Searching online public records – How to prepare

Text sign showing Are You Ready Question. Conceptual photo Be Prepared Motivated Warned Readiness Aware written on Notebook Book on the Green background Marker and Pen next to it.

Searching public records such as corporation filings, recorded documents, and court records can be the most challenging type of online research – even for the professionals. I’ve been searching online information for more than 20 years, and public records never cease to amaze me. No uniformity among jurisdictions, missing records, clunky search tools, and other issues add to the challenges, It helps to bring a sense of humor to the process, because it’s much better than getting angry. It also helps to be prepared.

If you’ve read this blog or participated in my training, you’ll know that  I frequently emphasize the importance of preparing for online research. You can’t just dive into your sources and start searching right away without preparing for what’s to come. Without preparation, you’ll waste time and money and encounter lots of frustrations. 

So, pause for a bit, and get ready. Here are some steps to take that will help you prepare for searching online public records:

Know your purpose – Your purpose will guide you through the process. Why do you need this information? Is this a first pass or a deep dive? Will your findings wind up in court? It’s how you’ll decide on the best sources, when to stop searching, and the best format for your findings.

Determine your budget – Can you use fee-based sources or are you limited to free? How much time do you have to run your searches? This all goes back to your purpose, too, so make sure the budget and time frame match your goals. If you’re casting a wide net or if your results will be needed for litigation, you can’t cut corners. Being thorough or obtaining certified copies of documents takes time and money.

Learn what’s missing – What’s considered a public record in your jurisdiction? What’s been redacted or blocked? Make sure you know the limitations of your sources, too. Do they just provide the index, or can you access full documents? Perhaps using a specialized database would be the best course of action. For direction, look for links to FAQs, help files, and phone numbers.

Confirm basic identifiers – Without an address, full name, partial SSN, or other Personal Identifiable Information (PID), you may have no way of knowing if the records you find belong to your subject. Unfortunately, we don’t always have these details, and lots of records don’t include identifiers. If that’s the case, make sure you pull a variety of records for comparison, or dig into the full text and not just the index.

Have a Plan B – Not everything is online, so you may need to go directly to the source – the appropriate government agency or courthouse (in person). If you don’t have the time or expertise, or if you’re searching in a far-away jurisdiction, contact someone through the Public Record Retriever Network (PRRN) or the National Council of Investigation & Security Services (NCISS). These are the experts, and they’re always willing to help.

Take the time to prepare for searching online public records – It will definitely pay off in the long-run.


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