The Smith Test

Online investigations

When searching online databases for public records or news articles, it’s essential to know how many years the database covers. For example, are you searching from 1982 forward, or does the database only go back as far as 1999? You need this information when you’re trying to be as comprehensive as possible – or to know what you’re missing – but database providers don’t always make it very clear or easy to find.

I learned a great tip from online investigations expert Cynthia Hetherington in one of her recent webinars. A colleague named it The Smith Test, and it’s very handy for estimating how far back a database goes in its coverage.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Run a search, only using Smith* for the last name.
  2. Sort results by year, oldest first.
  3. Note the year of the first result. Guaranteed a Smith appeared during the first year

*Or any other popular name such as Adams, Rodriguez, Black, Johnson for U.S. databases. Try some different common names for other countries.

Note that this only works if you don’t get more results than the product can handle, but it can be a quick way to test for the earliest database entries.

By the way, I highly recommend any of Cynthia Hetherington’s training webinars. I’ve taken several, and they’re packed with useful, actionable info for anyone conducting online research or investigations.


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