: bphonebook:coffee (donuts | bagels) ma. It finds stores in Massachusetts that contain the word "coffee" and either the word "donuts" or the word "bagels." The bottom line: you can use an OR query on the store or resident name, but not on the location.

Try some phonebook lookups that you can't do by dialing 411. For example, try searching by last name and area code, or last name and zip code! Google's phonebook lookup is very accommodating.

Reverse Phonebook Lookup

All three phonebook syntaxes support reverse lookup, though it's probably best to use the general phonebook: syntax to avoid not finding what you're looking for due to a residential or business classification.

To do a reverse search, just enter the phone number with area code. Lookups without area code won't work:

phonebook:(707) 827-7000

(This is the phone number of O'Reilly world headquarters in Sebastopol, California, USA.)

Keep in mind that Google's phonebook service doesn't include cell phone numbers.

Reverse lookups on Google are a hit-or-miss proposition and don't always produce results. If you're not having any luck, consider using a more dedicated phonebook site such as ( ).

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